Fourth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C)
Readings: Jos 5, 9a. 10-12; 2 Cor 5: 17-21; Luke 15: 1-3. 11-32.
The keywords during Lent are ‘conversion’ and ‘penance’. Conversion leads to a true renewal of man and is expressed in concrete actions, in visible gestures. Conversion is a response to the initiative of God who moves the heart of man. Nobody is converted if not by the action of the Holy Spirit. Conversion, on the other hand, is an ongoing process in the Christian life; no one can say that they no longer need to convert. Conversion involves human effort; but, above all, it is a free response to the grace of God, an acceptance of the merciful love of the Lord.
In the first reading (cf., Jos 5, 9a. 10-12) God’s loving care is expressed in his providing food for his people, as he provided the manna in the wilderness. The people, now installed in the Promised Land, recall their departure from slavery. Conversion represents a break with the past with all that enslaves man, particularly sin as a denial of God’s love, in order to live in the freedom of the children of God.
In the second reading (cf., 2 Cor 5: 17-21) the apostle Paul reminds us that “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come” (2 Cor 5, 17). It is Christ who has reconciled us with the Father; he bore our sins. Conversion is always an initiative of God and not of man. This does not mean that we assume a passive attitude; on the other hand, man has to give a free response to the motion of the spirit. God moves the sinner with grace, but does not violate our freedom. In the long run it is man who accepts or rejects the offer of forgiveness. In addition, conversion also means a clear commitment to interior renewal, to leave the past and look to the future with hope, to “seek the things from above” (Col 3: 1).
The Gospel (Lk 15: 1-3. 11-32) presents the famous “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. Actually what most stands out here is the merciful love of God, which is why we refer to it as the “Parable the Merciful Father.” The parable masterfully describes the situation of sinful man and the conversion process. Do not forget that Jesus tells this parable in response to the scribes and Pharisees who question his ’embrace of sinners’. The story describes an initial situation of the younger child by the father. It is the son who takes the initiative to ‘get away from the father’ to experience his own way, to make use of his freedom. The father does not prevent him from leaving home and in this way the youngest child starts a dramatic story as a result of being away from the family home. The son hit rock bottom in the escalation of sin and loss of dignity, a situation expressed in this humiliating condition of being a ‘swineherd’ (an unclean animal for the Jews).
In the deplorable condition in which the youngest child finds himself, having squandered his inheritance from his father, he enters a process of self-reflection and awareness of the situation until he comes to the conclusion that it is the result of his free choice to move away from the Father’s house. He realizes his wrong decision recognizing his own responsibility. The next step in the conversion process is to recognize that change is possible; he believes it is possible to return to the family home. It would be of no use for us to become aware of our sinful condition if we do not take the initiative to retrace our steps. Moreover, this means that we believe in the merciful love of God, that we believe in forgiveness. The consciousness of sin without hope of reconciliation leads to despair. There are many people who have no trouble recognizing that they are sinners, but they are not able to take the next step: to return to the Lord, trust in His mercy and forgiveness. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven, except the so-called “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Cf. Mk 3: 28-29), which is nothing but refusal to accept God’s love and forgiveness. It is clear that God cannot forgive us against our will.
The story tells of the younger son’s reunion with his father, who was waiting for him and greets him with a big ‘feast’, full of joy for having regained the son who was lost. Obviously, the younger son never imagined such a reception; he just hoped to be treated as a ‘day worker’, not that he would be returned his status as ‘son’. The mercy of the Lord surpasses all our expectations. Forgiveness brings back the lost grace, our dignity as children. As the Psalmist says: God is slow to anger and rich in mercy, he “does not treat us according to our sins nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps 102: 10).
In this story the joy is not complete, it is marred by the attitude of the older brother who feels that the father has not acted with justice and equity, that he has violated his rights. Indeed, the eldest son believes he deserves recognition for having stayed with the father, for having served without disobeying his orders, that is, by good works. He is reluctant to share the joy of the father; he looks with envy at his younger brother, whom he considers unworthy to appear again before the father. Certainly, the eldest son has not committed the faults of the ‘prodigal son’ but he lives without love, resentful because his ‘justice’ is not recognized. We see here a sharp criticism against those who, like many Pharisees, boast of their good works, those who think they are entitled to be paid; they deserve the kingdom of heaven because of their merits. The older brother behaves like a ‘bureaucrat of virtue’. His attitude is openly the opposite of that of the father. He does not share the ideas of the father, he thinks that hosting younger brother is overkill. He would have preferred that the ‘prodigal son’ had never returned to his father’s house. Perhaps he has even had the secret temptation of incurring some of the ‘vices’ he questions in his brother. He feels that he is the holder of all rights. While the father moves in the field of mercy, gratitude and forgiveness; the eldest son moves in the field of legalism, of distributive justice, that leads to meanness and resentment.
The attitudes of the older brother reveal that he has not understood the merciful love of the Lord; they express the pride of one who believes himself to be just, with rights to the divine reward, which is, basically, a distortion of the meaning of the act of salvation. Christianity is not the religion of those who win the kingdom of God with their own efforts, which would be the very negation of grace. The apostle Paul reminds us that we are saved by pure grace, by faith and not by good works. It is the true faith that leads us to good works (cf. Eph 2 8ff). There is, however, as Pope Benedict XVI says, an indissoluble link between faith and charity; we cannot separate much less oppose these two theological virtues to one another.
The parable does not have a happy ending because of the attitude of the older brother. The father has offered the youngest son forgiveness, the banquet, the feast; but he cannot guarantee a good reception by the elder brother. We feel that a second part is missing in this parable: one that speaks to us of the conversion of older brother. Certainly that would be much more difficult than the conversion of the ‘prodigal son’. Although God moves us with his grace, no one becomes converted if in the end he does not respond favorably to the offer of forgiveness; and generally he does not respond to the offer of grace because he does not feel himself to be sinner enough, because he feels ‘justified’ by good works. It is the pride of the ‘false sanctity’ of those who are careful to formally comply with the rules, regulations, laws and precepts, and who consider themselves more just for doing so. Their righteousness is external. The apostle Paul tells us: “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” (cf. 1Cor 10, 12).