The joy of the Prodigal Father

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4th Sunday of Lent, Year C: March 10, 2013
Josh 5:9-12; Ps 34; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Where is the most joyful place on earth? On this Laetare Sunday, nicknamed for rejoicing, where might we find joy? Where would we look for it? Where do we expect it most? …I’ll come back to that question.

In our Gospel reading today, we hear one of our Lord Jesus’ most famous parables—which is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Now “prodigal” is one of those words we don’t use a lot in English today, except when we are speaking about this very parable; and so, for that reason, the word has partly changed meaning, so that some speak of a prodigal as “one who has returned after an absence.” But that isn’t the original meaning of the word, which instead means one who spends lavishly or wastefully. And so this parable takes its name from the way that the younger son lavishly spent all of his inheritance while away in the distant country: the prodigal son.

But, as some have observed, wouldn’t we do better to call it the Parable of the Prodigal Father? After all, his prodigality—his lavish generosity—far outstrips that of his wasteful son. All that the son would spend in that distant country, the father first gave to him in its entirety: some large portion of his estate, given away in an instant. And when the son returns, the prodigal father again out-prodigals him by throwing a party with music and dancing, with the fattened calf as the main course, and the son himself dressed in the finest robe with a ring and so on. The father’s joy and prodigality has no bounds—much to the annoyance of the older son.

Indeed, the father really is the center of the story—if we take a close look at him to see who he is, what he wants, what he is like. And if we do so, then we will do more than either son is shown as doing within the parable.

  • After all, the younger son begins by demanding that the father give him the share of his estate that should come to him—thus horribly declaring that he cared not at all for his father and wished he were dead and only wanted his possessions, which was even more offensive in the 1st century Holy Land than it is today. And, when he comes back, it is only because he wants to enjoy the decent physical treatment that his father gave to his servants—nothing more.
  • The older son, too, speaks only serving and obeying his father; and complains that he never provided food so that he could have a party with his friends.

When both sons look at the father, all they see are his possessions and the household that he runs. Neither son sees him.

For what do we see in the father? We see a huge heart, filled with love and generosity.

  • So generous that he is ready to give away a big part of his estate to his younger son, because he loves him, even though he knew what he would do with it.
  • So loving that he caught sight of the younger son while he was still a long way off, because he had been waiting and watching for him—and that he ran to his son—all of which were actions typically considered beneath the dignity of such a man.
  • So joyful that he doesn’t even let his younger son finish his little speech about treating him as one of his hired workers; but embraces him, kisses him, and proclaims a celebration.
  • And we hear him say to his older son, “My son, you are with me always”—because that is what he desires—that his beloved sons be with him—so great is his generous, prodigal heart.

And our Lord Jesus knew well that this was the picture of his heavenly Father. For after the created universe had gone forth from the Father in the act of creation, it was meant to return to him in love and thanksgiving and praise—led by human beings since, as we have both material bodies and a rational soul, we sum it up. But instead, starting with the Fall of our first parents, we had gotten lost. And so the Father had sent forth the Son, our Lord Jesus, to find us and bring us home again: just as occurs in Jesus’ parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, which come right before this one.

For, in our sin, all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way (Isa 53:6). And the fact is that, when we depart from the will of God for our lives and our actions, though we may not know it at first, we become like the younger son in the parable: alone, abandoned, empty, and degraded. Our sin is not good for us; it is not good for anyone, including many that you know and love. When our Father calls us home; when our Lord Jesus reaches out to us; it is to bring us back to health and wholeness; it is to draw us back close to the loving heart of the Father, who perhaps we never knew before.

And so it is that, after we come to love much because we have been forgiven much (cf. Luke 7:47), and to know the love of the Father—we do not react stingily to those who are lost, like the older brother resenting the younger one, or like the Pharisees resenting the lost drawing near to Jesus. No, as St. Paul says in our second reading, we too reach out; we too spread the good news of the Father’s prodigal love. “So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

So where is the most joyful place on earth? Where do we look for joy; where do we most expect to find it? I suggest to you that the most joyful place in the world may well be the confessional. For the Father is right now waiting and watching for you, hoping to catch sight of you; and when at last you come back from the distant country and step into that place of grace, at long last he can embrace you and kiss you and lavish upon you his forgiveness and his generous love. For you were dead and have come to life again; you were lost and have been found. And as Jesus said: “there will be more joy in heaven… there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:7, 10)

Come to confession. Come to the mercy and lavish, generous love of God the Prodigal Father. Come to the most joyful place on earth.

Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.

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