4th Sunday of Lent 2004
This concluding line from the parable of the prodigal son reminds me of the description of the joyful effect of Lent in the First Preface for this holy season: “For by your gracious gift each year, your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure…” Unlike the Christmas Season or Easter Season, Lent is not in itself “a joyful season,” as the previous translation of the preface referred to it, “each year you give us this joyful season,” but a good Lent produces a very joyful effect indeed, “the joy of minds made pure” by our Lenten discipline. So this great season of grace is preparing us for a great joy, purifying our minds and hearts to joyfully celebrate the mystery of our redemption, of our reconciliation with God. And, truly, nothing should fill us with greater joy.
Furthermore, this same theme of joy is found in the very name traditionally applied to this Sunday of lent, Laetare Sunday, or Rejoice Sunday, and this joy is echoed in the Rose vestments which are traditionally worn on this Sunday.
It is truly appropriate, then, that the Gospel of Lent’s Laetare Sunday should present to us the parable of the prodigal son, a parable deeply resonant with the joy of our reconciliation with God Our Father and our restoration to God’s own household. The joy of this reconciliation follows not simply from the forgiveness of our sins and our cleansing by the Father in some external fashion, which in itself is something profoundly joyful, but something even greater as described by Paul and today’s second reading: he says,
..in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, ……Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 2 Cor. 5
Reconciliation, then, as revealed to Paul, involves not only the forgiveness of our sins, and God’s acceptance of us, but His gift actually makes us a new creation, not only restoring our dignity as man by forgiveness of sin, but elevating us to share in the dignity of the Son through whose blood we have been redeemed. If forgiveness and restoration of our human dignity brings joy to the human heart, how much greater, then, is the joy of sharing in His divine dignity!
Reflecting on the three central characters in the parable will help us to understand the source and the quality of this joy Lent helps to prepare for us. The first and central figure in the parable is obviously the father, who represents quite obviously the Father, and his love and mercy which is the ultimate source of the grace of the reconciliation which generates our joy. In the parable, it is ultimately the father’s love that draws the prodigal son home, back to himself, for if the son had not believed in the mercy and love of the father, he could not have resolved to return home and seek his forgiveness.
The figure of the prodigal son, on the other hand, represents all mankind, seen under the aspect of sin, which is always a flagrant rebellion against God’s love. In particular, in this parable, the younger son represents the gentile world, and reminds us of Paul’s devastating condemnation of the Gentile civilization in his Letter to the Romans:
They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Nonetheless, rebellious humanity is never removed from the Father’s heart, and in the parable, once the prodigal son’s wicked rebellion has reduced him to utter desolation and desperation, it is the memory of his father’s love, known from his childhood, that draws him back, that ignites the spark of repentance and sets him on the path back to his father’s house. All of this is so rich in portraying the experience of Christian reconciliation.
Finally, though, we have the elder son. He apparently represents the people of the first covenant. He represents the man who is simply religiously obedient – “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” But there is something lacking in his religious devotion to his father. In spite of his obedience, he has never truly learned his father’s love and compassion, and he is immediately resentful that his father would show his compassion and mercy toward this wayward sibling by a display of generosity that he simply cannot understand. He does not share the joy of this great act of his father’s love and mercy; thus he does not share the joy of his father.
Both sons, then, failed to love the father. The younger son failed to love him in a most calloused and selfish manner by dissipating his inheritance, the fruit of his father’s work. The older son failed to love him for his own sake, and served him only out of a calculation of what that service would bring to his benefit. In a paradoxical way, his failure to love the father reduced him to a calculating servant rather than a devoted son, and we can see that in a statement of Jesus, applying it to this elder son who acts like a servant:
“When you have done all you have been commanded,” he tells his disciples,” say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’ “ [Lk. 17:10]
The point here is that the elder son does not love the father like a true son, as a son, but only serves the father in obedience, and thus the best he can hope for is to be “an unprofitable servant” because he has done only what he was obliged to do. This son too needs redemption, so that he can go beyond the relationship of a servant, ruled more by a sense of justice than love, to the relationship of a son who serves out of love.
In Christian experience, it is this deep transformation alone that enables a man to possess the heart of the Father, and experience, as Jesus does, the Father’s joy. Recall the words of Jesus, I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (Jn 15:11) And what is the joy of Jesus? To do the will of the Father out of his love for the Father, as Hebrews says, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Heb 12:2) And then recall his words in Matthew in the Parable of the Talents, “His Lord said to him: ‘Well Done, good and faithful servant; because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.'” The joy of the Lord is the joy of being the Son and the subject of His father’s love.
In this same parable we have the unprofitable servant and it is most interesting that similar words concerning the unprofitable servant are spoken in the context of repentance by the younger son:
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.
The core of man’s authentic repentance is the recognition that sin always reduces a son to a state of servitude, that because of sin, the son is no longer worthy to be called a son. Moreover, only the Father can restore man to his true dignity as God’s son through his grace and forgiveness. Only God can enable man to serve him as a son and not as a hired hand. It is the father in the parable who restores the dignity of the son, not only forgiving him with kisses, but restoring his dignity also by the ring, the robe and sandals, the garments of a son, which Christian faith sees as the restoration of grace, the restoration of divine sonship.
Nonetheless, even though God’s mercy and grace restore man to his dignity as a son, this son will always live in this world in the situation of a servant who does not yet inherit the fullness of what he has lost by sin, both Original and personal. Like the prodigal in the parable, who is not restored to his full inheritance – for the Father says to the elder son, “all that is mine is yours..” – neither are we restored to the full inheritance of paradise, yet, not yet experiencing Adam’s innocent familiarity with God, his freedom of service, his full purity of heart. We too, though restored to sonship, remain in a less than full intimacy and less that a fully free service of the father. That’s why we experience that service not always as a pure joy – even going to Mass can be a chore at times. But we do come to know, ever so gradually the joy of the Father, a joy that will one day be complete, but only in Heaven. Unlike the son in the parable, our inheritance will be recreated, and we will have it once more in its fullness.
Finally, there is one person who seems not to be represented in this parable, but without relating him to the story, it is simply not complete. Jesus himself needs to be related to this parable in a certain negative way, that is, by contrast with the elder brother. Surely in the real world Jesus is the only one to whom the Father can truly say “all that is mine is yours.” In John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say “Everything that the Father has is mine.” [John 16:15] Jesus is the faithful elder brother who truly shares the joy of the Father’s mercy, and in the most dramatic and intimate way, by making himself the sacrifice that brings the younger brother to the Father. He not only shares the joy of the Father at the return of the son, but He makes himself the suffering servant of the Father who purchases the life of the prodigal son at the cost of his own life and blood. And likewise, He has promised us that, though we will suffer in this world, because of his sacrifice our grief will become joy. “Amen, amen I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” (Jn. 16:20)
It is this joy of redemption and Easter that is pointed to in that First Preface of Lent. It is the joy of the Father, the joy of the Son, the joy which becomes ours through the redemption and finally is completed in the resurrection. It is the joy that seizes us as we look forward to that final union with the Father, when the manna which sustains us in this vale of tears, the manna which is the sign of our bondage in the desert of this world, will have ceased (Joshua 6:12) when we, like the Israel of old, shall enter the Promised Land and be nourished at that endless feast where God is our all, and all that He has is ours, when “everything old has passed away,” and “behold, everything has become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17) (Rev. 21:5)