Last week’s gospel told the parable about sin and second, third and fourth chances: the fig tree that had not produced fruit for three years. The landowner was so impatient he wanted to cut it down but the gardener persuaded the landowner to give the tree one more year. During that time the gardener would dig in manure around the base of the tree to encourage it to bear fruit.
The gospel for this, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, presents another story of sin, its consequences and the nature of God’s forgiveness… the wonderful parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
The gospel opens, tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable. By keeping company with tax-collectors and sinners Jesus upset the Pharisees. They judged Jesus on the basis of ‘we know your character by the company you keep’.
Rather than scold them, Jesus told the Pharisees a story to which they could possibly relate. It was a gentle invitation to a change of mind and a change of heart.
As he began telling the story Jesus may have looked at the tax-collectors and sinners.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” The request was for his share of the future inheritance, something he would not normally receive until the father was dead. In a sense, the son was wishing his father gone. It was an insulting request.
So he divided his property between them. The father gave the son the money, perhaps anticipating that it would be squandered. But apparently the father also valued his sons’ freedom to decide and loved them.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country…He not only took the money but, more significantly, he severed the relationship by leaving… and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, (Famines were common) and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
Feeding pigs would have been a morally as well as physically disgusting job for a Jew. Not eating pork had become a test of fidelity to Torah in the time of the Maccabees (1 Mac 1:47 and 2 Mac 6:18)
But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” He realized the need to change his life. His response went beyond ‘I’m hungry’, but recognized his sin and included repentance.
So he set off and went to his father.
While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Jesus conveys a sense of the Father longing for the prodigal son and standing watch, without any real reason to expect his return.
Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He recognized that he had willfully broken the relationship with his father by, effectively, wishing him dead so he could have the inheritance then leaving the home. He also recognized that he had used up his share of the inheritance.
But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
The son’s sin and repentance were both real. He had repudiated his relationship and squandered his resources. But rather than extracting punishment, the Father celebrated his son’s return with joy. The father’s heart was more focused on the happiness of his son’s return.
Perhaps Jesus looked at the Pharisees as he spoke this next section.
Now his elder son was in the field; … he heard music and dancing. He … asked a servant what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and began to plead with him. As with the prodigal brother, the father went out to the elder son.
But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have worked like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. The father’s emphasis was on ‘being together’. To him that was the essential value.
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”’
During the Ignatian Spirituality Project retreats, for people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, there is an optional chapel time on Saturday afternoons. The retreatants take turns reading part of this gospel passage. For some, this is the first time they have ever heard this parable and it moves them. We invite them to imagine themselves in one of the roles. They frequently identify with the prodigal son and relate their experience of addiction to the prodigal son’s squandering his life in dissolute living. They feel the father’s welcome and forgiveness. In this gospel they recognize the sense of their own possibilities within a Christ-centred life. It is a powerful parable that still resonates within people today.
For a beautiful, extended meditation on this parable, consider The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. The book is his reflection on the Rembrandt painting of the same name, which hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.