for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Cycle C
March 18, 2007
As I shared with you todayís gospel page, I found myself wishing that I had been there, part of that crowd, listening, not just to Our Lordís lovely words but also to the sound of His voice. Canít you imagine the emotion enriching His words as He described that moment of homecoming? Those who heard Him that day must have caught something of the intense feeling with which He spoke. Nowhere does Jesus reveal more compellingly the wonder of Godís love than in this most cherished of all His gospel stories.. Tradition has named it: The Parable of the Prodigal Son... But it might better be called: The Parable of the Forgiving Father. For surely the whole point of the story is to be found in the extraordinary gentleness and generous forgiveness of the Father.
Superficially, the two sons seem completely opposite. But in one fundamental aspect, they are very much alike. Both show themselves incapable of understanding and accepting their father. Both cause him great pain and challenge his patient and forgiving love. The younger son demands his inheritance. He canít even wait for his father to die. And with the cash in his pocket, he promptly shakes off the dust of his fatherís house. And how that must have hurt! But the older son is just as bad. He refuses to join his father in welcoming his brother home. He even uses the occasion to accuse his father of favoritism. He aims his anger not against his wastrel brother but rather against the father who could be so unfair as to forgive.
But see how the father loved In neither instance did he nourish his own hurt feelings. It seems not even to enter his mind to demand satisfaction before forgiving. He loves unconditionally. He forgives unconditionally. In the case of the younger son, he does not wait for the errant boy to come crawling to him. No! Jesus tells us that while the prodigal was still a long way off, his father saw him and with eyes made sharp by love, he recognized him. He must have been watching and waiting and hoping for his boyís return. He runs down the road to meet him, stifling the ladís cries of self-accusation with his louder cry of love. "My son who was dead has come back to life! He who was lost, is found!" And Jesus describes how he bathes his feet and puts proper shoes on him - how he clothed him in the finest garments in the house and puts on a humdinger of a barbecue to celebrate his home-coming.
But, if anything, this fatherís patience and understanding are even more extraordinary toward the older son. Here is not of the drama of the prodigalís return - just the nastiness of a mean-spirited young man who does not know how to love. When the father learns that he has refused to join in the celebration, he could have said: "Just let the sore-head sulk." But no, he leaves the party and goes out to him. Again, it is the father who goes to meet his son. And how gentle he is with him; how patiently he puts up with his abuse - his whining complaint of favoritism. How unconditionally he forgives.
The key to understanding this parable we find right here.... in the inability of both sons to understand their father. They simply could not believe in his kind of love, his patience and his unconditional welcome. Notice the younger boy, out there stinking from that pig-sty. He was emboldened to return because he could believe that his father was good - but not that good. Obviously, he expected to be held accountable for his wastrel ways. He was fully prepared to earn his fatherís forgiveness. Note that carefully rehearsed little speech - the one his dad would not even let him finish. Iím sure the young man was speechless with surprise. He certainly had expected to get a royal bawling out and to sweat out his time as a hired hand. He simply could not comprehend the incredible richness of his fatherís love.
But see the same misunderstanding in the older son. For him, too, it is beyond comprehension how his father could treat this good-for-nothing, whore-monger brother of his with such generosity. If he had his way, it would not be a succulent helping of standing rib the play-boy would be chomping on - it would be a heaping helping of crow.
In our fantasies, maybe we find it easier to identify with the prodigal son - that gregarious, sexy, fun-loving bounder who, after all, did repent - at least after a fashion. But maybe we are picking the wrong guy. Maybe itís big brother who has his lesson for me. Letís take a closer look at him. He is virtuous - in his hard-working way - and O so rigidly righteous! But in him, thereís not the smallest speck of generosity. Forgiveness is in short supply.... And I feel sure that, if Jesus had added a sequel to his story, it might have had a tragic ending. Before long, the younger brother leaving again, not because his father had not forgiven him but simply because he could not live with his brotherís glowering resentment. Without his forgiveness, the circle of reconciliation remains unclosed - the wound of alienation unhealed - and he knows that he has not really come home.
The recently deceased spiritual writer, Father Henri Nouwen, in one of his last books, tells of a visit he made to Russia and a never to be forgotten opportunity to spend a leisurely day in the world-famous museum called "The Hermitage". For him, the transforming moment of his visit was the time he spent studying and praying before a picture by Rembrandt. It is called "The Return of the Prodigal" and when the artist painted it, he was already an old man. His masterpiece is the fruit, not only of his artistic genius but also of his mature faith. On canvas, he has captured the moment of meeting. The young man is there in his pitiful rags, crouched down a bit and on his face an expression of mingled shame and wonderment. He can hardly believe what is happening. The father is portrayed as a man worn out by age and worry and loneliness. His eyes are dimmed by the years and the tears. He is reaching out in a gesture of welcome, his left hand under his sonís arm, lifting him up - the right hand on his shoulder, inviting but not compelling an embrace in return. Sharing his experience with us, Nouwen puts it this way: "This is the God I believe in. This is the God I want to share - a Father Who is always stretching out His arms in merciful welcome - never forcing Himself on anyone - always waiting and watching - wanting to gather us into His embrace. His only desire is to bless. He cannot behave in any other way toward us except to love us."
"This is the God I believe in. This is the God I want to share." What a comforting, life-giving discovery it is to come to know God in this way. We see Him in an immediate relationship to ourselves in our deepest need - our need to be healed - our need to be reassured that however weak we may be - however often we fail, there is always hope for us because of the God in whom we believe - a God to come home to.. We can believe because we have heard the Voice of Our Brother, telling us of our Welcoming Father. We have seen His Patience and His Love "shining on the face of Christ Jesus".