27 March 2022 – 4th Sunday of Lent, Year C
(1) Joshua 5:9-12
The Israelites, free at last from slavery and humiliation in Egypt, enter the land of promise
The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
Responsorial: Psalm 33: 2-7
R./: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord
I will bless the Lord at all times,
his praise always on my lips;
In the Lord my soul shall make its boast.
The humble shall hear and be glad. (R./)
Glorify the Lord with me.
Together let us praise his name.
I sought the Lord and he answered me;
from all my terrors he set me free. (R./)
Look towards him and be radiant;
let your faces not be abashed.
This poor man called; the Lord heard him
and rescued him from all his distress. (R./)
(2) 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Christ’s aim and mission was to reconcile us with God
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Gospel: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
The vivid parable of the Prodigal Son, on the Father’s patient love
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe ” the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”
What kind of justice is this??
People might feel some dissatisfaction at how the Prodigal Son was welcomed home. Rather than seeing it as the wonderful mercy of God, we may feel irked by how the father treated his elder son. And yes, some parents do indeed show favouritism. If they hear a complaint about the apple of their eye, they just shake their heads in disbelief. “You don’t know him (or her). No, they couldn’t do a thing like that. It’s just not in their nature.” At other times the concerned teacher, priest or kindly neighbour will hear the lament, “I don’t know what to do with him, Father. He has my heart broken. I can’t understand him at all.” Could it be that this prodigal offspring was the favourite?
Is it that we know that feeling all too well .. a resentment of those who have been careless, but seem to get all the luck? We can feel some sympathy for the elder son. Sometimes the dutiful quality of our lives make us envy the Prodigal’s wild freedom. We might grudge the sinner his good times. It is probably why we so readily accept the notion of ultimate retribution. We cherish the thought that our good times are ahead of us and hope that the playboys of this world will pay for their pleasures in due time. So the elder son is the patron of all the solid citizens, “the salt of the earth’, while behind the banner of the Prodigal huddle all the rakes and misfits, drop-outs, lame-ducks and the rest of the world’s rejects.
But the parable is about the boundless mercy of God and the message is clear. Why divert any attention to the resentful elder son? Perhaps our Lord is warning us not to do likewise. What the grudging elder son failed to see was how God’s love reaches out to all creation.
The ideal short story
Luke 15 is a masterly story. Some of its phrases are so powerful that they have become proverbial. Prodigal Son, fatted calf. . . lost and found. A story that has enriched the vocabulary of the world. And not just the world’s vocabulary ” the world’s mentality as well. Its way of looking at things. No story tells us more about God or makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s a short story with enormous scope, with the widest possible diameter, in that it embraces our sinfulness at one end and God’s forgiveness at the other. The best part of it, of course, is that it brings both extremities to the centre. What provoked it? What led Our Lord to tell it? The fact that the Pharisees objected to the company he kept, to his eating with sinners. So he tells the story to give an insight into his own mind and the mind of God.
It plays out in three vivid character sketches. First there is the younger son, an impatient lad who wanted his inheritance now. Couldn’t wait for the father to die. Greedy fingers, itchy feet, a sensual nature; wanting to live it up, and to hell with the commandments. A life based on doing whatever he feel like doing ” not an unfamiliar story, really. We make excuses: “Sure you might as well, while you’re young. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, and stay safe.” But the happiness ran out, and he came to his senses. And that’s the big point about him. He came to his senses. He really was repentant. Repentance is to be sorry to be in one place, to want to be in another, and to have the will and determination to get there. To be sorry for our sins, to want a different kind of life, and to have the motivation and determination to change. Well, he had that. He was graced with that. “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men” (Lk 17:19). As I say, the big thing about him is that he acknowledged his sins and wanted to be rid of them. He was really repentant.
The second character is the father, who was on the lookout for the son’s return. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him” (Lk 15-20). Still a long way off, a dot on the horizon. Doesn’t that mean he was on the look.out for him, from the day he left, watching and waiting and praying, like many a father or mother? Doesn’t it illustrate how God the Father feels about each of us, how much every one of us matters to him, how anxious he is that we’d come back? And he didn’t just wait for the son; he ran out to meet him ” met him half-way. Some people feel we should call this story “the Prodigal Father.” To be prodigal is to be wasteful or lavish in your use of things. Well, the father threw his forgiveness around. Not in any grudging or reproving way, but in an explosion of sheer generosity and joy: Kill the calf, we’re having a feast, the son is alive again. The father is noted for the prodigality of his forgiveness and the intensity of his joy: “There will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15:7).
The third character is the elder son, so angry that he couldn’t enter into the mood of the party to celebrate his brother’s return. He’s indignant at his father’s easy pardon of the returned prodigal, and refuses even to go in. Of course his anger is quite understandable and he’s treated with some sympathy by his father, but the elder son’s attitude helps to illustrate how much more forgiving God is than we are, and how inclusive, all-embracing, is the Father’s embrace. It includes the two of them ” the rock and the rover. “My son you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right that we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.” What a lesson for the Year of Mercy in which pope Francis has invited us to join.
The story of the Prodigal Son really needs no elaboration. The most respectful response to it is personal reflection. Just think about it; savour it and let it sink in. We’ll all be touched by different pieces of it, because that’s the way with everything we hear. I doubt if any of us can ignore its central message, that there is no limit to God’s forgiveness and that our repentance brings joy to the Father’s heart. You imagine that God doesn’t want us to turn away from sin? You think God doesn’t love you? Then you haven’t been listening to the story of the Prodigal Son.
Coming to his senses
We can identify with the soliloquy of the prodigal son, especially if one is cynical enough to read it not as an undiluted expression of heartfelt conversion, but rather as a calculation about survival. If read as a straight narrative of religious conversion it can appear clumsy or wooden, and the indignation of the elder brother merely churlish. But thanks to the penetration of biblical studies by the subtleties of modern literary criticism we are learning to read Luke as a great master of narrative art, insinuating a wider spectrum of intricate motives than conventional piety normally takes account of.
The phrase “coming to himself” (15:17) “does not on its own signify repentance. As one exegete says: ‘Coming to one’s senses’ is more the idea,” although “shades of repentance are clearly evident.” At best they are shades, and even then they are far from evident. The “conversion” is prompted by destitution and impossible to dissociate from economic considerations. The speech the prodigal rehearses for his father is skilfully calculated to win back his favour, and in what he says to himself there is no reference to any injury done to his father: “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants’” (15:17-19). A more honest speech would begin, “Father, I’ve come back because I am dying of hunger,” so, as another exegete says, “the lie by omission is flagrant.”
This soliloquy, like the other calculating soliloquies that dot Luke’s Gospel, meets reversal that overthrows the petty standards of the calculator, for the father forgives the son when he sees him at a distance and interrupts his rehearsed speech before he can say “treat me as one of your hired servants,” a phrase that is not the deepest level of self-abasement, since the servants were paid; “the finesse of a narrator without any illusion about certain discourses of repentance” is to be admired. The paternal response is not in the same key of calculation as the soliloquy, and its generosity undercuts the son’s cautious and mistrustful performance. The son’s judgement thus fell short of the mark, just as his brother’s calculations of merit and reward (15:29-30) are tangential to the father’s uncalculating love for the sons.
The clear protagonist of today’s parable is the father. Twice he repeats his cry of joy: “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found”. This cry reveals what’s in the father’s heart. This father isn’t worried about his own dignity or honour, nor how his son has treated him. Does not use the language of morality. He only thinks about his son’s recovery: his precious son isn’t dead after all, but is restored to life.
This story describes in detail the meeting of the father with this son who had abandoned house and home. Even when the returning son was still some way off, the father spotted him, recognised him and was moved down in his heart. Only the father’s kindness and compassion can save us. Only God sees us and understands us so fully. Look at who does the running. It’s not the homecoming son; it’s the father who runs and who reaches out in welcome. “He caught him by the neck and kept kissing him”. Jesus tells us that God like that: running with open arms to welcome those who come back.
The son starts his confession: he’s been planning it for a long time. The father interrupts him to save him more humiliation. He doesn’t impose a penance, demands no ritual of expiation; he places no condition on welcoming him home. The father cares about his son’s dignity. So he gets the servants to bring him the best clothes, a household ring, and sandals to walk home. There he will be received at a banquet celebrated in his honour. To his amazement, the son is restored to the happiness of the life he had so casually thrown aside when he left.
Whoever listens to this parable from the heart, will know it applies to himself, or herself. They will feel, maybe for the first time, that in the depths of life there is Someone who welcomes us and forgives us, unconditionally, Someone who only wants us to have fullness of life. (J.A. Pagola)
The elder brother
The younger son is the main focus of commentators and preachers. His return home and the welcome he received can move our hearts. But the parable also speaks about an older son, a reliable fellow who stayed at home with his father, without imitating the licentious life of his brother in faraway places. When they tell the older son that his father has organized a lavish party to welcome the lost son, he gets very upset, understandably. His brother’s return doesn’t make him happy, but furious. “He was angry then and refused to go in” to the party. He had done his duty and never left home, but now he feels like a stranger in his own house. The father goes out to invite him with the same tenderness with which he has welcomed his brother. He doesn’t shout or order. With humble love “he tries to persuade him” to come into the welcome home party. It’s then that the son explodes, making his resentment known. He’s spent his whole life fulfilling his father’s orders, but he hasn’t learned to love as his father loves. All he knows how to do is demand his rights and talk his brother down.
The elder brother’s protest invites us to examine our own attitudes. Do we think we deserve more from God than other people? Do we practice religion as a duty, or resent the mercy that God offers to sinners who repent? Do we create a welcoming space, willing to welcome whoever comes to our church, no matter where they come from? Are we apt to build walls rather than bridges? Do we offer a helping hand, or do we look on others with suspicion?