Saturday of the Second Week of Lent
Pope Francis has indicated the parable of the prodigal son as being an especially important text for us during this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Many commentators have astutely observed that the parable can more justifiably be called the “parable of the prodigal father,” since it is above all the father in the story who is “recklessly extravagant” (=prodigal) with his goods. It is the father who freely assents to giving half of his goods to his younger son even though, by asking for these goods, the younger son is basically telling his father, “I wish that you were dead—give me what would come to me upon your death.” In so many ways, this parable is really about the prodigal love of the father (representing, of course, the Father) who, in his love, never ceases to give, and is ever ready to forgive. The love of the father is truly at the heart of the story.
And yet, it would be inopportune for us to discard entirely a centuries-old tradition of naming this parable after the prodigal son. Why? If the father was prodigal—in a good way—with his goods, then the younger son was prodigal—in a bad way—with those goods. Both the father and the younger son spent or gave away what they had lavishly: the father in a selfless way, and the son in a selfish way. What, however, is the opposite of prodigality? It is a sort of calculating miserliness, in which a person holds tightly to what one has and demands all that the person thinks is owed to her. The older son is definitely the opposite of prodigal. The older son is shocked by the lavish welcome that the father offers the younger son upon his return. We should bear in mind, of course, that—having given the younger son his half of the inheritance—the father is now giving away goods from the half that remains (which the older son, presumably, thinks should justly go to him). The older son has begun to think of his father’s goods as his, though they have, as yet, not yet been given to him. Furthermore, it is clear from the older son’s lament that he is not working entirely from the freedom of love, but also, perhaps, from a sense of obligation and a concomitant sense of reciprocal entitlement. The older brother, in his calculation, presumes his own worth, instead of realizing that, before God, we are all but “unworthy servants,” for whom the privilege of doing what we ought is itself a reward (cf. Lk 17:7-10
A man had two sons: one was a prodigal sinner, while the other was miserly and calculating. Neither was free. In the end, though, when God sets us free through the prodigality of his grace, have we any right to be anything but prodigal in our own love for others? After all, the Father holds nothing back from us, saying, “you are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (Lk 15:31
). It is prodigality, not calculating justice, that will open for us the doors to heaven.
February 27th, 2016