Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
We just heard one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told. Remember it’s a story – we can’t get caught up in the details. What’s important is why Jesus told the story in the first place.
We discover that in the very first lines of today’s gospel; the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, saying; ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Remember when Jesus called the tax collector Matthew to follow him? To celebrate that invitation Matthew threw a banquet and invited his friends, who like himself were tax collectors and outsiders. And the Pharisees and scribes raised the same shocked complaint – this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Sensing what is going on, Jesus tells this famous story – the one son who leaves home, blows his inheritance on loose living, comes to his senses and comes home to a father whose heart is open and whose arms are outstretched in welcome. Then there’s the second son who never left home, worked his fingers to the bone, was faithful and true to his father but who was lost to the family because he couldn’t let go of his resentment and bitterness at his father’s generosity. He refused to join the welcoming homecoming.
At the meal Jesus was enjoying with these sinners we see the prodigal son in these so called ‘sinners’ who were amazed that this famous rabbi would have time for the likes of them, would welcome them into his company and treat them so kindly. Such a welcome and such an acceptance paved the way for them to hear Jesus’ teaching, a teaching inviting them back to the life and love of the Father.
In the Pharisees we see the faithful son who never left home, who kept the law and observed the rules, who thought he had an exclusive right to his father’s love and who was furious at the father’s forgiving generosity to his dissolute brother. This was just not fair – we can just sense his anger and frustration. There was no way he could bring himself to embrace this brother – he couldn’t even call him his brother, he distances himself from him by saying, ‘this son of yours’. The father answers his angry protest, ‘your brother was lost, was dead, but he’s come to us, come back to the family. We have to celebrate.’
That’s how the story ends. We have no idea whether or not the faithful son ever relented and welcomed his brother home. We can imagine he continued to ignore his brother, avoided his company and continued to rage within himself at the unfairness of it all. His resentment at his father’s generosity towards his brother probably wrecked his relationship with his father. We can even imagine that when the father died and he owned the farm he ordered his brother off his land and out of his life for good. He may have ended up a lonely and bitter man.
We can see in the constant hostility of the Scribes and Pharisees toward Jesus, right up to calling for his death, that they could never accept the fact that Jesus would eat with sinners and welcome them. They resented such openness, such acceptance of those they thought unworthy. How dare Jesus ignore us and spend His time with these riffraff. Their resentment, their anger, their bitterness isolated them from the life and love Jesus offered them, as he did the tax collectors. For all their righteousness, they were the losers. Their resentment was their ruin.
So often in the complex dynamics of family and sibling relationships resentment can be such a destructive force. Brooding on their real or imagined hurts, over who was the favorite in the family, over who got what in a will, over who did the most for aging parents, over whatever, the resentful person shuts himself/ herself off from any chance of peace and reconciliation. And this can go on for years with no resolution, no reconciliation.
Reconciliation: that’s what today’s Scripture is all about, from Paul’s appeal ‘we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ – to the beautiful story of a sorry son embraced by his forgiving father – reconciled. Make up and be at peace with God.
I think the greatest words in today’s gospel are the complaint of the Pharisees: ‘this man eats and drinks with sinners.’ And Jesus still does. He invites us, sinners all, to this meal, enjoys our company, nourishes us with His Body and Blood and sends us on our way to live this Mass outside these walls. We all come here with our sins, our faults our failings our struggles – and our blessings and we are all welcomed, accepted as we are. Each of us here is, in our own way, accepting Jesus’ gracious invitation ‘come to Me all you who labor and find life burdensome and I will refresh you.’
With Paul’s call for reconciliation and this story of acceptance and resentment before us, we can pray for ourselves and for each other that, if in any of our relationships, familial or otherwise, we have let resentment or rancor isolate us from others, then Christ who loves to eat and drink with us sinners will, through the Bread of Life we receive, give us the strength and grace we need to pick up the phone or write a note, or visit anyone from whom we are estranged or alienated and seek reconciliation. Being reconciled with others, we will truly be reconciled with God.