FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT, Cycle C
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday. Laetare is a Latin word that means “rejoice.” Traditionally, Sundays are named after the first word of the liturgy’s opening antiphon. On this Sunday, the antiphon is taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 66:10-11). Even as we observe our Lenten sacrifices, we rejoice in anticipation of the joy that will be ours at Easter. Today's Gospel describes the reason for our joy: God's great love for us has been revealed in Jesus.
This famous parable in today’s gospel is one that is over spoken and has, to my opinion been given wrong names by different analysists. It is popularly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son and there have always been discussions on who is the real prodigal in this controversial story; is it the youngest son who wanted to manage his life and liberty away from the parents or the unforgiving eldest brother or the irresponsible father who facilitates and lives alone his kids to do what they want.
I hope you remember the saga that hit up in the media in May last year about some New York parents who went to court to seek law enforcement to have their 30 year old son to move away from their house and start living on his own and leave his parents alone. The son at that age still wanted to live with his parents. You probably will all agree with the decision of the court to side with the boy’s parents that it was time for this son to be on his own. So probably it was not a very bad idea for the boy in the parable to try to live alone away from his parents. Our kids do the same as soon as they reach a certain age and we have less moral influence on their decisions even when we know they are wrong. The boy in the parable did mistakes to live loosely and irresponsibly. The greatest glory in our living does not consist in never falling but in rising every time we fall. What Jesus in today’s parable doesn’t tell us is age and training of this youngest son who wanted to enjoy his liberty and independence. That was probably not His point of interest.
The Pharisees and scribes grumbled about Jesus welcoming sinners at his table. In their interpretation and practice, observant Jews who shared table fellowship with sinners would be made unclean. According to the Pharisees sinners had to become ritually clean first before sharing table fellowship. This appears to be one of the major differences between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus reaches out to sinners while they are still sinners, inviting them to conversion through fellowship with him. Jesus is God acting among us; by befriending us while we are still sinners, he is inviting us to return to friendship with God.
In response to his critics Jesus gave the three familiar parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and today's parable of the lost/prodigal son— to invite us to consider the depth of God's mercy and love. So the main point or focus of the story is not the contrast between an obedient and a disobedient son but the divine mercy of God the Father mirrored in the forgiving father in the parable story. While the errant son had wasted his father's money, his father, nonetheless, maintained unbroken love for his son. The father did not need to speak words of forgiveness to his son; his actions spoke more loudly and clearly! The beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet symbolize the new life - pure, worthy, and joyful - of anyone who returns to God.
The minute the son begins to think about himself and turn his attention away from the father’s love is the minute he begins to have problems that will lead to spiritual and material bankruptcy. In the same way turning away from God impoverishes us. Asking for his inheritance was tantamount to wishing his father’s death, since an inheritance is bestowed only after the death of one’s parents. How many times have I asked God to die by choosing my own will over his? Self-centeredness leads to ingratitude: forgetting that I have received everything from God through no merit of my own and that it will all return to him.
Self-centeredness also leads to trying to find happiness away from God. Anytime we turn away from the love and grace of God and turn to sin, we lose our senses and leave God for a “distant country.” God’s will is our home, even if on the surface it may seem unpleasant. Sin blinds the intellect and weakens the will. But every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Our heavenly Father ardently longs for us to respond to him, just as the father in the parable must have longed for the return of his son. I can bury my past in Christ.
The parable also contrasts mercy and its opposite. The father who had been wronged, was forgiving. But the eldest son, who had not been wronged, was unforgiving. His unforgiveness turns into contempt and pride. And his resentment leads to his isolation, division, and estrangement from the community of forgiven sinners. In this parable Jesus gives a vivid picture of God and what God is like. God is truly kinder than us. He does not lose hope or give up when we stray. He rejoices in finding the lost and in welcoming them home.
Lent is a time to once again make our heavenly Father happy by acts of penance. God the Father wants to bestow His love and grace on us lavishly and abundantly. He can’t do this if we continue to live a life that consists of bad, sinful choices, unless we turn back to Him with humble repentance and conversion. Through the Lenten observance of fasting, doing penance and alms giving we can truly become great saints living in extraordinary holiness.