A Heritage Restored
Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year. Fr Jonathan Fleetwood preaches on the common theme of three parables.
Today’s Gospel reading is long, but it is only in seeing how the sections of it hang together that we can see its meaning as a whole. We have the introduction, the parable of the hundred sheep, the parable of ten drachmas, and the parable of two sons.
The short introduction is the key to the interlinking of the sections. Jesus receives into table company the repentant tax collectors and sinners, but some of the Pharisees and scribes deplore this. Those reputed lost to the company of Israel in the eyes of the unbending are reincorporated into their restored religious heritage by Jesus. This is a matter of joy, a matter of due completion.
All three parables look to a sense of completion. There is the round figure of the hundred sheep of the flock at their full complement in the first parable; the round figure of the ten drachmas (at their full complement possibly the woman’s dowry) in the second parable; the completion of the family group with two sons in the third parable.
All three parables look to their restored completions, which spark great joy in gatherings of a company of neighbours, family and friends. They echo Jesus’ welcome in the introduction.
All three imply a reintegration into a heritage, part of which was lost. I think that perhaps nowadays we give more weight to heritage as crummy old buildings that are important as part of our history. But heritage in a wider sense links past, present and future. It represents livelihood or living.
Heritage is derived and handed on from the past. It is the source of our present well-being. It is the inherited promise boding to the future. A loss of part of the heritage is hurt as to that part, and hurt also to the main heritage from which it comes. All three parables imply heritage as means of living.
The wider sense of heritage, often lost in our urban living, includes the possessions transmitted from generation to generation, but envelops much more. It may include items of land, cattle, technical skills, people related as ancestors and kin. It involves religion and the recognition that heritage is out-sourced by God. ‘Livelihood’ or ‘living’ is a parallel word to ‘possession’ in the third parable.
These elements, the envelope of transmission, are scaled up in the Old Testament sense of ‘heritage’ to apply to the possession and the living of the whole People of God. The father in the third parable can be seen as standing for God and a sign of God’s relationship to Abraham’s heritage, also a sign of the new heritage of Jesus.
The whole Gospel passage speaks of God’s mercy and of the need for repentance. It ends each parable. The repentance is not only the repentance of the lone penitent in the presence of his or her interiorised God. It is us all before the Creator God, the creator of all human heritage.
When the prodigal son makes off with his portion, it is not just his portion in terms of so many poundsworth. He takes with him part of the livelihood of the farm. He does not use it for livelihood, but squanders it. He is diminished. His father and brother are hurt too in their common enterprise. Their future transmission of their heritage is diminished. Despite the losses, the father has to point out to the elder son that the good estate of the family is marked by the son’s return and is a matter of joy.
The passage as a whole seems to underline the multiple effects of sin. Sin despoils the gifts of the past in our creation, the gifts of the past in our unitary stemming from Adam, the gifts of the past from our religion stemming from Abraham. It despoils our bonding with our relations, our people and our common humanity. It sours the tradition that should be full or promise, the heritage of God’s promise that we are to hand on to those to come.
In God’s mercy, and through Jesus seeking us, we can re-enter the heritage given to us and we can look to the future in hope. In our and others’ return to hope lies promise. It would be a great sin to begrudge anyone else’s hope.