by Father Mike Stubbs
When one film or novel goes over well with the public, it often paves the way for a whole series to follow. Think of the Harry Potter books, or “The Hunger Games” movies. People often want to build upon a proven success.
The Gospel of Luke also contains a series, but for a far different reason. It wishes to emphasize God’s mercy. To illustrate that, the Gospel presents a trilogy of parables. We hear the third parable, sometimes called the parable of the prodigal son, as Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 15: 1-3, 11-32.
The two parables which precede Sunday’s Gospel reading are the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. Both parables make the point that the lost item has been found.
The parable in Sunday’s Gospel reading, that of the prodigal son, is much longer than the other two, has more characters and is more complicated. The prodigal son has run away from home and can be described as lost only in a figurative sense. And that is exactly what the father of the prodigal son does in speaking to the elder son: “Your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
The theme of “lost and found” links all three parables together. The sinner is the lost sheep, the lost coin, the estranged or “lost” son. When the sinner repents, they are like the lost sheep that the shepherd has found, or like the lost coin that the housewife has found. That much is obvious. But we might ask: Who has found the prodigal son? The use of the passive voice does not make the identity of the agent clear.
Sometimes, people will use the passive voice in order to avoid taking responsibility for an action: “Mistakes were made.” Sometimes, people will use the passive voice in order to focus attention on the object of the action, rather than the agent. Sometimes, the agent is unknown.
The Scriptures sometimes use the passive voice in order to avoid the word “God” out of respect for God’s name. This is called the “divine passive.” It shows that God is at work behind the scenes.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the father may think that he is the one who has found his estranged son. After all, when the father sees the son far off in the distance, he runs up to the son to embrace him. The father receives him royally.
On the other hand, the prodigal son has made the decision to return. In a sense, he has found himself. The Gospel says as much: “Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father.’”
It sounds as though the son is doing the finding. But that is on the human level.
On the divine level, God’s grace is at work. It is as in the hymn: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found.”