To those who were spiritually dull, resisting or simply inattentive to the actions of God in and around them, St. Luke presents Jesus telling three parables of the lost. Taken literally, the stories are sufficiently absurd as to provoke wonder in those who are still able to be curious and ask questions. Why would a shepherd leave ninety-nine sheep in the desert to go in search of one stray? It would be foolish to do such things—to risk the safety of so many sheep for one lost stray. Is it possible that Jesus is not actually talking about human shepherds, or about a woman searching for a lost coin, or about a father with two spiritually dull boys? What is he talking about? Jesus is allowing the unknown God he calls “my Father” to work on the minds of his hearers through seemingly absurd stories. And the first divine action is to break through dullness by provoking wonder and questioning. The third story, known as the “prodigal son,” demonstrates the refusal of Jesus’ own contemporaries to recognize divine presence in him. Those who “believe in God,” who are the Chosen People, are blind to the reality of God in their midst. Jesus does not fit into their religious categories—nor into ours. The older son in the story represents those who resent God’s mercy and grace given to others. Jesus is verbally confronting his self-important hearers, who are disgusted at seeing Jesus forgive known sinners, and show favor to the “unwashed masses.” They are refusing to renounce their own thoughts and feelings and enter into the joy of God’s inexplicable action in Christ.
Many of us Christians are as spiritually insensitive and dull as were the Jewish scholars and righteous folks to whom Jesus spoke these parables. Thinking ourselves Christians, or instructed in the gospel through the Church, all too often we become fools—human beings who have lost our openness to the divine mystery. Told too many answers, we forgot our role to be seekers, questioners. At times we may realize that we have received God’s mercy and forgiveness, but we do not realize how we resist the actions of God, and refuse to “enter into the joy of the LORD.” We do not see how we Christians are the like the older son in Christ’s parable, who resent it when someone else receives divine mercy, treated as a returned child. We show ourselves to have the hardened and resentful attitude of the older son by failing to appreciate God’s mercy on the Chosen People, on unbelievers, on every being in this mysterious cosmos. To us Jesus says, “Refusing to enter in God’s presence yourselves, you prevented others from entering.”
Jesus taught us no doctrine of God or of Christ.The New Testament documents, beginning with the letters of the Apostle Paul and the Gospels, present the truth of God through actions, images, stories, and puzzling words. To one longing for God, still seeking “the face of God,” the account of the merciful father in Jesus’ parable brings joy and hope. As you may have noticed, the father in the story of the prodigal son has a remarkable resemblance to Jesus himself. He cannot be confined by religious practices or doctrinal formulations. He is alive, waiting for our response, even running out to meet those who seek to turn back to him. Christ himself is “the exact image of the unseen God,” because “in him dwells all the fullness of God.” The spiritually dull and blind did not only fail to respond to God in Christ; they had the brutal Romans crucify him.