Mar 9, 2013

4th Sunday in Lent: Too good to be true?

"Father I have sinned . . . I no longer deserve to be called your son"

Joshua 5: 9a, 10-12
2 Cor 5: 17-21
Lk 15: 1-3, 11-32

Often when reading the parables of Jesus I have wondered to myself, “this is just too good to be true.” Not that we doubt the core message of the parable but the images used to illustrate Jesus’ point seem at times so exaggerated that we may wonder, in our present day obsession for correctness, if they may be a bit over the top to be taken seriously.

For example, the story of the women caught in adultery, next Sunday’s Gospel (Jn 8: 1-11).  According to the law, the Pharisees were right in saying that she should be stoned.  There weren’t just rumors of her infidelity but they were known to be absolutely true – she was caught in the act! With mercy, Jesus simply gives her a warning to not sin again, then let’s her go on about her life.  Is that really fair – according to the law of his time? And, besides, where was her complicit partner? 

Further, this Sunday’s beautiful story (Lk 15: 1-3, 11-32) about the Prodigal son or parable of the two brothers, or parable of the forgiving father, whatever you may choose to call it, is among the most touching of all Jesus stories. Yet, what about that father? How can he be taken seriously? His selfish, greedy, “I’m entitled to this” son has the gall to wish his father dead not under his breath but right to his face! By all rights, he deserved nothing of his inheritance until his father died or at best, only a portion of it during his lifetime. It’s clear he had no intention of using the wealth for philanthropic purposes.  He planned to go off and have a great time; to throw caution, morals, and his father’s good reputation not to mention his own, to the wind. 

After all that humiliation, his father welcomes him home with a tight embrace, the finest clothes, and a party for all his friends.  Is this father a bit senile and simply clueless of the damage his son has done? What kind of father would love with such blinders on?

Well, the point of Jesus’ parable, among many points both spiritual and psychological, is that no human father would love so extravagantly.  No human father would likely be so blind and deaf to what his son had done.  But, the father in the story is not just any human father.  He is God.

The natural human tendency would be to exact justice and fairness from the son.  In the extreme a parent may wish to disown his own progeny rather than submit himself to such humiliation – “Is that your son? What kind of parent are you?”

However, this is a parable of second chances. God is hardly blind and deaf to our actions. Notice the crowd around Jesus: “Tax collectors and sinners 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 . . .” (Lk 15: 1-3).

In the heart of each person in this vastly diverse audience was likely a desire to find a better way of life.  What word, what image, what hope can Jesus bring?  After all, they were already labeled “tax collectors and sinners,” who found themselves among the professionally religious “Pharisees and scribes.” Then Luke tells us that Jesus addresses this story specifically to that target audience. They soon recognize they are being compared to the older son who became jealous and resentful in the face of his father’s extravagant welcome home for the younger, irresponsible son.

In this season of Lent, have you recognized at least a part of you that has wandered off and needs to come home? Let’s face it, in every one of us there is a rebellious streak which would rather do things our own way, be our own boss, and make our own decisions.  The two sons live within each of us.

So, God sometimes becomes for us a kind of insurance policy. We believe he is always there, protecting us, but we rarely give him a thought yet know that if needed he will be ready to help us so we go on our way.

Jesus reveals to us this Sunday that God is far more than a dusty policy on a shelf.  He desires a relationship with us, constantly offers us a second chance to come home, and patiently waits for us to come to our senses.  When we do, we are greeted by a Father who runs to us and rejoices in our return.  Such an act of excessive mercy may seem too good to be true – but it is.

This story assures us that when lost we can be found and that even the hardest sinners can repent.  The father (God) achingly waited for his son to come to his senses.  He didn’t go to find him but waited for his son to take responsibility. While parents never cease to love their own children, even though that love may be strained at times, God is more than a human parent with us. He calls us to this process of reconciliation.

What a golden opportunity we have in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is a sacrament of second chances but it is sad that this sacrament is so underused.  It is an opportunity for us, a place to go, a home to return to where we will find a God like the Father in this beautiful story of the wayward son.

Lent should be for us a graced time to return home.  Some have wandered far away like the younger son in the story.  But most have remained at home trying to do their best.  Still, why settle for just the minimum? Forgiveness is a powerful tool for healing of hearts, minds, and relationships.  The whole process of reconciliation is to enter in to a place of love and mercy and begin to repair damage or rebuild bridges that may have been torn down.

In the days of early Christianity, and for us many centuries later, we recognize that baptism is a sacrament of new life where we have been washed clean.  But for many that was a long time ago.  We know that we’ve soiled our garments since then. We need to set things right between ourselves and our Father God.  There is no doubt that the scene with Jesus can be a model for reconciliation.  The sinners among him, including the elder son (Pharisees and scribes,) all were invited to a second chance. “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 back to life again . . .” (Lk 15: 30-31).

As our second reading from 2 Cor 5: 17-21 reminds us: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold new things have come . . .”

All of this may indeed feel as if it is too good to be true; a kind of balm to soothe our consciences.  Yet, Jesus reminds time and again that our Christian faith is a faith of second chances, hope, and new life. 

The parable ends abruptly with the words of the father, “he was lost and has been found.” (Lk 15: 32). We await the reaction of the elder son.  What would you say if your brother or sister were the youngest son?  How would you react to God’s invitation for reconciliation?
O God, who through your Word
reconcile the human race to yourself in a wonderful way,
grant, we pray,
that with prompt devotion and eager faith
the Christian people may hasten
toward the solemn celebrations to come.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Collect for holy Mass)