March 31, 2019
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
(2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)
You’ve all probably heard the story of man named Abraham and his 13 year old son Isaac who was sent home from school again for bad behavior. Abraham was at his wits end and didn’t know what to do. So, he talks it over with his Catholic neighbor Frank.
“I don’t know what to do with him,” says Abraham
“Why don’t you send him to a strict Catholic school?” replies Frank. “Those nuns know how to handle boys like Isaac.”
Abraham is not thrilled with the idea of sending his Jewish son to a Catholic school, but none of the Jewish schools will take him because of his reputation as a trouble maker. So Abraham sends Isaac to the Catholic school.
After several months at Lady of Our Perpetual Help, there is no problem whatsoever.
So Abraham asks Isaac, “Why is it that you now behave so well?
“Well” says Isaac, “the first day there they showed me this Jewish boy on a cross and then I knew that those nuns mean business.”
In our Gospel, Jesus gives us a parable illustrating the abundant mercy of God. The father in the parable respects his son’s freedom. He gives him the inheritance he requests and lets him go. But he never stops watching for this son to return home. And when he does catch sight of his wayward son, the father does not wait for the son to complete his journey or to speak the words of contrition he had so carefully practiced. It’s as if Jesus wants to tell us that we need only turn toward God for our merciful Father to run out to meet us and usher us home.
In our Epistle, Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians are perfect partner to the gospel of the Prodigal Son and the forgiving father. St. Paul counsels us to “be reconciled to God.” Not only are we called to personal reconciliation but also to become messengers of this reconciliation to the entire world. God waits and watches for each of us individually, and also the world as a whole to come to our senses just as the prodigal son did and realize who we truly are, beloved daughters and sons of God.
Oftentimes we hear today’s gospel referred to as the story of the Prodigal Son. The New American Bible has a different title for this story, calling it the “lost son.” I think “lost son” is very appropriate, even though I still use the title of “Prodigal Son,” mostly so people will readily know which story I am speaking about. Almost everyone knows the story of the Prodigal Son. The term “prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant,” as in, “My vacation spending this summer was especially prodigal, as I was having a good time after working so hard during the previous year.” The word has a different historical meaning from “prodigy,” which means “one endowed with exceptional abilities.” So when we refer to the Prodigal Son it might be worth the time to clarify what we actually mean by the term prodigal.
In the parable it is easy to focus on the characters of the two sons. We can relate with the younger son, mired in sin, who realizes his need for repentance, or with the older son who is so focused on comparing his behavior with that of his brother’s that he is unable to appreciate the love the father continues to gift him with. But what happens when we turn our attention to the father?
Ultimately, if you think about it, the story is not so much about lost or prodigal son. It’s not even so much about his brother, though we could call it the story of two sons. In reality, the story is about the loving father, how the father is a personification of God, and the kind of love God has for us.
It is good to consider the father as the protagonist in today’s parable. Instead of the shame of the younger son or the bitterness of the older son taking center stage, our attention might be focused on the tender love of the father who yearns for his children to be close to him. In fact, it is the remembrance of his father’s love and care for his servants, which leads the younger son’s repentance. And hopefully it will be the father’s gentle invitation to join the celebration that will induce the older son to be reconciled to father and brother alike.
The story is sometimes also interpreted so that the sons represent Gentile (lost) and Jewish (favored) identities. In this, the Gentiles have lost their way and lived generally wanton lives of decadence, wheras Jews have followed the wishes of God. But in the end both sons, Gentile and Jew, receive the same reward.
In today’s telling, the story is often interpreted literally, or at least personally, as referring to a wayward person who has ultimately been redeemed. The story is particularly meaningful to many who have lived lives of regret or shame. Only to feel the loving embrace of God, a community of hope, a family, or even church upon turning away from their wayward life.
One of the advantages of a story like this is that it has so many possible interpretations. And this story is told only by Luke. Without him we would know nothing of the Prodigal Son, and certainly nothing of the many works of art inspired by the parable, such as Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” There is no sole or singular point to this story. The parable is polyvalent and ought to make us ponder it, as the church has done for centuries. Certainly, Jesus had a main intent in its telling, but can only speculate using the context of the story around it.
Redemption and forgiveness are powerful themes, and they are articulated in today’s gospel in a particularly dramatic way. These themes are also favorites of Luke, who uses the term “forgiveness (of sins)” more than any other New Testament author. The apostle Paul, for example, never says the word “forgiveness.” Maybe he should have, because it is much easier to grasp than “justification”!
Additionally, Luke is a master storyteller, he crafts a brief but memorable narrative here. The characters are stock; we probably know a few people like the sons in today’s gospel. Do we know people like the father? Would we react like the father? Do we react like the father? Though we might or might not have lost wayward children, there are many opportunities to express mercy and loving kindness, and share reconciliation and forgiveness with another. When we behave this way, we are acting like the father, acting in a way that God acts.
Lastly, as apropos in this season of Lent, if we were to refer to this parable as that of the “Prodigal Father,” for his abundant compassion – it gives us an opportunity to look at how we examine our conscience. Some of us recall in our Catholic upbringing as children, our preparations for making a good confession by going through some kind of list of questions that helped us see where we failed to live up to the commandments. Such lists were helpful in preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Here in Liberal Catholic Churches, every Eucharist we celebrate, we recite a Confiteor, which is our time to examine our conscience and thus put our failings in the hands of God. We do this to acknowledge our sin to prepare us to celebrate the sacred mystery of the Eucharist and receive our absolution from the priest celebrating the Mass for us. We therefore experience the mercy of God – our “Prodigal Father” - each Sunday.
So, whether we relate to the “Prodigal Son,” the “Prodigal Brother,” or the “Prodigal Father,” there is truly a number of lessons that can be learned. Forgiveness, repentance or the love of a father, Lent is the perfect time to read this parable and see how we ourselves fit into one or more of these three characters. As long as we come out of our fitting to one or more of these with a renewed outlook on ourselves and our treatment of others, then we have done exactly what Christ was intending we do in the hearing of his parable. Let us each make the effort to hear the parable and adapt the changes we need this Lent.
Our weaknesses are they very occasion for graced certainty; God loves us not because we are good, but because he is good!
Let us pray.
We pray today that all who have lost their faith may return to the arms of our loving Father. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the grace to forgive those who have wronged us and for a spirit of reconciliation among feuding families and neighbours. We pray to the Lord.
We pray that this season of Lent be a time of renewal for all Christians and that our efforts to draw closer to Christ draw us closer to each other. We pray to the Lord.
For government leaders: that God will inspire them to act justly and promote the truth. We pray to the Lord.
For an increase of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, especially within our diocese. We pray to the Lord.
For those who struggle under the pain of abuse or addiction: that they may come to see the visible signs of God’s love and mercy that surround them. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list: that they may find resolution and comfort through our prayers and God’s grace. We pray to the Lord.
That whether we find ourselves as the “Prodigal Son,” “Prodigal Father,” or the “Prodigal Brother,” we receive the grace this week to return to God the Father in true contrition and confession of our failings. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, it is only right that we should celebrate and rejoice, because you invite us to the fullness of eternal life. May we who have strayed from your friendship also experience your forgiveness and the answers to the prayers we have placed before You today. You are rich in mercy, because of your great love for us, You brought us to life with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions. Let us always live by that life, knowing in complete confidence of your eternal and loving mercy towards your creation. We ask these things, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA