How would you react if one of your children tells you that he/she is bored at home and wants to go out and “experience” the world as the TV commercials have described it? Say “yes,” “no,” or start a fight? This potential experience could start a problem that would need a lasting solution.
The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Luke 15:11-32) provides us with some reflection on how to deal with the issue. Jesus is asked why on occasion he discusses and eats with sinners. He responds by telling the parable frequently called “The Prodigal Son.”
The parable begins, “There was a man who had two sons….” then Jesus goes on to contrast between the “good” son and the “bad” son. He does so in three stages. First, the contrast. Second, the results. Third, the solution.
First, the contrast. The younger son (“bad”) takes the money from his inheritance, goes on a binge drinking, playing around with women, and further seeks to “enjoy” what the world has to offer. The older son (“good”) stays at home, being obedient to the father, and helping out however he can.
Second, the results. A famine hits the land and the younger son is devastated. Not only has the boy spent all of his money, but starvation is now a new experience for him. So he hires himself out as a servant and is given the task of feeding animals. Thinking to himself that things were much better at home, he decides to return and apologize to his father for what he had done. Because of his proper and supportive behavior at home, the elder son maintains the designation of the “good” son.
Third, a partial solution to the question of why Jesus consorts with sinners. From a distance, the father sees his younger son returning home and is so excited. He gives instructions to his servants that his younger son be dressed properly and that the fattened calf provide the basis for the following fiesta of welcome.
Meanwhile, the older brother suddenly realized what was happening, and railed against his father. In effect,”All these years I have served you well yet you never gave me an animal to feast on with my friends.” Despair in the air. Frustration and jealousy. The father responds. “My son, everything that I have is yours. But now your brother has returned. We must celebrate.”
What make this a solution? Remember that this is a parable. Quite likely, Jesus intends that God is the father and the central character in the parable. What the father (God) is displaying is “merciful love.” That is to say, that no matter how bad things are, God will forgive you in spite of your sinfulness.
The prophet Hosea helps us to understand this attitude. (Hosea 14:1-9, especially verse 4 where YHWH says of sinful Israel, “I will love them freely…”) What this passage points out is that religious logic ordinarily follows three stages: SIN-CONVERSION-PARDON. Hosea’s pattern is different: SIN-PARDON-CONVERSION.
However, this does not mean that contrition/sorrow isn’t necessary, but it does mean that it comes about as an ANSWER to God’s love and not as a precondition to pardon. This is an example of God’s merciful love. You are sorry for your sins because you believe that God loves you.
A key conclusion from this Gospel is that God is a merciful father. No matter how sinful we become, God’s loving mercy will forgive us and that loving forgiveness elicits from us a sorrow. The stronger our belief in that process, the greater will be the possibility of forgiveness.
Sinfulness makes us lost. But in the final verse of today’s Gospel, the father tells his older son when speaking of the younger son can also be said of us. “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother (sister) was dead and has come to life again. He/she was lost and has been found.”