Mar 5, 2016

4th Sunday of Lent: "He was lost and is found!"

"Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you."

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

There is a very good reason the Church has named our sacrament of forgiveness, the “Sacrament of Reconciliation.” Most normally, we say “I’m going to confession” or “Father, can you hear my confession?” or “What time are confessions?” There’s nothing wrong with asking a question that way about this sacrament and any priest or regular Catholic would know what you mean.

However, I don’t think most of us priests are normally asked, “Father, what time is reconciliation?” My answer to that question would be, “All the time!”

Our second reading this Sunday and the stunning Gospel story which Jesus tells, reveals the very essence not only of that sacrament but the very heart of God and the Gospel which Jesus preached.  Paul, speaking to his Christian converts at Corinth reminds them: “Whoever is in Christ Jesus is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come . . . Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . .” (2 Cor 5: 17-18).

Paul gives us a theological explanation. As a people, baptized into Christ, in the name of the Trinity, we are changed, different, and called to a certain behavior and way of life because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to build bridges, as God has done for us between himself and humanity, which is one image of reconciliation.. So this whole ministry of reconciliation has something to do with becoming better and not going back. Reconciliation is a process of conversion and the great sacrament of healing, or confession, invites us to walk into that process before a merciful God.

This leads to our Gospel from Luke 15 which makes that process a deeply personal one. For me, and I know for many, many more the story of the “Prodigal Son” or the “Forgiving Father” or any other variation on that title you may want to offer, is not only a brilliant cast of characters but deeply moving on a faith level.  It is rich with character development and questions our own view of God and our ultimate response to God’s almost over the top mercy. 

As a story, it is open ended as many of the parables of Jesus’ were.  Jesus deliberately, I suspect, left the end hanging with the Father’s challenging statement to the jealous older brother: “My son . . . everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” (Lk 15: 32).  How the older son reacted to this statement is left unanswered. Did he come around and join the party? Did he walk away in disgust?  Did he also ask his Father to forgive him for his petty jealousy? It invites us to our own self examination. 

Further, the setting in which Jesus told this story is significant to our understanding.  Luke reminds us: “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). Jesus was constantly berated for his association with the undesirables.  And among his worst critics were, of course, those so hardened in their own self-righteousness, that they had closed their minds to God’s mercy.

Regardless, Jesus invites specifically this crowd, who are invited to see themselves in the older son, to open their hearts and minds. It invites every one of us to ask ourselves the same question about which of the two sons do I find in myself.  The answer for most of us is that I see both sons in me.

One could easily write an entire book on the layers of meaning in this rich parable as others have done but for us this weekend, and in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, its lesson is fundamental.  That our God is like the Father in the story who waits for us to come home with open arms. He longs for our return with love and mercy, not searing judgment and condemnation. A love beyond solely human love.    

It’s most shocking for me that the son was so selfish and brazen as to ask his father for his inheritance long before his father was ready to pass on.  Even more startling is that the father gave it to him!  The son goes off and does everything he can to shame his reputation, his family name and his own father. Finally, in desperation, having reached the ultimate bottom with nowhere else to turn, he plans his return to the same father he had so appallingly treated and beg for forgiveness. 

I’d like to imagine that Jesus paused here for a moment and looked intently at the crowd around him to see what was on their face.  He could have allowed a moment of dead silence. What will the father do and say to his irresponsible son? Did the most critical among them begin to break down?

Then our Lord continues with the most unanticipated reaction of the father: “While he (the son) was still a long way off, his father caught sign of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” Without a word from the father in the story, Jesus proclaims what God is like and how he desires that we come home and remain in the family.

The son pleads for mercy in the midst of this overwhelming act of reconciliation and is swept up in his father’s joy.  With robes and rings and a party to boot he finds himself back in the good graces of his family.  Then, the elder son appears and throws a wet towel on the festivities.  “I’ve been the good and obedient son.  Am I not the responsible and respectful “apple of your eye?” He doesn’t even name his brother but refers to him as “your son.” What’s with this party?  You never did that for me!

He is so blinded by jealousy, competition, and his own sense of his goodness, that he misses the point of what his father is like.  So, the father reminds him of how generous and fair he has always been.  Yet, more importantly at this moment to celebrate the new life his younger brother has found: “He was dead and has come to life again.”

Then the story ends.  Again, I imagine Jesus looked more intently than before at his listeners who likely were stunned by the father’s behavior.  Hopefully, though, also moved so deeply that they saw themselves in the two sons and in particular the most stubborn among them began to soften their own pride which blinded them to see the expansive nature of God. 

Are we moved in the same way?  We should be indeed.  Does it seem too good to be true?  Is God really this blind to our sin?  Yes and no perhaps.

The father forgave because the younger son had “come to his senses.” The boy took responsibility for his impulsive behavior and returned to his father, who waited for but did not go in search of, his son. The father well knew the mess his son created but patiently with love and hope waited for that moment of personal realization – then welcomed his son home with rejoicing. 

Where am I in this story?  How willing am I to “come to my senses?” What will be the key that will change me?  Here, the story doesn’t end for us; it only begins.  We are all called to become not either son but to be more like the father.  If we can, a new life can begin for us.

We find it in the sacrament of reconciliation, the holy Eucharist, the scriptures, our shared faith and prayer. But we must become the father in our daily encounter with each other.  

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.   

(Opening Prayer for Mass)