Gospel Reflection for the 4th Sunday of Lent Year C – March 6th 2016
The tax collectors and the sinners, meanwhile, were all seeking his company to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them. So he spoke this parable to them:
‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.
‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”
The father said,
“My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.
But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother here was dead and has come to life;
he was lost and is found.”‘
So often I have heard this story, one of the best short stories ever written. We may become too used to it. It is always new, always has something new to say about God and ourselves. Here’s one: nowhere does it say that the father forgives his son! He just wants to celebrate his homecoming. The embrace of paternal welcome said it all! This is mercy, which is forgiveness and more. Mercy covers the sins of the one returning so they need not be even named. The father knew the son’s heart was right, and this would the beginning of a new relationship. ‘Jesus is nothing but love’, Pope Francis writes for the Jubilee year of mercy, ‘a love given freely’. This was the love of the prodigal’s father.
Another: the ring on his finger was the father’s way of reinstating him totally into the family. It was what would have been passed on in the family to an honoured member, often the eldest son. No acceptance of the son’s wanting to be called a hired servant. In this story there is the full reconciliation. This is one of the big words of Lent – reconciliation is not a distant forgiveness, but an embrace and celebration of all being well again.
The best gift we can give to God this Lent is to welcome his mercy, a mercy that makes us ‘God’s work of art’.
Pope Francis calls the mercy of God the ‘beating heart of the gospel’: if mercy should cease the gospel would no more be alive, as when the heart cease to beat, the body dies.
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Donal Neary SJ
Fr Donal Neary SJ is editor of the Sacred Heart Messenger