The Prodigal and his brother did not know their father. Do we know God?

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C

by Fr. Tommy Lane

The rose vestments today remind us that already we have reached Laetare Sunday in Lent, just over half way through Lent. Laetare, rejoice. The Scripture readings today also give us great reason to rejoice. In the readings today we are really feasting on God’s mercy. The prodigal son is welcomed back by his father (Luke 15:11-32), Paul tells us that Christ has reconciled us to the Father (2 Cor 5:18-19) and in the first reading the Hebrews celebrate their first Passover in the Promised Land (Josh 5:9-12). The readings indeed give us many reasons to rejoice.

However the readings also give us challenging food for thought appropriate for this season of Lent. The prodigal son lived a life of debauchery in a distant country. While that is bad enough, he only came to his senses when there was a famine in that country. We might ask ourselves how much longer would he have continued in his profligate lifestyle had famine not struck the country. A worrying issue is that the prodigal son did not seem to know there was something amiss in his life, and only became aware of it when everything he had was taken away from him. I say that is worrying because if the prodigal son only figured it out when a natural disaster overcame him we might begin to wonder if we may have closed ourselves to God in any way without even knowing it like the prodigal son. Lent is to see where we are before God so that we do not end up like the prodigal son with the pigs. The joy of the first celebration of the Passover in the Promised Land in the first reading (Josh 5:9-12) is surely tempered by the fact that all the parents of that generation had perished on the way up to Canaan from Egypt because they had turned against God. They did not appreciate what God was offering them and like the prodigal they lived their life in a distant country instead of enjoying what God was offering them. Sin slowed their journey and ultimately prevented them from attaining God’s gifts. Is sin slowing us from attaining the gifts God offers to us? Lent is a time to see where we are before God so that we do not wind up like the prodigal son with the pigs or get stuck on our journey instead of attaining the gifts God offers us.

There is another aspect to the prodigal son’s life that is also worrying. He did not seem to know his father’s heart. When he eventually came to his senses and made up his mind to return home he did not know that he would be welcomed back by his father. He planned to become a servant. He did not know his own father or that his father was waiting all these years for him to return. He did not know that his father was merciful and wanted nothing else but his return. That is the second aspect of the prodigal son’s life that is worrying; not knowing his father’s heart. Are we keeping ourselves from God in any way because like the prodigal son we do not know that the heart of God is merciful and God’s desire is to have us in his house?

When we look at the older son who stayed at home with his father all his life we see something shocking. Like his brother he also did not know his father’s heart. He could not understand why his father had killed the fattened calf and almost regarded himself as a slave as he talked about all the years he had served his father. There was no closeness between the older son and his father. The older son was dutiful but distant. He was like those Pharisees who complained about Jesus, obedient to God but without real love of God. So neither of the two sons knew his father’s heart. That surely brings us to ask ourselves, “In our efforts to please God do we really know the heart of God and do we really know that God loves us?”

There is another aspect to the older son that also shocks us. He is so unlike his forgiving father; he is not forgiving. He does not want to forgive his brother and casts slurs on his brother’s past. His thinking is like the thinking that Jesus challenged elsewhere when Jesus said, “you have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say to you…turn the other cheek…’” (Matt 5:38-39) The older son became scandalized by his father’s mercy to his younger brother just as the Pharisees were scandalized by Jesus. Jesus does not tell us at the end of the parable if the older son went into the party because the Pharisees are still outside grumbling about Jesus and they must decide if they will enter the party Jesus is now sharing with tax-collectors and sinners. God’s mercy is so great that it is scandalous to some. It may be that some of the Christian scribes who copied the early manuscripts of the Gospels were scandalized by the mercy of Jesus like the older son. Some of them omitted the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) as they copied the account of the crucifixion in Luke. Likewise some have speculated that the reason why Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman (John 8:2-11) is omitted from early copies of the Gospels is that Jesus was not stern enough in the mind of the copyists. God does not have a problem with forgiving us; it is we who have the problem with forgiveness. No wonder, then, that in the last century Jesus came to a holy nun in Poland, St. Faustina, to remind us of his Divine Mercy. Contemplating the two sons in the parable, perhaps we could sum up Jesus’ teaching with the words he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We could also regard Paul’s teaching in the second reading as the summation of God’s message of mercy and forgiveness to us today,

“whoever is in Christ is a new creation…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation…” (2 Cor 5:17,19)

This is what Lent is all about; becoming a new creation in Christ because the Father does not count our trespasses against us. This truly is a reason to rejoice. Laetare.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More homilies for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C

Our Heavenly Father offers us all he has

Parable of the Prodigal Son - we are like each of the sons 2007

Related Homilies: Parable of the Prodigal Son - Saints have a Past and Sinners a Future

God waiting to welcome us back 2016

Today’s Gospel in the context of Luke 2007

Penance Service Homily

Let Jesus dispose of the garbage caused by sin

Let us wash at the Pool of Siloam and be filled with Jesus’ light

Jesus forgives Peter and restores him

Decide to Overcome Sin

If you love me you will keep my Commandments

Why confess sins to a priest?

Book Excerpt: Cardinal Ratzinger on Freedom without lawfulness

stories about God’s Mercy

stories about sin

stories about confession of sin

my commentary on the Parable of Prodigal Son in Enjoying the Bible