Fourth Sunday of Lent

March 5th, 2016

When we hear Scripture passages often, we sometimes fall prey to the temptation to tune out – we’ve heard it before, we know what the parable is, and we start working on our grocery list for the trip to the store after Mass or our to-do list for the coming week.

However, we must remember that the Word of God is living and active, that it speaks to us in a new and different way each time we encounter the Word. So we might ask ourselves, what does the Parable of the Prodigal Son say to us today, as individuals and as community, in St. Joseph’s Parish in Ottawa.

Luke uses a phrase in his story of the younger son that is informative for us today. He says “he came to himself” when he was at his lowest and saw no future for him feeding the pigs in the field. We can use this phrase to reflect on who God made us to be and continues to call us to be each day of our lives. What is this journey to which we have been called, and where are we on the journey?

Let’s look at each character in the parable and reflect on those questions. As we look at the two sons, we can also look at the father in relation to the sons, as well as looking at him on his own.

First, we have the younger son. The younger son cannot wait to be away from his father. He makes a choice that is almost incomprehensible. He tells his father that he cannot wait for the father to die in order that he can receive his inheritance. In effect, he is telling the father that he is already dead in his own mind, and he wants his inheritance now! His greatest desire is to be away from the father and to live life in the way he chooses, without reference or restraint. The father gives his son the freedom to make his own choices – for good or for bad. He respects his son’s freedom, no matter how much the choices the son makes might grieve his heart. He lets the son go. As we look at the son, we realize that his motivations stem from self-centeredness, greed, lack of respect and love for his father and family and heritage and a stubborn unwillingness to respond to the wisdom offered by the father and community. To what extent do I give in to those same inclinations? What are the areas where I need healing, forgiveness and continued growth.

Finally, Luke says, the younger son “came to himself”. He determined to go back to the father. His decision doesn’t come from remorse for his actions toward the father, but simply because his situation is no longer bearable. His main concern is to fill his empty stomach. So he decides to go back and bargain with the father for a job as one of his hired hands. Repentance, sincere repentance, is not really the motivation to return to the father. Again, how often do I “bargain” with God – I will go far enough to escape punishment, to get what I need for the moment, but I’m unwilling to enter into true repentance and conversion, the kind that leads to a change of attitude, life and relationships.

In this parable, Jesus challenges us to respond to the Father’s mercy, compassion and love with all our hearts and to become people who choose to live in a loving intimate relationship with God and with others. We are created in God’s image and likeness, God breathes the gift of life into us, and we are called to grow into that image and live that life fully.

The father in the parable is an image of God – God who gives us life, who loves us unconditionally and is always with us on the journey of life. Having given us the gift of life, the Father gives us the Word and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us to live this gift fully. As we watch the father in the parable, we realize that the son left home and left his father, but the father did not leave him. In many ways, the father was with the son along the way, and was watching and yearning for the son’s return. Notice how the son doesn’t need to go into his long confession and bargaining session. The father, who gave the son the freedom to make his own choices, welcomes and forgives him – in fact the gift of forgiveness was always there and the father was simply waiting with longing for the son to accept the gift. The father rushes out to meet the son when he finally is able to see him returning home; he doesn’t wait for the son to come crawling to the door. We are assured by the father’s actions and words in the parable of God’s unwavering, unconditional love for us and God’s desire for us to be in relationship with God.

We are called to have the same kind of love and compassion for one another. How do I react to the people who have hurt me? Am I willing to forgive and help the relationship to grow, or do I forgive only grudgingly, holding on to the hurt and anger and resentment? Again, who are we called to be? Jesus challenges us to be holy as our Father is holy; to forgive as we have been forgiven. To what extent am I willing to enter into that journey of forgiving another and growing in that holiness to which I have been called. Pope Francis, is declaring the Jubilee of Mercy, challenges us to “be mercy”.

And finally, we have the older son. Anything about him sound familiar?! He is the “dutiful” son, but we soon realize that his adherence to his duty comes out of everything but love for his father: guilt, fear of losing his inheritance, simply living out his duty to get what he hopes to get in the end and all of this done with a certain amount of frustration and even anger. He grudgingly does what the father asks of him, and does not recognize the wonderful love the father has for him. As the father reminds him, all the father has is his and the father always wants to be in communion with his son. We see a certain amount of admiration on the part of the father toward the son, but none in the other direction. God invites us into relationship, but God wants a free, loving relationship, not one that is motivated by fear or simply doing our duty in order to get our ultimate reward. This son’s unwillingness to forgive his brother or to even acknowledge his younger brother grieves the father, but the son is not ready to be moved. We are called to move beyond this kind of stubbornness and judgmental attitude to the same kind of openness and compassion displayed by the father. Again, the father allows the son to make his own choices, but is grieved by the choice and invites the elder son to ”come to himself”, to reflect his identity as his father’s son.

As we continue our Lenten journey, we hear the call to examine our attitudes and respond to the call to repentance and conversion and to grow into the people God calls us to be.