4th Sunday of Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“Repent and believe the Gospel”. Perhaps we heard those words uttered by the priest as he made the sign of the cross on our forehead with ashes at the beginning of Lent. Who among us can genuinely meet Christ in the Gospel and not feel the need for repentance? Faced with such perfection, our many imperfections are held up to our face as if in a mirror. Today’s Gospel brilliantly captures both our need for repentance and God’s willingness to accept it. Anybody who has any doubt about forgiveness of sins, as the Church understands it in the sacrament of penance, may hopefully see something of the way God works through the priest in this beautiful parable. The contrast between God’s attitude to forgiveness and our human attitude is beyond compare; they are of two different orders.
The initial scene sees the young man coming of age and looking to spread his wings. It is interesting to see that rather than meeting a father who stops him, the father duly divides his property. So it is with God. Rather than being the imposition on our freedom modern society understands religion to be, like the father in the parable, God is the guarantor of our freedom. So the young man leaves his father’s household and heads to a “distant country”. This “distant country” might be seen as distance from God which necessarily equates to a distance from goodness. St. Luke describes this abuse of God-given freedom in this parable as debauchery.
Thankfully though, the young man came to his senses. He realised a life lived apart from God cannot lead to fulfilment, no matter how attractive it seems. Thankfully he was not so despairing as to go on living a lie. No doubt it was painful for him to admit defeat but he was brave enough to hope in a better life. Too many people don’t have the courage or the strength or the humility or whatever else it takes to try again. Too many of us knowingly settle for a life that cannot satisfy rather than aim for true happiness. Too often we settle for mediocrity, merely getting by but never really living because we get caught up in things that enslave rather than liberate. However, Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full (John 10: 10).
In Christ, true God and true man, we see One who has the power to forgive sins. This power He gave to the Disciples when He said “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained” (John 20: 23). The reaction of the other son who had stayed loyally with his father is a very human reaction. Full of pride, resentment and hard-heartedness, he refuses to go into the house. Yet compare his lack of movement with that of the father’s. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him”. Is this not the remit Christ gave to the Church? It is surely God who forgives sins in the confession box because it is clear that priests are all too human. To anyone who questions why you should tell sins to another man to be forgiven be assured it is Christ you are meeting because if it were left to men they would not nearly be as accommodating. Christ trumps our weak nature, forgiving sins by His supernatural power.
The Church is that father standing night after night in the front porch, waiting for the repentant sinner to freely come to their senses, just as freely as they originally went to that distant country. That repentant sinner is you and I. When we get to confession do we not say like the son in this story “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you”, or words to that effect? What is the response we receive? “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” We are welcomed home by our Father. All is forgiven and we are invited to the feast of Holy Mass where the Lamb Himself is sacrificed. How amazing is this God of ours and how beautiful is our faith that we can dare to hope again, even though we often tour the most distant countries!
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
-Luke 15:1-3, 11-32