At the heart of it, Lent is about two things. First, it’s about baptism. That’s what the participants in our RCIA program are reflecting on these days, and two of them are preparing to be baptized at our Easter Vigil Mass this year. And baptism leads us to the second purpose of Lent, which is conversion: forgiveness and reconciliation and grace. Baptism is the sacrament that initially wipes away our sins and gives us grace to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to the Father.
Jesus paints a picture of a very forgiving Father in today’s Gospel, so this story is of course perfect for Lent, when we ourselves are being called to return to God. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard this story growing up, I was always kind of mad about what was going on. I guess I’d have to say that I identified myself with the older son, who tried to do the right thing and got what seemed to be the short end of the deal. But that’s not what the story is about.
We of ten call this parable the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I don’t think that’s right because I don’t think the story is about the son – either son – at least not primarily about them. And the word “prodigal” does not mean what we think it means. I think when we hear that word, we think prodigal means “wayward” or something, because we are relating the word to the younger son’s actions. In fact, the word “prodigal” means something like “wildly, rashly, incredibly extravagant.” It’s related to the words “profuse” or “prodigious.”
So the prodigal one here, I think, is the Father. First of all, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it feels hurtful. Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance now, please.” But the Father gives him the inheritance without ill-will. Secondly, the Father reaches out to the younger son on his return, running out to meet him, and before he can even finish his little prepared speech, lavishes gifts on him and throws a party. So it is the Father who is prodigal here, not the son, not either of the sons.
There is a tendency, I think, for us to put ourselves into the story, which is not a bad thing to do. But like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to identify with the hard feelings of the older son sometimes. But let’s look at these two sons. First of all, I’ll just say it, it’s not like one was sinful and the other wasn’t – no – they are both sinful. The younger son’s sin is easy to see. But the older son, with his underlying resentment and refusal to take part in the joy of his Father, is sinful too. It’s worth noting that the Father comes out of the house to see both sons. That’s significant because a good Jewish father in those days wouldn’t come out to meet anyone – they would come to him. But the Father meets them where they are and desperately, lovingly, pleads with them to join the feast.
So, both sons are sinful. But remember, this is a parable, and so the characters themselves are significant. They all symbolize somebody. We know who the Father symbolizes. But the sons symbolize people – more specifically groups of people – too. The younger son was for Jesus symbolic of the non-believer sinners – all those tax collectors and prostitutes and other gentile sinners Jesus was accused of hanging around with. The older son symbolizes the people who should have known better: the religious leaders – the Pharisees and scribes. In this parable, Jesus is making the point that the sinners are getting in to the banquet of God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, because the sinners are recognizing their sinfulness, and turning back to the Father, who longs to meet them more than half way. The religious leaders think they are perfect and beyond all that repenting stuff, so they are missing out.
So again, it’s good to put ourselves in the story. Which son are we, really? Have we been like the younger son and messed up so badly that we are unworthy of the love of the Father, and deserve to be treated like a common servant? Or are we like the older son, and do we miss the love and mercy of God in pursuit of trying to look good in everyone else’s eyes? Maybe sometimes we are like one of the sons, and other times we are like the other. But the point is, that we often sin.
But our response has to be like the younger son’s. We have to be willing to turn back to the Father and be embraced in his mercy and love and forgiveness. We can’t be like the older son and refuse to be forgiven, insisting on our own righteousness. The stakes are too high for us to do that: we would be missing out on the banquet of eternal life to which Jesus Christ came to bring us.
For us, this Lent, this might mean that we have to go to confession. Even if we haven’t been in a long time. We have confessions at 4pm for the next two Saturdays, and on Saturday the 27th, we also have confessions at 6pm. We also have our parish penance service on Tuesday the 30th at 7:30 … those are all on the front of the bulletin. Lent is the perfect time to use that wonderful sacrament of forgiveness to turn back to the Father who longs to meet us more than half way with his prodigal love and mercy. So don’t let anything get in the way of doing it. If you haven’t been to confession in a very long time, go anyway. We priests are there to help you make a good confession and we don’t yell at you, don’t embarrass you – we are there to help you experience God’s mercy.
We are all sinners and the stakes are high. But the good news is that we have a Prodigal God, who longs to meet us more than half way. All we have to do is decide to turn back.