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Reflections on the Prodigal Son

March 11, 2013

4th Sunday of Lent Reflection
By Dianne Costanzo, LAS Seminars Faculty
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 – The Prodigal Son

The story of the prodigal son, a favorite among preachers, often is interpreted as an exercise in forgiveness and taking a loved one back. We all know how the younger son wastes what he is given and we can often identify with his callow indiscretion. We get it—we have all been there. Yet I am more interested in the “good” son, the one who never strays, the one who feels that he has done all the right things and never received so much as a goat, let alone the fatted calf. In a profound way, I find him much more “prodigal” or wasteful. He is too busy eating his self-righteousness, so even if he did receive the fatted calf, he cannot enjoy it because he has filled himself with condemnation.

In Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, Thomas a Becket muses, “The last temptation is the greatest treason:/To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” The elder son has “done everything right,” so why is he so bitter? Perhaps he is angry because his baby brother did not get punished enough. Perhaps he is irritated with himself because he never had the guts to ask for something, be given it, and then have to accept the consequences for his actions. He never does anything wrong—he just does not do anything, period.

While I am not excusing the younger son’s transgressions, I have to confess I admire him. He takes a shot and magnificently blows it and “when he comes to his senses,” (15:17), he has the humility to return without any expectation that his father will take him back as a son, but as a laborer. The “good” son has never lost his place with his father yet feels like a slave. So we might ask who is really prodigal. Who wastes time by not recognizing the goodness that has been there all along? Who squanders all that is at hand so that he defers joy? Who chooses to be bitter rather than better?

Could it be that the story calls us to examine not just our actions, but the motivations that drive our actions? Is it possible that Jesus is less concerned with whether we make mistakes than he is about our “coming to our senses” and having the humility and courage to return home and place ourselves at another’s mercy? This is a radical story, one that calls us beyond the too easy juxtaposition between what we think is good and bad. Jesus is simply waiting for us to come to our senses and accept God’s inscrutable mercy and non-negotiable love. Makes sense to me.

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