Fourth Sunday of Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Tax collectors and sinner were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them Jesus addressed this parable: “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off for a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.'” While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never game me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'”

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is easily one of the most famous of the parables of Jesus, perhaps second only to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Many sermons have been preached and columns written about the parable. What I write here likely won’t be anything new.

The parable, of course, is about mercy, so it’s appropriate for Lent. The father in the parable represents God, who is our Father. The sons represent two dispositions or two responses to God’s love and care. The first, that of the prodigal, is one of indifference, or even hostility toward God. The prodigal son demands his inheritance even before his father has died, signaling that his father means nothing to him, that he’s as good as dead. He moves as far away from his father as possible, both physically in miles and spiritually in immoral living. When the natural consequences of his sins take hold, he becomes desperate, even to the point of tending swine – moving even farther from the inheritance of his father. Realizing his situation (this translation says, “coming to his senses;” another translation, that I prefer, says, “coming to himself”), he realizes, as well, that his only hope is to return to his father. He repents, that is, he turns around and returns to his father. Even before he can reach his father’s home, however, the father, who has been watching eagerly for his return, sees him and runs to him. Again, even before the prodigal can get out the words of repentance, the father restores him to his position in the family (symbolized by the robe and ring). There is cause for celebration. He is forgiven. One who was lost is found! One who was dead is alive again!

The older son represents a second disposition toward God’s love and care, that of taking God for granted because of one’s faithfulness. The son has always been at the father’s side. He has been faithful. He has done all that the father expected of him. He thinks he deserves more than his lowly brother, who squandered the father’s money (our Father’s grace!) on immoral living. He thinks he’s earned the father’s favors because of his faithfulness. So, out of protest, he refuses to enter the father’s house. He doesn’t realize that whatever the father has belongs to him. He’s not missed out on anything. Or, maybe he has. Maybe what he’s missed out on is the understanding that he is as in need of the father’s love and care as is his younger brother. His “follow the rules and I’ll get my reward” attitude has blinded him to the fact that his father loves him purely, and not because he follows the rules. His faithfulness is in hope of a return, and not a faithfulness inspired by true love of the father.

The Church speaks of “imperfect contrition” and “perfect contrition.” Imperfect contrition is sorrow for one’s sins inspired by one’s fear of the fires of hell, or the consequences of one’s sins. Perfect contrition is sorrow for one’s sins inspired by one’s love for God. The prodigal, it seems to me, is inspired by imperfect contrition.

There is, I think, “imperfect faithfulness” and “perfect faithfulness.” Imperfect faithfulness is being faithful to God inspired by one’s expectation of a reward, of heaven. Perfect faithfulness is being faithful to God inspired by one’s deep and passionate love for God. The older son, it seems to me, is inspired by imperfect faithfulness.

But both are embraced by the father. Our Father God is willing, even eager, to accept us on the basis even of our imperfect contrition or our imperfect faithfulness. Why? Because He is love, and so he is always inspired by perfect love.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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