4th Sunday of Lent 2016
“But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Luke 15:32
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 unfortunate translation of the previous Missal referred to it, “each year you give us this joyful season.” But a successful discipline of Lent does indeed produce a very joyful effect, “the joy of minds made pure.” So this wonderful season of grace is preparing those who make a good Lent for a great joy, purifying their 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 than that.
Likewise, this same theme of Lenten joy is found in the very name traditionally given to this 4th Sunday of lent, Laetare Sunday, or Rejoice Sunday, and this call for joy is reinforced in the rose vestments which are traditionally worn on this 4th Sunday.
Thus, it is truly appropriate that the Gospel for Lent’s Laetare Sunday should present to us the magnificent 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 and restoration follows not simply from the forgiveness of our sins by Our Father and a cleansing in some external fashion, which in itself is something profoundly joyful, but this transformation is something even much greater as described by Paul in today’s second reading when 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 God’s gift actually restores our nature by making us a “new creation.” So, not only does God restore our dignity as man by forgiveness of our sins, but this act of divine mercy actually elevates our nature to share in the very dignity of the Son through whose blood we have been redeemed. If forgiveness and restoration of a man’s natural dignity brings great joy to the human heart, how much greater, then, is the joy of being raised to share in His divine dignity!
Reflecting on the three central characters in the parable can greatly help us to understand the ground and the quality of this joy that 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 incomparable love and mercy, which is the ultimate source of the grace of the reconciliation which generates our joy. Note, in the parable, that it is ultimately the quality and faithfulness of the father’s love that draws the prodigal son home, back to himself, for if the son had not believed and trusted in the mercy and love of his father, he could not have resolved to return home and seek his forgiveness. It is our faith and trust in God’s love that draws us back to His mercy and forgiveness when we are prodigal sinners.
The figure of the prodigal son, on the other hand, obviously represents all of mankind, seen from the perspective of universal sin, which, like the prodigal in the parable, is always a brazen and selfish rebellion against God’s love. However in this parable, the younger son, from one perspective, also represents the gentile world, and he reminds one 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, Jew of Gentile, 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 precisely the memory of his father’s love, known from his earliest days, that draws him back, that flames the feeling of repentance and sets him on the path back to his father’s house. All of this is tremendously rich in portraying the basic experience of Christian reconciliation.
Finally, though, we have the elder son. He apparently represents the people of the first covenant. The elder brother 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 we see lacking in his religious devotion to his father. In spite of his obedience, the elder son has never truly imbibed his father’s love and compassion, and so 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 comprehend. Thus, he does not share the joy of this great act of his father’s love and mercy, and so 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, selfish and vulgar manner by dissipating his inheritance, the fruit of his father’s labors. And the elder son failed to love his father for his own sake, and so served him only out of a calculation of what that service would bring to his benefit. In a tragic way, his failure to love the father for his own sake reduced him to a calculating servant rather than a devoted son, and we can see that in another statement of Jesus warning us against such servility, something the elder son needed to take to heart himself:
“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 he is reduced to become “an unprofitable servant” because he has done only what he was obliged to do. This son too is desperately in need of 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. Thus both sons, Jew and gentile, both are sinners and both are in need of the redemptive love of the Father
In Christian experience, it is this recognition of the deep transformation involved in redemption that alone enables a man to possess the heart of the Father, and thus to experience, as Jesus does, the Father’s joy. Recall here 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 two unprofitable servants 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 and servility, that because of sin, the son is no longer worthy to be called a son. Moreover, only the Father can restore the useless servant 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 as symbolized 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.
However, we must also note that even though God’s mercy and grace restores 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, and we do not experience 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 situation of the son in the parable, our inheritance actually will be fully restored, recreated, and we will have it once more in the fullness of joy.
Finally, there is one person who might be represented in this parable, but without relating directly to the story, and without him the real truth 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. In truth, 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] And Jesus, in reality, is the faithful elder brother who truly shares the joy of the Father’s mercy, and does so in the most dramatic and intimate way, by making himself the sacrifice that brings the younger brother to the Father. Jesus 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 further, 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 stupendous 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 will be complete in the resurrection. It is this divine 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)