06/March 2016. Fourth Sunday of Lent
Theme: We too have sinned against heaven and against our God, and reach out for his forgiveness.
1st Reading: Book of 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.
Second Reading: Second Letter to the 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.’”
Kieran O’Mahony writes: There is a remarkable confluence in the readings for this Sunday . Schematically:
• Joshua, Psalm and Luke: home coming and celebration; God’s protection and God’s (implicit) compassion
• Paul and Luke: forgiveness and reconciliation.
• Psalm and Luke: our compassionate and constant God hears our cry and is attentive to our needs
The richness of the parable is impressive. We could notice the following issues, both implicit and explicit:
• Relationships: Father, sons, brothers, foreigners, servants, and, in an unsettling way, women.
• Biblical: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Ephraim and Manasseh.
• Feelings: desire, autonomy, rivalry, dependence, shame, jealousy, resentment.
• Issues: inheritance, property, authority, rights
• Theology: Jesus as prophetic actor and speaker; the Father as God; compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation.
• Church: Mirrored here too: divided into two groups, absence of women, rigorists v. realists. •
• Find space for the collateral damage inflicted upon the wholly innocent fatted calf!
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Is there a deeper fairness?
When reading this parable of the Prodigal Son many are left with a vague dissatisfaction. Rather than being delighted with the mercy of God as shown to the Prodigal, they feel irked by the partiality, even unfairness, with which the father treats the 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 the elder sons and daughters all too well .. children who have stayed at home, single, to care for ageing parents? And by the time the parents die, they have buried with them the best years of their lives. Theirs was a hard life and if they had grudges one must be slow to blame them. There is a photo over the fireplace in many a country home, showing them standing outside the old place, surrounded by a prosperous sibling and family back on a trip from the States. It’s a telling picture. There is the bachelor farmer in his peaked cap and collarless shirt, with a lined, weather-beaten face, looking more like the father than the brother of the returned Yank.
Yes, we can and should feel for the elder son. Sometimes the dutiful quality of our lives make us envy the Prodigal’s wild escapade into limitless 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.
The puzzling thing about this parable is this epilogue on the elder son’s attitude? Surely if the parable is about the boundless mercy of God to the sinner, then by the time the festivities for the returned wanderer are in full swing, we’ve got the message. Why divert some of our sympathy towards the resentful elder son? Of one thing we can be sure, the storyteller was a master of his craft. Look again at it, but this time through the eyes of one of the world’s rejects, a dropout, a misfit, in some way handicapped. Perhaps this is our Lord’s answer to their protest: “Why me? Why was I singled out for to be an outsider?” What the grudging elder son failed to see was how the needy have most claims on God’s love and forgiveness. Not just during the Year of Mercy, but always.
The ideal short story
They say that’s the best short story that was ever written. 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.
The story falls into three parts. The first is about 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 in any generation, including our own. “Sure you might as well, life is that short. Anyway. as long as you’re enjoying yourself, as long as you’re happy.” 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 part of the story is about the father. And when you think about it, it’s truly extraordinary. The Gospel says: “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 one 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 two big points about the father were 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). Remember that?
The third part of the story concerns 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 and maybe it’s presumption to be commenting on it at all. 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 think 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.
The other son
Without doubt, the parable of Jesus that’s most captivating is the one about the «good father», wrongly called «the parable of the prodigal son». It’s precisely this «younger son» who has always attracted the attention of commentators and preachers. His return home and the unbelievable welcome he received from his father have moved Christians of all generations.
However the parable also speaks about the «older son», a man who stays home with his father, without imitating the licentious life of his brother, far from home. When they inform him of the party organized by his father to welcome the lost son, he remains upset. His brother’s return doesn’t make him happy, like his father, but mad: «He was angry then and refused to go in» to the party. He never left home, but now he feels like a stranger among his own family.
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. Now all he knows how to do is demand his rights and put his brother down.
This is the tragedy of the older son. He’s never left home, but his heart has always been far away. He knows how to fulfill commandments but he doesn’t know how to love. He doesn’t understand his father’s love for that lost son. He doesn’t welcome or forgive him, he doesn’t want to know anything about his brother. Jesus ends his parable without satisfying our curiosity: does he enter the party or does he stay outside?
Caught up in the religious crisis of modern society, we’ve gotten used to talking about believers and non-believers, about practicing Christians and fallen-aways, about marriages blessed by the Church and couples living together… While we keep classifying God’s children, God keeps waiting for us all, since God isn’t property of good people or of practicing Christians. God is Father of all.
The «older son» challenges those of us who think we live near the Father. What are we doing, we who haven’t abandoned the Church? Are we keeping up our religious existence by observing what’s commanded the best we can, or are we witnesses of God’s great love for all God’s sons and daughters? Are we building open communities who know how to understand, welcome and accompany those who seek God in the midst of doubts and questions? Do we raise barriers or do we build bridges? Do we offer friendship or do we look on others with suspicion? José Antonio Pagola