The National Catholic Review
Fourth Sunday of Lent (C), March 6, 2016
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Lk 15:18)

Amy-Jill Levine, in her excellent book Short Stories by Jesus, offers an examination of Jesus’ parable of the two sons, traditionally known as the parable of the prodigal son. In her study she corrects a number of common misreadings of the parable, especially those that come from reading Jesus’ story as a comparison between “merciful” Christianity and “unforgiving” Judaism. Such interpretations veer into Marcionism, she argues, since the God of Jesus is thus presented as other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Levine focuses, therefore, on reading this parable in its Jewish setting, particularly in its presentation of family dynamics and the younger brother-elder brother theme, which runs all through the Old Testament.

She also wants to reject what she calls the allegorical reading of the parable, in which the father represents God and the elder son “those grumbling Jews.” But we can reject the view of the elder son as a negative representative of the Jews and still see this parable about the repentance that God desires of us and the forgiveness that God offers us by focusing on the family dynamic within the story.

Whether we read this parable as an allegory or not, we must be willing to see it as an analogy. The father in this parable is a model for God’s forgiveness, and the two sons represent personality types that we find among people then and now. In the human family, all of us have gone astray in our own ways, and all of us must begin the process of coming to understand our need for repentance. We need not see the sons as representative of gentiles and Jews, but both sons need to repent and to accept God’s forgiveness.

While Jesus naturally sets his story in a first-century Jewish family, even 21st-century Americans can relate to the behavior of the two Jewish brothers and the tensions between them. The brothers in Jesus’ parable reflect real family dynamics, replicating different personality types that grate on one another. Each of us is more like one brother or another, and each type has strengths and weaknesses, gifts and destructive tendencies.

Levine proposes that when the younger son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” he might simply be rehearsing lines to tell the father and has not genuinely repented. He has just tired of being hungry and living with pigs. And the elder son has not yet accepted his brother, whom he accuses of wasting his father’s property—literally “his life” (ton bion in Greek)—with prostitutes. The elder son has also not yet accepted his father’s love, though the father “pleads” with him. Indeed, the Greek verb translated “plead” is parakaleô, which can have the sense of “to comfort” or “to console.”

Both brothers have started the process of repentance by returning to the father and entering back into relationship with him. Repentance is not usually a one-time event but a process of restoring relationships. Repentance requires time, healing, understanding of oneself and the other and growth, but God always calls us to come home to console and to comfort us.

Jesus’ parable offers hope. The younger son has returned, perhaps with imperfect repentance and maybe still a sense of entitlement. The elder son needs to get his act together, work out his anger issues and become less self-righteous. But both of them now know clearly: they are loved by the father no matter who they are and no matter what they have done. They can always come home, and they will find forgiveness.

Repentance is a process of building and rebuilding relationships with God. Neither of these brothers is innocent or perfect, and a major flaw is indicated in how they have harbored faulty perceptions of their father’s love. Jesus’ parable tells us that however they, or we, have misperceived the love of God, it is there, waiting for us when we begin the process of repentance. God loves us and wants each member of the family to come home again.

John W. Martens is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn. Twitter: @BibleJunkies.

Readings: 
Readings: Jos 5:9–12; Ps 34:2–7; 2 Cor 5:17–21; Lk 15:1–3, 11–32
Prayer: 
Meditate on the parable of the two sons. To which son’s personality do you most relate? When is it most difficult for you to repent of your behavior? Do you sense the constancy of God’s love and forgiveness whenever you come home?

Comments

William Rydberg | 2/19/2016 - 11:21am

One appreciates that the author is not a co-religionist, however up front, the author (in the spirit of ecumenism) ought to respectfully acknowledged that (esp. when writing in a Catholic Publication), that for Catholics Judaism IS NOT another RELIGION but rather is the foundation of catholic CHRISTIANITY.
This is serious matter (ontologically speaking). In my opinion, to treat Catholicism and Judaism as different “boxes to be ticked” such as at government Census Time in the context of this forum is wrong.

Otherwise, I see no value from an Ecumenical Perspective to having a person that is not a co-religionist, presumably teaching Catholics what is at best, incomplete and at worst, plain wrong. For to do so is a scandal to those Catholics weak in faith. Full disclosure please!

I simply do not know why the New York Jesuit Fathers who manage this Publication are silent on this important point.

Just my opinion…

in Christ,

Sandi Sinor | 2/22/2016 - 3:39pm

It obviously bothers you terribly that America features someone who is, according to your complaints, not Catholic. I don't know if he is or he isn't and I don't care. His columns are interesting and sometimes thought-provoking. You repeat your complaint that the writer is not Catholic (although you use the strange term, "co-religionist") every time the column appears.. Most readers here appreciate Dr. Martens' commentaries.

Nobody has denied that Judaism is the foundation of christianity. We know that much of what Jesus taught was paraphrasing the Hebrew scriptures. We know that Jesus was a Jew, that Jesus disciples were Jews. We know that the twelve apostles were Jews. Obviously christianity, which developed after Jesus' death, has incorporated much of Jewish tradition, teaching and wisdom.

But there are some rather major differences. Jews do not believe in a triune God. They do not believe that Jesus was God. They do not believe that the resurrection happened. These are only a few, very basic differences between the two religions.

You wish that it be "respectfully acknowledged" that Christianity was founded on Judaism. Some might wish that you would respectfully acknowleldge that the Jewish people do not consider themselves to be part of the christian religion.

You do not address the thoughts and ideas and questions raised in the article but focus only on your personal displeasure that Dr. Martens is not a "co-religionist". As I have mentioned before, he actually is a "co-religionist" as he is a Christian.

It is sad that you are so focused on whether or not the writer is a Roman Catholic that you continuously miss the points he makes in his columns. In this case, the point is that repentance is part of a process - the process of building and rebuilding relationships. It is highlights that God so loves us, that God always welcomes our attempts to repent and to rebuild this most important of all relationships.

There is nothing to cause "scandal" in this article. There is nothing that will weaken faith, but there is a message that might strengthen faith of those whose faith in God's love is weak..

William Rydberg | 2/22/2016 - 8:51pm

Another ad hominem Sandi. Do you object that I have an opinion, or that it doesn't concur with your opinion, or because today is Monday?. Let's try to keep this pleasant. anybody that reads these pages knows that I am certainly NOT the only one you choose to treat in this sweepingly defective argumentative manner, twisting what is said, and imputing prejudice in almost every sentence . Kindly stop and do your research, read what I have carefully said, before launching. Believe me, I don't make these comments for my health for we live now in a post-modern age where opinion is mistaken for truth. I suggest waiting a week or so before you reply... But in future, its likely that I will not reply to your comments at all for the foregoing reasons.

in Christ,

Dawn Tedrow | 3/6/2016 - 7:26am

Wow!
Talk about missing the point!
Why?

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