Father Leopold Fonck on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (the Parable of the Prodigal Son)

Luk 15:1  Now the publicans and sinners drew near unto him to hear him.
Luk 15:2  And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying: This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.
Luk 15:3  And he spoke to them this parable, saying:

These verses are used to introduce a first parable which is quickly followed by a second and a third.  It is the final one which is the subject of the reading.

In chapter 14 Luke had shown our Lord insisting on the need to be open towards the poor and outcast.  This chapter makes clear that the most poor and outcast are those who have sinned against God and His family and who, if repentant, should be welcomed back wholeheartedly.  What follows is an exposition of the Parable by Father Leopold Fonck.  The text of the parable can be read here (RSV) or here (Douay Rheims) or here (NAB).

Father Leopold Fonck on the Parable:

In the first place, if we consider the simile in its literal sense only, we shall find that it is divided into two parts: verses 11-19 treat of the younger son s lapse into evil ways and of his conversion, whilst in verses 20-32 the subject treated is his reception in his father s house. Then again this first part admits of three divisions: first, the going away from his home, verses 11-13; second, his life in a strange land, verses 13-16; and next, his conversion, told in verses 17-19. In the second part, we have presented to us, first, the reception accorded him by his father, verses 20-24, and then that which he received from his elder brother (v. 25-32).

The introductory words ειπεν δε (“and he said”) serve merely to point out the beginning of the parable, not to indicate a fresh situation. The simile is proposed to the same scribes and Pharisees to whom the previous one had been addressed. Here, for the third time, our Lord answers their murmurs at His kindly and loving intercourse with sinners and publicans, but in a still more sublime and decisive manner. It is, indeed, a truly divine reply.

Christ chooses His example from the life history of a wealthy family. The father is delineated as a man full of love for his children, and also kind and generous to his servants and laborers. We are told that he had two sons, and it would seem that these were his only children (v. 11).

We are only given such particulars concerning the family life as have a bearing on the object of the narrative. The younger son demanded from his father that portion of the property to which he was entitled, and which accordingly he received (v. 12).

According to the Jewish law of inheritance two thirds of the whole property belonged to the first-born. The elder of the two sons, therefore, was entitled to two thirds, and the other to one third of the estate. But whilst the eldest son could not claim his share during his father’s life time, the younger brother might avail himself of certain circumstances to claim the portion allotted to him as, for instance, if he desired to marry and to make a home for himself. The father, it is true, by giving presents to others, even to strangers, could deprive the children of part of their inheritance and even under certain circumstances of the whole. Such a proceeding, however, would be condemned as contrary to “the spirit of wisdom” (cf. Edersheim, II, 259).

There was no obligation on the father to comply with the request, as a child had no right to demand a division of the property during his father s lifetime. In such a division, probably, it was only movable property which came under consideration (Edersheim, ibid.).

The motive which prompted the younger son s request was, as we see in the course of the narrative, a craving for greater liberty, for in dependence, for freedom from restraint. The control and surveillance exercised by his father and elder brother may have become irksome to him, and he wanted to throw off the fetters and to follow his own will without any hindrance.

Notwithstanding the unloving, ungrateful disposition which revealed itself in a request prompted by such motives, the father complied with it. He may perhaps have seen already that things were not likely to go well with his son in the home, and that there was no resource but to let him learn wisdom by experience amongst strangers.

A few days after he had received from the father his third share of the property, the son collected together all his goods and went away to a distant land (v. 13).

The consequences of his ungrateful conduct followed quickly. His seductive freedom led him into licentiousness, and in a short time he had squandered his whole fortune (v. 13).

ἀσώτως (asotos) which only occurs here in the New Testament (cf. Prov 7:11 and ἀσωτία (asotia), Eph  5: 18; Titus 1:6; 1 Petr 4:4; LXX, Prov 28:7; 2 Macc 7:4), means literally not saved, thence, “unbridled,” “licentious.” Whether the reproach cum meretridbus, which the elder brother later cast at the younger one (v. 30) and which the Curetoniani and Sinaitic-Syriac texts here v. 13, interpolate, was well-founded, cannot be determined from the text.

His misfortunes reached their climax when a great famine began to prevail over (Greek, kata) the land of his choice. He had squandered all his own means, and now he was deprived of the hope of assistance from others. He began to suffer want, and necessity drove him to accept any kind of employment however mean that would give him bread. He took service therefore with one of the inhabitants of the country who put him to the lowest, most contemptible occupation, that of minding a herd of swine (v.15).

εκολληθη ( means literally, according to the usage of the Septuagint, to cling, to adhere; it stands here for “to hire oneself out,” perhaps with reference to the difficulty experienced by the reduced, needy stranger in obtaining any employment.

To be occupied in the care of swine was to have reached the lowest depths of degradation for any Jew, but especially for one who was the son of a noble house. In fact, from the time of the Macchabees the keeping of such animals as the Law had declared unclean was, according to Jewish tradition, subject to the threat of a heavy malediction (Edersheim, II, 260).

He was sent “into the farm” with the herd, that is to say, into those cultivated fields where the harvest had been reaped already, or else outside the village into the wilderness, where some shrubs and herbs and roots were still to be found. It may have been, also, that he was sent into the valley, or to the hills where different kinds of oak-trees grow and where the locust tree particularly is found.

But even in this lowest of occupations he could not earn sufficient to keep him from starving. “And he would fain have satisfied his hunger with the husks the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him” (v. 16).

κερατιων, literally little horns, are the fruit of the carob or locust tree (Ceratonia siliqua Linne, family Leguminosae) . It is called in Arabic charrub, and its broad dark-brown pods are still used as food by the youth and by the poorer people; they also serve as cattle fodder.  The classic authors and the Talmudist writers also describe these husks as the miserable food of the poorer classes. Edersheim quotes a Jewish saying: “When Israel is reduced so low as to eat of the carob tree, it will begin to do penance” (II, 261).

In times of severe famine especially, the fruit is gathered carefully and given in measured quantities to the animals who can find nothing to graze upon in the fields. Thus we can understand those words which tell us that “no man gave” the herdsman in charge of the swine any of these husks which in ordinary times would have been left unnoticed on the trees or lying on the ground.

But at the same time this detail shows how harshly he was treated; since even the animals were better cared for than this strange adventurer who had to be content with a piece of bad bread.

The exact literal rendering of γεμίζω αὑτοῦ κοιλία is to fill his belly, but we may take it as being a Semitic mode of expression very often used a mere expansion of the reflexive verb and translate it by “to satisfy his hunger.” Cf. Luke, 16, 21 in the Peshito.

Want and misery now opened the young man s eyes to his folly. There awoke within him the remembrance of his father’s house, where even the least amongst the servants and laborers were so well cared for. He contrasted his wretched condition with theirs, but did not conceal from himself the cause of his misfortunes. Through his own fault, he, the son of the house, is far worse off than the lowest of his father’s menials (v. 17).

Through the recognition of his own misery and of his own guilt, he is led to form the resolution which at once wins for him our pity and sympathy. He will return home and willingly make atonement to his father for his offenses. Conscious of his guilt, he will say to his father that he no longer deserves the name or the place of a son, now that he has behaved so ungratefully and squandered his patrimony. He will earn his bread as a hireling in his father’s house, and will accept every humiliation attending such a position as an atonement of his guilt (v. 18, 19).

“I have sinned against heaven and before thee” corresponds to the formula for the acknowledgment of sin given in the Talmud, and shows that the son recognized that by his ingratitude and disobedience to his father he had offended God also. “Heaven,” like many abstract nouns was frequently substituted for “God” to avoid needless mention of the divine name.

His resolve was carried out at once. He arose and took the road homewards. But he was received in a manner altogether different from what he had anticipated. From afar off the father saw him coming; and we know this did not happen by chance, although the words tell us nothing more. The only hypothesis that would correspond to the spirit and the entire context of the narrative is that the father s love for his child did not permit him to rest (cf. Tobit 10:7). Ever and always was he on the look-out, and thus at last he saw him, whilst he was yet far off, coming towards his home.

Already the look of the half-starved, wretched youth tells its tale to the father; but in his heart there are no feelings but those of love and compassion. He hurries forward as quickly as his years permit to meet the outcast who is coming home; he falls upon his neck and embraces him (v. 2). The son begins his humble confession (v. 21), but the father does not listen; he at once orders his servants to bring festive robes for him, together with a ring and shoes, – all that befits the dignity of the free son of the house.

Thus, though no words have been spoken to him telling of forgiveness, the returned wanderer knows that his father has pardoned him. Then the father next commands that the calf which has been fattened in readiness for festive occasions should be killed, and that a banquet should be prepared, ” because this my son was dead, and is come to life again: was lost, and is found” (v. 23, 24).

στολή (stola) is the outside garment worn by men of rank (Mark 12:38; Mark 16:5; Luke 20:46; Rev 6:11, etc.).  πρωτην (protos) is added with the meaning of “the best/ not of the one “previously worn” by the son. δακτύλιος (daktulios) is the signet ring which men, especially men of rank in the East, were accustomed to wear, as is the case still, on the right hand (Gen 41:42; Esth 3:10; Esth 3:2; Jer 22:24). Y7ro%tara are, as the word indicates, the sandals of wood or leather which men wore firmly fastened under the foot when going out or traveling. The poorer classes and slaves went barefoot.

Meanwhile the elder son who had been working in the fields came towards the house. As he drew near he heard the sound of merry music and dancing, for even yet, amongst Orientals there are at festive gatherings singers whose songs are accompanied by some musical instrument, and also female dancers who, as they dance, strike their cymbals. Astonished at these sounds of revelry, he called a servant and learned from him the occasion and the cause of the feasting (v. 25-27).

That a younger brother, after scandalous misconduct, should be thus honored filled him with anger, and he refused to take any part in the feast. His father therefore came out to him in a conciliatory manner and spoke kindly to him. But, in his reply the son gave vent to his anger: ” Behold, for so many years have I served you, and I have never transgressed a command of yours, and yet you have never given me a kid to make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours is come, who has devoured his substance with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf” (v. 29, 30). Bitterness and unkindness breathe from these words, also an arrogant tone of reproach against his father. It is probable that envy and bad temper reigned in his heart, and that he could not understand the paternal spirit which prompted such rejoicings for a son who had fallen so low. 1 But the father, urged by his love and compassion, answered him befittingly: “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours. But it was fit that we should make merry and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead, and is come to life again: he was lost, and is found” (v. 31, 32). The inheritance which as the first-born he would receive had not been touched; it was in no wise diminished, nor was his father’s affection towards him in any way lessened. But the erring younger son who had returned home repentant and reformed must be made sensible that for him too the father s love remained unchanged; and, as this should be proved to him in some special manner, the banquet had been prepared to welcome him home. It was wrong, therefore, of the fortunate heir to murmur and to raise objections to the reception accorded to his brother.

With this express and repeated accentuation of the father s love for the son whom he had lost and who was now restored to him, the story is brought to a most effective conclusion. We are told nothing of the elder brother’s subsequent behavior, this having no bearing on the end and aim of the parable.

For the comprehension of the principal idea of the similitude we must keep before us above all things the circumstances in which it was proposed. Our divine Lord had been censured by the scribes and Pharisees for his pity and kindness towards sinners. His friendly intercourse with sinners and publicans was to them a stumbling block. But the Incarnate God in the two parables of the lost sheep and the lost piece of money had shown them how unfounded were their reproaches. These two parables had for object the defense of His divine love and mercy towards repentant sinners. Here in this third narrative the divine Redeemer again sets before us one who has suffered a loss, but this time of a far more precious possession. It is not an irrational animal nor an inanimate substance which has been lost. Rather is it a tenderly cherished child who forsakes his father and turns to evil ways, and so is lost to that loving father s heart. The closer the ties between father and child, the more keen the loss, and here, furthermore, the child’s guilt adds bitterness to the sense of loss. For it was not the natural impulse of an irrational creature, nor external circumstances, nor unmerited misfortune which occasioned this loss. It was the perverse free-will of the lad who yielded to his evil passions and desires.

But in this third example the divine Master also depicts in the most sublime manner the generous charity of that grievously wounded father s heart towards the child who had returned repentant. What is it that He would engrave so deeply on the heart of His hearers save the great truth of the inexhaustible love and mercy of the Heavenly Father for the sinful yet repentant child of earth that love and mercy which He Himself had come to proclaim to the world by His words, but still more by His example?

Such indeed is the aim and the chief governing idea of this matchlessly beautiful narrative. Precisely because here our divine Redeemer s sacred Heart has to speak of that burning fire which sent Him into this world for the redemption of sinners and by the flames of which He is entirely consumed, does He speak in words so ardent, so touching, and of such irresistible force to move even the coldest human heart.

The divine mercy towards sinners is described in such a manner that at the same time the sinner s behavior is illustrated in most striking colors and with unexampled fidelity to nature. As the father s grief at the loss of his beloved child was intensified by that child s guilt and ingratitude, so also in the same measure was the repentance and atonement of that child necessary to render the father’s joy at his return complete.

In the story of the prodigal son, therefore, the Fathers of the Church and the expounders of Scripture see a true picture of the history of the sinner in his defection from God, his misery, and his conversion. As this interpretation has a most intimate relation to the principal idea and perfectly accords with the narrative, we may justly regard it, not merely as an explanation of the parable, but as belonging to its special exposition.

Corresponding to the three divisions of the story of the prodigal son, our divine Lord first shows us the sinner’s wickedness and ingratitude in his behavior to the most loving Father. The misfortune, want, and degradation which the son suffered in the hard service of a rough master in a strange land where famine and starvation reigned show us the consequences of his guilt. For never can sinful passions stifle the longing of the human heart for the Supreme Good. It is the history of the sinner as Almighty God through the Prophet Osee (Hosea) sets it before rebellious Israel who had turned aside to strange Gods: “For she said: I will go after my lovers, that give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink. Wherefore, behold, I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and I will stop it up with a wall, and she shall not find her paths. And she shall follow after her lovers and shall not overtake them: and she shall seek them and shall not find, and she shall say: I will go and return to my first husband, because it was better with me then than now. And she did not know that I gave her corn and wine and oil, and multiplied her silver and gold, which they have used in the service of Baal” (Hosea 2:5-8, Heb 7-10).

The recognition of one s own misery and the thought of the Heavenly Father’s goodness and mercy together with divine grace begin the work of conversion in the sinful soul: the good resolution, the readiness to make humble confession of one s guilt and to accept penance therefor, the hope of forgiveness, the determined fulfilment of the resolution which has been taken these are its completion.

The Father s merciful love then crowns the work of reconciliation by the reception, gracious and bountiful beyond all expectation, which He accords the erring but home- returning child. In the son s reinstatement in his father’s house and his investment with robe, ring, and shoes, together with the feast prepared in honor of his return, Christ shows us the picture of God s loving reception of the repentant sinner.

While this explanation of the narrative in its general outlines certainly forms part of the exposition proper, the relation of the individual features of the image to the antitype must be left as falling under the rubric of applications.

The questions remain to be considered : what relation has the last part of the parable to the principal idea, and what is the lesson which our Lord would have us learn from the behavior of the elder son?

As follows from the literal explanation, this last part also serves primarily to emphasize God s merciful love for sinners. This love is so great and incomprehensible that men may easily be tempted to murmur at it, as the elder brother did. But we are taught that God rejects such a complaint as unjustified and contrary to His own sentiments.

Moreover, having regard to the occasion of the parable, we at once recognize in it a reference to the Pharisees murmurs against our Lord s friendly intercourse with the sinners and publicans. In the second part, a determined stand is made against this opposition as arising from want of charity. Nor can one easily decide against those writers who describe many features in the image of the elder son as specially applicable to the Pharisees. “The real language of the Pharisees” may be specially recognized in the self-complacent words with which the elder son praised his own righteousness: “Behold, for so many years do I serve thee, and I have never transgressed thy commandment” (v. 29). These words have their striking counterpart in the prayer of thanksgiving poured forth by that paragon of self-satisfied piety, the Pharisee in the Temple (Luke 18:11 et seq.). In the same way the words in which the elder son expressed his dissatisfaction at the preference shown to his dissipated brother might seem angry and envious enough to come equally well from the lips of the angry adversaries of “the Friend of sinners.”

But are we justified for this reason in regarding the elder son simply as an image of the Pharisees, and his younger brother as representing the publicans and sinners whom these despised? This construction has been upheld by many commentators, and amongst others by St. Jerome in his twenty-first epistle to Pope Damasus. But with reference to the younger son it is clear that, according to the exposition we have already given, we must not limit the words of the parable to any one class of sinners. For we find drawn for us in him the truest and most vivid picture of the going astray, the downfall, and the conversion of any sinner. Far less may we construe what is said of the elder brother as having reference to the Pharisees alone. For, in the first place, by no word does our Lord show that the elder son s assertion regarding his loyal obedience to his father was not in accordance with truth. On the contrary, the father not only does not contradict the statement but would seem rather to confirm it by assuring him of his steadfast love and good-will, and he alludes to the fact that his inheritance will come to him intact. If our Lord in this elder son would simply sketch an image of the Pharisee these words would seem impossible to understand. Just as little are these and other features of the parable in accord with another hypothesis which finds that the younger son typifies the heathen and the elder the Jews.

Many ancient and modern commentators, therefore, regard the younger son as an image of sinners in general and the elder as an image of the just. But those features which seem to refer so clearly to the Pharisees will not suit exactly the second part of this explanation. It has been suggested as affording a solution of this difficulty that these features belong to the image of the parable alone, and must not be transferred to the antitype. The murmuring of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt. 20, 11) has been cited as a similar example. But the point in question in the present context is somewhat different. Are we to thrust aside as meaning less the principal feature in the behavior of the elder son- a feature which bears so unmistakably a relation to the motive and trend of the whole parable?

The most acceptable exposition, then, would seem to be that which regards this grumbling brother as an image of all who look down with any degree of contempt or disdain on an erring and fallen brother. They may be amongst the just and have faithfully observed God s commandments; but their mode of thought and action with regard to sinners in no wise corresponds with the sentiments of the Heavenly Father. It is clear that in the person of the elder son the conduct of the Pharisees was emphatically rebuked as it deserved, while yet the words may not be applicable to Pharisees alone, but to many who stand far higher in God’s kingdom.

Another thought is suggested still more clearly in this connection, to which Van Kasteren rightly draws our attention. The elder brother complained of the preference shown by the father to his brother on his return: “you have never given me a kid to make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours is come, who has devoured his substance with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf 7 (v. 29 et seq.). The father, it is true, rejects this complaint, just as the lord said to one of his laborers who grumbled: “Friend, I do thee no wrong 7 (Matt 20:13). But he by no means denied the fact of the preference; on the contrary, there is a tacit acknowledgment underlying his words, together with a justification of this preference: the more than ordinary cause for joy (he tells his son) given by the return of the long lost brother had naturally found expression in an extraordinary manner in the feast and rejoicings. It may indeed be possible to read herein the truth that the Heavenly Father in His most merciful love often grants to converted sinners a more than ordinary measure of grace, and raises them to a high degree of holiness; of this, Mary Magdalen, Paul, Augustine, may be cited as splendid examples.

Thus the last part of the parable quite corresponds with its principal idea, and also with the final words of the preceding simile. For this feast, which was prepared for the repentant sinner but had never been given to the righteous, is but the vivid figure of the saying that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who does penance than over ninety- nine just who need not penance.

This explanation does not involve the ignoring of the special relation which the parable has to the cause of its first presentment; but it does well show how the supreme wisdom of the divine Master could aptly raise the affair of a passing moment to an occasion for bringing home to men of all times those eternal truths which concern every one and that divine charity and inexhaustible pity which embrace all ages and all conditions.

This parable has been described as the pearl of all our divine Lord s figurative discourses. It is also, of them all, the one which contains the greatest wealth of varied applications, not alone as regards the individual features, but the whole narrative as well. Precisely because our Lord would here portray the history of God s merciful love in its action on the sinner s life, He offers to all men a picture of their own life history, interwoven everywhere, as with a golden thread, with the omnipresent activities of the divine heart.

Each separate portion of the narrative affords matter for many practical considerations and applications. The motives which induced the younger son to leave his father’s house have a more or less direct bearing on the development of sin within the soul. The father s riches squandered by the son may be an image of the countless gifts and graces – both in the natural and in the supernatural order – – which the sinner abuses and squanders.

The prodigal s suffering in a foreign land, with all its special features, is a striking picture of the unhappiness, poverty, affliction, and bitterness which attend sin. The loss of divine grace, discontent, weariness, interior disgust, the inner hunger caused by the deprivation of the true food of the soul, the sense of deep degradation in the slavery of the passions, this is the picture brought before us of the hard service and bondage of sin.

The consoling side of the image, however, applies in an equally beautiful manner to the effects of divine grace and the repentant sinner’s co-operation therewith. Interior unhappiness, and often exterior afflictions as well, have the effect of making the sinner listen to the inspirations of grace. From the soil of humility and confidence matures the resolution of amendment. The occasions of evil must next be cut away. Humble and sorrowful confession and a will ready for the burden of atonement then seek their fitting place in the tribunal of penance.

All that we are told of the father s loving reception of his prodigal son is far surpassed by the happy realities of the law of grace. As with a festive garment, the soul is again clothed with sanctification; as with a ring of betrothal, it  is again united in the most intimate union with the Heavenly Father; as with shoes, it is once more endowed with strength and energy that it may continue its journey in the freedom of the children of God. And a feast has been prepared for this soul – – a feast in which the Source of all good showers most liberally upon repentant sinners all manner of proofs of His affection and generosity.

Considered apart from the parable, this feast also affords a beautiful image of the Blessed Sacrament the banquet in which God-made-Man is humbled to become a victim for our sins and the food of our souls. In strict connection with the story, however, this application comes in less suitably, as the feast of rejoicing had never been prepared for the elder son

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One Response to Father Leopold Fonck on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (the Parable of the Prodigal Son)

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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