The Fourth Sunday of Lent has a note of joy: we rejoice in the mercy of God. Today’s Gospel is a most joyful one, the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son. The main character is the forgiving father, whose attitude toward his sons remains constant throughout the story. The father is a revealing image of our merciful God. The younger son symbolizes the tax collectors and the sinners of the day, while the older son symbolizes the self-righteous Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Both sons also show us something about ourselves and about how we relate to God our Father.
We are not told why the younger son is unhappy with his life at home, but judging from his behavior after he leaves, we understand that he is longing for freedom. He thinks that independence from his father is the path to happiness. He makes the bold move of asking his father for his inheritance. To our surprise, the father agrees to let his son go and gives him his inheritance. Most human fathers would not be so quick to give away their property or risk giving it to a child who is so likely to be irresponsible. The parable, however, is not about how we would act but about how God acts. He allows us to go our own way. He wants us to exercise our freedom, and to learn the best use of freedom. Simply doing whatever pleases us never makes us truly happy. The younger son learns by experience that sin promises freedom but, in the long run, brings slavery and misery.
Realizing that he made a bad choice, the younger son decides to return home. The thought of his father’s house enkindles hope in his heart. The awareness that he has sinned, and that his misery is the result of his sin, humbles him and he repents. Still, he does not expect an automatic welcome back. His hope only goes as far as the possibility of being hired as a worker. He expects to be treated harshly by his father – just as he deserves. The father, however, is motivated by love, not justice alone. Even more surprising than the spirit with which the father let his son go is the spirit with which he welcomes him back. We learn that the father was patiently waiting with unfailing love for his son to return, so that he could once again show him his great love and mercy. This is a revealing image of God’s love and mercy for us. When we are in a state of moral destitution, if we humble ourselves, our loving Father has mercy on us, embraces us, and restores us to our place in his home.
The father again manifests his great love when he reaches out to his angry older son. The son is isolating himself in judgment and resentment, cutting himself off from the family and from the joy of the feast. This is an accurate portrayal of what we do to ourselves when we are hurt and angry. We think we are retaliating or insisting on a change, but in fact we only hurt ourselves when we isolate and stand in judgment of others. When we close our hearts to our brother, we cut ourselves off from God. Lent is a time for us to reconcile – with God through a good Confession, and with our brothers and sisters whom God is restoring to his household.
The other Scripture readings may seem almost insignificant compared to the magnificent parable of the prodigal, but they too are part of today’s spiritual banquet. The first reading takes us into the Promised Land, to the Israelites’ first celebration of the Passover there. The years of slavery in Egypt are left behind; God has given his people the complete restoration that he had promised. For us, the Promised Land represents Heaven, the house of the Father. We look forward with longing and hope to celebrate the Father’s mercy in Heaven. While we are still here on earth, we rejoice in anticipation, with our hearts strengthened by the bread that is greater than the manna, the Holy Eucharist. Every day we can “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”
The central reason for our rejoicing is summed up by St. Paul in the second reading. “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation.” Though we have sinned against him, God does not count our trespasses against us! Instead he saves us from sin and entrusts to us the message of reconciliation. Just as the prodigal, after being welcomed home, would make a most effective messenger of the mercy of his father, we are all called to be “ambassadors for Christ.” God who saves us also appeals to others through us.
Do I recognize the times I isolate myself from God and others? What can I do today to be more aware of God’s love for me? What gives me joy?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.