“I will leave this place and go back to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants” (Luke 15: 18-19)
This Fourth Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, we are presented with one of the most popular stories in the Bible – The Story of the Prodigal Son. Some scholars, considering the many significances of this story, have considered some other similar names, such as: The Story of the Prodigal Father (because the father in the story was “wastefully extravagant” with his two sons); The Story of the Merciful Father (because the father showed “extravagant” mercy to his returnee wasteful second son); The Parable of the Father and His Two Lost Sons (because in the story the father is out waiting for his sons, who are both lost in a sense, to come back in); The Parable of the running Father (because the story tells us that as soon as the father saw the returning son from a distance he ran towards him); and lastly, some have called it, The Parable of the Absent Mother (because in all the story, the mother is not mentioned, and that if the mother had been there, the incident might not have happened). So, which title would you prefer and why?
Our journey so far has been very instructive: on the First Sunday of Lent, we read about the Temptations of Jesus, drawing our attention to the fact that these 40 days of Lent would be one full of tempting situations, and so we should learn to master our Master’s strategies (I am sure you have had your share of these temptations so far). On the Second Sunday, The Transfiguration story encouraged us to stand firm in the spiritual battles ahead because there is an eternal reward of sharing in glory with Christ on the Last Day. The Third Sunday, invited us to a life of repentance and conversion of heart because all battles would be lost if we continue to live in sin. Today, the Parable of the Prodigal Son presents, among other elements, the “wastefully extravagant” mercy of God as the basis and reason for repentance – God will forgive us if we “return” to Him; there would have been no need for repentance , if God were not merciful and forgiving.
What necessitated this parable? St. Luke tells us that Jesus was in the company of “The tax collectors and sinners” perhaps at a meal. And “The Pharisees and the Scribes” complained: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15: 1-2). But why did Jesus prefer this kind of company? Why did He love them? Jesus offers the clear reason: “I came not for the righteous but for sinner” (Luke 5: 32). To call them to repentance. These are the “the sick” who need the physician (Luke 5: 31); they are “the lame’, “the crippled”, “the demoniacs”, “the hungry”, “the prostitutes” and “the blind.” These are all His patients who need to be cured, and not the proud, self-righteous, all-knowing Pharisees and the Scribes. His love for these “weak ones” was intrinsic to His mission. Where do we belong here?
Therefore, in response to this query by the Pharisees and the Scribes, Jesus narrated the popular parable of the infamous prodigal son. We have heard this story many times and I have personally explained it along the traditional lines such as analysing the inappropriate request of the second son; the implications of such a request when the father was still alive; his self-realization and his resolve to return home; the father prompt welcome and lavished party; the elder brother’s resentment of the father’s forgiveness and lavishness on the recalcitrant brother. All these are well-known to many Catholics, who over the years, have listened this Gospel broken in Church. We still have more to learn because the “Word of God is always alive and active” (Hebrews 4: 12). Like the prodigal son, we must open both our physical eyes and spiritual eyes in order to immediately become aware of what sin has done or can do to our souls – reducing us to the lowest ebb of eating food of “the forbidden animal”, pigs; and so firmly resolve to return “home” and be reconciled with our Father, who waits anxiously and eagerly for us, to welcome and to restore us without questions. His love is everlasting and His mercy endures for ever,
I would like us, this year, to look at this story from another point of view, namely, “Where does the father stand at the two critical times or highpoints in this story, and why?” At the time the second son returns, which is one of the main critical moments in this story, the father is “outside”, waiting anxiously and eagerly for his lost son. St Luke narrates: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.” The picture is very vivid that the father had nothing but pity and love for his son. He does not react in any way we would ordinarily expect a father, whose son vanished with part of his wealth only to return with tail between his legs. He asked no questions about anything – not even where he had been. The only concern of the father here is the joy that “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” This called for celebration as the angels celebrate at the return of one sinner to heaven more than the 99 who have no need to repent (Luke 15: 7). This in deed is how God, the Father, eagerly and anxiously waits for our repentance and return. His mercy is lavishing as Jesus portrays through the image of the father in this story.
The second highpoint in this story is when the second son returns home and refuses to enter the house because he resents the lavished welcome and jealous of the younger brother’s privileges. Here too, the father stands “outside” literally begging his son to come in. Here is the father stoops down to lift up his falling son. How loving and merciful our God is that He is prepared to and would actually condescend to seek out His sinful and lost sons and daughters.
This is a story of encouragement to all of us sinners that we still have a chance. Let us “leave this place (of sin, humiliation, shame, suffering, jealousy, resentfulness) and go back to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son (and daughter); treat me as one of your paid servants.”