Before we dig into the parable itself, let us look at the cast of characters—the dramatis personae. Most of the time, the focus of writers and preachers centers on the younger son, the wastrel, and ignores the world that populates the story. The problem with such an approach is that Jesus’ parable, which is designed to challenge both his hearers and us, is ignored.
The first groups that St Luke lists are Jesus’ contemporary listeners. Around him are gathered “tax collectors and sinners”, people who were scorned by the religious elite because the former did not follow all of the moral rules and regulations of Judiasm. For the pious Jew of the first century, these people were outcasts and to be avoided at all costs. The other group which St Luke describes is the “Pharisees and teachers of the Law.” These individuals are working fervently to obey every piece of Scripture which deals with life, primarily laws and regulations drawn from Exodus and Leviticus. Although not specifically identified, we likely would find a large group of the curious, those who had heard of this teacher Jesus and just wanted to hear what he had to say with their own ears.
Next, we move into the world of the parable itself. Here we find a father, an older son, a younger son, a man who hires the destitute younger son, various servants of the father, and an unspecified gathering of friends and neighbors. Any of these individuals or groups could be the focus of reflection, and as we move through the parable we will explore how each becomes a major player in Jesus’ challenge to us.
One suggestion I have for everyone: read the parable every day and pray through it slowly. How is God using the words of Jesus in this parable to challenge you? With which of the characters do you most identify yourself? As Advent progresses, make an attempt to discover how each of the characters, including the identified hearers—the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees and the curious crowd—is a part of your life. Take it slow and easy, not every insight will arise immediately. Spend a day or two, or perhaps more, with each character until each becomes as familiar as a member of the family. You might even imagine that you are in the cast of a play; see if you can take on the character you are studying and discover the thoughts and feelings of that person or group. How would you portray the character to someone who has no knowledge of the story?
As with all of the parables of Jesus, the parable of the man with two sons has meat enough to chew on for a lifetime. Although this parable is one of the most familiar, let us together see how it is not only contemporary for us, but speaks to our situation as well.