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A Man had Two Sons

And he said, A certain man had two sons:  And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. 

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee. And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father.

But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. (Lc 15,11-32)

Although the father is acting consistently with both children, with the younger his love is expressed in welcoming and rejoicing, while with the other son the same love is expressed in the invitation to be reconciled with his brother joining the party as well . The reason for the “celebration” of the joy for what was lost recurs throughout the chapter 15 (cf. vv. 6.9.23-24.27). In the parable the celebration of joy appears as a divine necessity (cf. still vv. 7-10).

There is a verb that expresses the divine need to celebrate the joy and, accordingly, the human urge to join this celebration: the greek verb dei. To understand this verb, you must see how Luke uses it in the gospel. For example,Jesus reminds some Pharisees that “it was necessary” not only to pay the tithes (cfr. Lk 11.42 to 44), but also to do justice and to love God. However, the Pharisees distance themselves from those in need to experience justice, because of their social status.

When Jesus says that “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad” (v. 32), this is a reference to the scribes and Pharisees that “murmured” because Jesus “receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Lk 15,1-2). In short, Jesus loves to “make merry” when someone who was lost is found (cfr. Lk 15,6.9) and this is the human attitude to be adherent to God’s plan.

We find, therefore, in Luke’s account the two faces of the love of God – of his project – in respect of the two children.

When the younger son asks the father his inheritance, the father raised no objections, as if the request would represent an inalienable right of the son. This right is called: autonomy from the Father. An autonomy which, however, involves a departure from the house of the Father, from the “life” of the Father. In fact, the original greek text, translated literally, doesn’t say that the Father divided the property between them, but that he divided the “life” (in greek bios).

The goal of the journey is called “far country.” In the Bible, the “far country” often indicates Babylon, the place where Jews lived as exiles for about forty years (Is 39:3; Jer 30:10; 46:27; 52:27). Therefore, it is a land of exile, alienation and bondage. Above all it was an anonymous land because it represents all the lands and places where the man is far from the father’s house. This anonymity extends not only to the place where the younger son was, but also to the mysterious person who lived in the distant land ( “a citizen of that country” v.15) who asked to perform some service to survive.

This anonymity is the face of all those situations and people who are not the father and to which we are forced to sell ourselves for two cents, when “we have wasted our substance with riotous living.” Far from the father’s house there are only sadness, dullness, dryness. The claimed autonomy didn’t lead us towards freedom, towards “the promised land”, but toward slavery, exile from ourselves and maybe even proving shame (cf. Gn 3). All this is beautifully depicted by the great painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

Il_figliol_prodigoThe engraving illustrates not only the characteristics of the “far country”, but I would say also the way we perceive and feel the reality around us when “we are away from God”, tasting the bitter fruits of our claimed and much-vaunted autonomy.

The images of desolation of the country far away are so effective because they placed well in comparison with other images.  Images that, when he decided to move away from the house of his father, had become bored and that bothered the young strong, beautiful and rebellious. Now those mages cause him great and poignant nostalgia. Here the first stage of the conversion. The young man had moved away from the God project for him and to return there, he had to “come to himself” (v.17), recontacting the “life” from which it was separated. The “coming to oneself” is not, therefore, an abstract thing, to think, but rather to imagine. It is based on the memories of when he was in communion with God.

The object of the reflection of the younger son is the condition of the “hired servants” (v.17) who live better than him. Indirectly, Luke describes how hearty was the house of the father. There there was abundance and nobody was in need, neither the servants.

The younger, instead,  was “perishing with hunger.” In greek we have here the greek verb apollumi “to be lost.” Therefore, the condition of the younger son away from his father’s house is not (only) the hungry, but a sensation of  “feeling lost, misplaced, offside, distant, estranged, in exile.” This is the real hunger! It is the deep desire to be part again of a family, of a group, where there is no want of what you really needs. After the young man go back home with the imagination, he decides to go back also physically. Here is the actual  conversion, ie a U-turn in your life.

While going back, he imagines the words that he’s going to tell to the father:

  1. Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
  2. And am no more worthy to be called thy son:
  3. make me as one of thy hired servants.

Not far from home, his father sees him and runs to meet him. He had COMPASSION (in greek esplanchnisthe = from splanchna “guts”). Here is the reaction of the father in front of all the pain and concern that had given him his son in the time he was away from home.  The greek word could be also translated “was inwardly shocked.” For the Jews the “guts”  were the seat of the deepest emotions, such as excitement, exhilaration, passion, nostalgia. In short, a mixture of all this he felt the Father.

An emotional mix that makes he impatient, pushing him to run to meet his son, to hug him and kiss him. He doesn’t describe the reaction of the son, whether he returned or not the love of the father. The young, in fact, has in mind the speech and perhaps he is anxious until he did, as if his father were to reproach him. The young boy doesn’t realize that, even before he spoke, the father had already accepted him. His love would prevent any speech that, though, the young man does too:

  1. Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
  2. And am no more worthy to be called thy son

His father interrupted him, preventing him from making the third part of the speech: “make me as one of thy hired servants.” He makes him say all he wants, but not how the father should behave. The father doesn’t give orders, especially if the order relates to the lowering of the child at the servant level. The child remains son even when away from his father’s home and can not be otherwise. “Servant”, in greek is misthios, or “one who is paid to do something in favor of the landlord.” Therefore the verb indicates a commercial relationship with the boss.

The vv. 20-24 are characterized by a great hurry, a great urgency. This urgency reveals what the priority of God, the divine necessity that allows no delays: the feast for his son’s return to his father’s house. There is urgency to celebrate the festival for the newfound dignity of the child, in all respects. It is significant the reason the father gives for the festival:

  1. For this my son was dead, and is alive again;
  2. he was lost, and is found (“found” in greek is the passive verb euréthe “to be found by someone”).

It is a parallelism whose members (1 and 2) are each other’s explanation. “to be dead” means “to be lost”; “to be found” means “to go back to life.” The existential situation in the country far away, as we have described, it was like death. The son was alive, but it was like a “zombie”. Consequently, “to be found by someone” it means to live. Not “to find oneself”, but someone (the verb in the passive). It is the help of someone else to get a person back to his father’s house, to full intimacy with the Father and, therefore, even with himself.

When one of the servants briefly summarizes what happened to the eldest son (v.27), he instead of feeling pity, he feels ANGER (in greek orghisthe). The verb is the opposite of “to have compassion”. If the verb is the opposite, we can now understand well the meaning of the two verbs. The first verb means: relief, concern, euphoria, eagerness to hug, to kiss, to give affection to a person without fear, to enter into the deepest emotions, to tears.

The second verb means: wrath, deep indignation, ill-concealed dissatisfaction and discomfort. There are two words that sum up all these features: EMPATHY and ENVY.

Faced with the celebration of the feast, the reception that God reserves for those who distance themselves from him; in front of what Luke considers integral and qualifying part of God’s plan you can have two almost opposite attitudes: you can  rejoice, welcoming the person who finally goes back to her father’s house; or you are envious of that person, seeing that in the father’s house there is a person that, until yesterday, was a sinner.

This time the father comes out and goes to meet him. He doesn’t run, but even more “he prays” him. It does so not only because he loves him as he loves his younger son, but because he knows that if you don’t “join the party” for one that was lost, you remain outside the joy, the feast … you are lost.

Immediately, in the words of the elder son we recognize the figure of the observant Jew. A man who: doesn’t sin, a man that “serves” the father … a man or woman who goes every day to Mass, prays the breviary, says the rosary, don’t miss any parish appointment, don’t curse, don’t commit adultery. But what is the plan of God? What is the necessary thing that Luke here shows us? It is “to join the the feast, the songs, the joy, eating together with the person that until yesterday was judged very bad because he was far from the lifestyle that you have.

Here you have the words of his eldest son: “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”

Think a bit: did you know that also you can have the autonomy that your brother claimed? It may be that you are envious of the life that you have not lived? If, instead, you’re happy to live as you do, why are you so angry? Perhaps, do you think God loves you because you’re good? Perhaps do you think that if one day you would rebel against your father he would no longer be your father? The parable teaches that you can be “lost”, that is, living in a distant country, sad, isolated and desolate in two ways: physically or spiritually.

Physically – existing in a golden world that gives you everything, meets all your itching. You live in a world inhabited by interesting people, but at the time of need everyone will turn away from you, leaving you alone and lost.

Spiritually – when you’re one of the so-called pious persons. For you the Church’s service is a label, a social status; each service you do is a kind of honor. But as soon as you see that a person that you judged “unworthy”  – because of a certain behavior –  receives the same treatment you enjoy  … it may be that you begin to murmur, even plotting on who is so warmly welcomed … how many times it happens!

Simone Venturini

Scrittore

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