St Cyril of Alexandria notes the way in which the Pharisees fail to understand the nature of Jesus and of his mission; he came to save all, and the Pharisees sought to close the gates of heaven to all but those like them. They were outraged at his gentleness with and love for sinners; they looked for sharp rebukes and scolding – but in the story of the son that was lost and was found, Christ gives a true picture of what the love of God means; sinful, prideful men like the Pharisees found this a scandal – their God was of their own hearts, not the God who sent His Son to save sinners. When a sinner repents, that is all that is needed – and we are to rejoice and without reservation.
The Fathers saw several interpretations attaching to the two sons. St Cyril thought that the elder son represented the holy angels, and the prodigal the human race; but he notes that others thought the elder son the Jews, and the younger the Gentiles.
St Ambrose notes that the Father is full of generosity, and lets the son have his request – but it is the son who squanders what he was given, wastes a fine inheritance on the tawdry rewards of this world which, when the times become hard, will not sustain him. Augustine notes that to be in the realms of lustful passion is the same as to be in the realm of darkness – far, far away from the face of God. Ambrose notes that the famine is a famine also of goodness, of good deeds and of the wisdom of God. The younger son attaches himself to a patron of this world, but his reward is that of this world – barren and without nourishment.
Peter Chrysologus comments that the fate of the son is that of all who desert God’s grace for the rewards of this earthly life – fleeing from a generous provider, he ends by wallowing in dirt and endures a severe judgment.
Philoxenus of Mabbug noted that in spite of all his sin, he did not lose the honourable title of son – and though he felt unworthy and a sinner, he still called God his father – so the Grace of the Spirit had not departed from him. We, too, call God Father through the Grace of the Spirit.
St Ambrose commented that the son acknowledged he had sinned against heaven and the Father; that confession brings Christ to intercede for the sinner, and that intercession produces pardon. He acknowledges his manifold sins and wickedness and confesses he is not fit to be called son – he will be content to be a servant. But those who humble themselves before God will be raised – and the Father sees him a long way off and has always loved him and now rejoices that he was lost is found, he who was sunk in sin is now risen from the dirt – and the son is freed from the yoke of sin. The Father kisses and welcomes him, he imposes no penances, demands no restitution – the love of God to the repentant sinner is absolute and without qualification. Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. (Romans 4:7).
What love is this, St Athananius asks? It is the divine love beyond all expression, which rings out a pean of praise in heaven over the one sinner saved. The sinner is restored through the love of Christ, love that endured the pains of the Cross for our sake – the robe (everlasting life) is restored, and the ring, the symbol of fidelity to the Spirit, is placed again on his finger. Corruption is replaced by incorruption – and joy is unconfined because the beloved who was lost, has been found.
But the elder son, the representative of those who believe the Law saves, cannot rejoice. He knows the letter of what the Law prescribes for such a sinner before his repentance can be accepted, and he is scandalised that, as he sees it, his unworthy brother is so easily restored. But God, who alone knows all things, is the only Just Judge, and his reasoning is as high above ours as the angels are above our earthly lives. The elder brother is proud, and in his pride, honours the letter but fails to understand the Spirit. It is a hard saying for those who think they are righteous, that the love of God forgives all who repent – like the Pharisees at the beginning of the reading, they are scandalised at the company Jesus keeps.