by Father Mike Stubbs
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 15:1-32, we hear the parable of the prodigal son, a wonderful story that we have heard countless times before.
But what would it have been like to hear it for the very first time when Jesus told it? How would we feel, if it seemed as though Jesus was directing his words to us personally?
When Jesus first tells the parable of the prodigal son, his audience includes sinners, as well as Pharisees and scribes, who criticize Jesus for his openness to those sinners.
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In that case, we can identify those sinners in the audience with the prodigal son who returns home and receives his father’s forgiveness, while we can identify the older brother, who is resentful of the father’s mercy toward his brother, with the Pharisees and scribes.
By the time that Luke’s Gospel was written, however, this original context would have disappeared. Instead, the audience hearing the parable in the days of early Christianity would have included both Christians of gentile background, as well as converts from Judaism.
We should remember that in the early church, there was considerable antagonism between these two groups. They often clashed over what was required to be a follower of Christ.
The parable might have then sounded as a warning to those Jewish Christians, who had worshiped God and observed the commandments all their lives, not to place themselves above the gentile Christians, who only recently had come to faith in God.
The parable would have pointed out the danger of behaving like the older brother and complaining about God’s mercy toward these new arrivals.
In this way, the parable would have addressed itself to the current needs of the time.
Once again, the context has changed. In our present time, there is no longer antagonism between Jewish and gentile Christians. That disappeared long ago.
On the other hand, it is easy to see antagonism between various factions, both within the church and without. It is easy for members of one group to see themselves as morally superior to their adversaries, much as the older brother viewed himself in comparison to the prodigal son.
That means that this age-old parable still holds relevance in our times.
In our own day and age, the voice of Jesus still speaks to us, to remind us of the mercy God extends even to our bitterest enemies, and of the welcome God offers to those whom we would reject as unworthy of God’s love.