Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
4th Sunday of Lent, Year C
March 25, 2001
Josh 5:9-10;12; 2Cor5:17-21; Lk15:1-3,11-32
1. Ambassador of Christ — Brings a message from the one represented, God appeals through us; message for St. Paul is “be reconciled to God!” He made St. Paul minister of reconciliation, entrusted it to him. He’s done the same thing for every priest who likewise is an ambassador of Christ and calls out today again, Christ’s message, “Be reconciled to God!”
2. Christ came to forgive sins. That’s the reason why he came. His whole work was forgiving sins. Paralytic. Woman caught in adultery (next week). Woman who anointed his feet with her tears. The good thief on the Cross. Jesus came to call sinners, to forgive their sins. He came to reconcile us to God the Father, to become sin for our sakes so that we might become holy, literally God’s holiness, having God’s life within us.
3. Jesus showed us how central the forgiveness of sins is in his plan in the 15th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, perhaps the most beautiful chapter in all of Sacred Scripture. In this chapter, the Pharisees murmured against him that he came to take care of people like us, sinners, he welcomes then and eats with them. Then he told the beautiful parable about how pleasing the forgiveness of sins is to God in heaven:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
4. God rejoices much more for one repentant sinner than for 99 who think they’re righteous. And we’re all sinners. 1John 1:8 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” The Pope goes every week. Mother Teresa went several times a week. The closer you get to the light the more you see, the more you can become the holiness of God.
5. Then Jesus tells one of the most famous parables of all-time, the parable of the prodigal son. There are three main characters, the son who wastes the inheritance, the Father who forgives and the older son who is upset. All three are very important. To understand the real meaning of the parable we have to look at all three and see where we fit in in the parable.
6. Prodigal Son — Asks now for his inheritance. Basically acts as if the father is dead, because one only receives an inheritance when someone dies. The Father, out of love for the Son, says yes. Then the son goes and wastes all of the inheritance. He wastes not only the money, of course, that he inherited, but all of the moral lessons and goodness the Father would have taught him. Yet the Father respected his freedom so much that he allowed him to go away pretty much immediately. No responsibility for the Father. No “thank you.” He just collected all his belongings and went to a distant land and squandered everything. Then the famine came, the tough times, and he recognized that he was in dire need because he had spent everything. He started to take care of pigs, which, for the Jews, would have been the most demeaning actions possible. He had become so disordered by his situation he longed to eat like the pigs. Then he decided to return to his Father’s house to live like a slave. He knew he didn’t deserve to be treated like a son, because he had disowned his Father earlier. He didn’t think a relationship of sonship was possible again. But he must have presumed that his Father would at least have taken some care of him. Because a slave of a loving father to him was better than being a slave to himself in a pigsty. So he went intending to say to his Father, “Father I have sinned against God and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”
7. Let’s pause there for a moment, because in the case of the prodigal son, we see elements that are common in all sin, and if we’re honest with ourselves, probably see ourselves. We have turned our backs on what we’ve received. Taken things for granted, failed to thank others, and just used others for our own ends. Obviously someone who wishes the Father dead so as to receive the inheritance is someone who has not respected the Father all throughout life. That’s what we can do not only with our own parents here on earth but with our Heavenly Father. We can treat him as if he is dead, turn our back from him, leave and seemingly never look back. We can waste all his graces, all his blessings throughout the years on a dissolute life getting caught up in sin. It can be any type of sin. Alcoholism. Sex. Anger. Stealing. Greed. Self-worship. We live like pigs, like animals, and then soon find out that we living among animals, or even below animals. Then we hit a sort of rock-bottom. This is a great gift of God, when we recognize that we shouldn’t be living like this. Many of us need to hit this rock-bottom in order to realize just what we’ve lost. Many of us, even some of us here in Church today, may be living that situation right now, distant from God, just merely going through the motions for the sake of other’s respect, etc., but deep down inside we know we’ve got a secret life. The Father then can offer us the grace to recognize how much we’ve lost. We can want to forgive our sins. At first it might not be because we love our Father that we’re asking for forgiveness, but because we just want to get out of the state we’re in. We recognize it’s better to be a slave to God than a slave to our ourselves, to our passions. We can respond to the seed within and try to make the journey home to the Father. That’s what Lent is about. To make that journey back to the Father, leaving every pigsty we’ve built in our lives.
8. We turn now to the figure of the Father. The text says, “While he was still a long way off, the father caught sight of him and was deeply moved.” While he was still a far way off, he catches sight of the son and is moved with love. Then he runs out to meet the son, throws his arms around his neck and kisses him. So many of us would have waited for forgiveness. We would have waited for the person to come grovelling for forgiveness, to say sorry first, maybe even to restore the inheritance. But not the Father in this parable. Before the Son even opens up his mouth, the Father runs, throws his arm around the Son and kisses him. When the Son apologizes, “Father I have sinned against God and against you; I am not even worthy to be called your son,” the Father interrupts him and says to the servants, “Quick!” What do we think he might have said in those circumstances. Quick, go get my belt? No “Quick, bring out the finest robe and put it on him, put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Take the fatted calf and kill it. Let us celebrate for this son of mine was dead — dead by his own choice — and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.”
9. This is how God the Father acts toward us out of love, and how he wants us to act toward others who need our forgiveness. He doesn’t want us to grovel, to come crawling to him. He’ll hunt us down when we’re lost, but when we intentionally go away from him, he’ll love us all the same, but he won’t force us back. But when we start to come back to him, he sees us from a distance and is deeply moved out of love for our effort. He runs out to greet us and stretches out his hand in the sacrament of reconcilaition. He clothes us with his own clothes, his own life, he puts a ring on our finger to symbolize our renewed relationship with him and sandals on our feet so that we can be free to follow him again. And he rejoices that we who were dead to sin, who had tried to kill our relationship with him by going to sin, have come back to life. Heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 who didn’t need to repent. If this is true about God’s love for sinners — and it is — what could possibly keep us away from this great sacrament?
10. Finally, we turn to the older son. He is one that is often neglected over the years when priests preach on this parable. But he’s highly relevant to us and to Jesus’ telling of the parable in the first place, because for those who were listening to Jesus, he was the most relevant one. He was out on the land and when coming home heard the sound of music and dancing. He then asked the servants what the reason for the celebration was. He was told, “Your brother is home and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back in good health.” We’re then told that the son became angry at this and would not go in. The father came out to him and pleaded with him to enter. The older son said, “For years I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. Then when this son of yours returns after having gone through your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him.”
11. The older son in the parable is meant to represent Jesus’ listeners who were upset because he was reconciling sinners. They were the ones who were murmuring, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So often we can look at this person as a good person, who basically was obedient, but we’d be missing the point. This brother never once called his Father “Father,” and didn’t even refer to his brother as his brother. Rather he said that for years he had “slaved” for his father. He called his brother “this son of yours.” He really was a slave, because a slave obeys not out of love but out of fear. Moreover, we’re never told in the parable why the younger son wanted to leave, but it very well could have been that his older brother drove him away by his unhappy servile obedience rather than loving, filial obedience.
12. So many times I hear those who have difficulty with the Church’s forgiving people who have greatly sinned. Sometimes in the seminary, we had men who had lived very dissolute lives before having a massive conversion and now they were studying to be priests. Several of the younger guys, rather than rejoicing for their conversion and their vocation, were angry at them because, well, basically they were able to have had a life of sex and booze before and now were going to be just as much a priest as those who had abstained all the years. The point of view of the moral life, however, is that sin ultimately hurts us and that we obey God’s commands out of love because they’re good for us. The attitude of some of the judgmental younger seminarians, who were like the older brothers in the parable, was “we can let him back into the Church but God forbid he actually become a leader.” We can often really sometimes not want the conversion of others, but rather to have them “pay” for their bad decisions. We can become jealous of their being fully a Catholic again, rather than rejoice with God and all of heaven. Sometimes our lack of willingness to forgive people can drive them away from the Church and prevent their return. Sometimes we can look at the Father’s commands as simple decrees to be followed as if we were his employee and not a child whom he loves.
13. To all of us in these circumstances, the Father says to us: “My son, you are with me always and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found.”
14. I appeal to you as an ambassador of Christ: be reconciled to God. This Lent, let us come back to the Father through the great sacrament of confession which restores us to complete life in the Son and let us become, likewise, not judgmental older brothers but loving sons, capable ourselves of being ambassadors for Christ, calling others to reconciliation by the joy with which we live our having been reconciled.