HOMILY FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT YEAR C (MARCH 6)
February 27, 2016
Note: Bishop Ron is ill and this will be a repeat of a past homily.
All of the readings today are so rich that it would take hours to comment on everything so I will limit my remarks today totally to the Gospel. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that today’s story of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known of Jesus’ parables and one of the most loved. I think part of this is due to the archetypal familiarity that all of us have with the family – family problems, family rivalries, family strife. In my own family, I can remember my grandmother who had a special love for her absent son – a bit of a black sheep and a scoundrel, in some ways – but who always seemed to come first in my grandmother’s thoughts – while the son nearby (my father), who took care of her on a daily basis and did everything for her, seemed to be ignored. The way my father handled it was very different from the brother in the Prodigal Son story, however. But that might best be left for a different homily.
The context of this parable was the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them. If you remember, the Pharisees were the ones who were fundamentalist Jews – who preached close attention to the Torah and Law. Obviously then, if Jesus used this story in this context, it must have something to do with God and the Hebrews and God’s law. This story is Jesus’ justification for doing what he is doing – eating with sinners.
Besides the context of why Jesus was telling the story, I also want to put the story into the context of the times in which Jesus told the story, the cultural context. It was unusual but not unheard of that a father would give his property, his inheritance, before he had died. But, this father did. Note that he divided the property between the two brothers. It was to be expected that the father would still be able to live off the profits of the land. But, both brothers received property. The older son did not object or try to change his brother’s mind, but apparently goes along with this arrangement.
The people of Jesus’ time would have known that the first son acted badly, almost wishing his father dead. This would have been shocking to the people of Jesus’ time, as was the fact that the father even agreed to it. Even more, in this culture family was all important for survival, so to leave the family would be a huge break in the social values of the time. Why did the father agree? As well, In Mediterranean eyes, this would mean a relinquishing of the father’s power and status. Perhaps the father wanted to avoid a conflict between the two sons after his death.
Then the younger son compounds the problem, first by selling off the land, and then by losing it through gambling perhaps, or through other such sinful pleasures. Property was all important to Hebrews of this period. God’s covenant was all about land – the promise of a land of milk and honey. There were Biblical rules about it even. If someone was forced to sell land through poverty, Leviticus says a relative should buy it and keep it until it can be bought back again. Land was all important. How awful and shameful then was the younger son’s selling off the land!
When the famine comes and he is starving, the younger son tries to find a wealthy Gentile patron, and when he does he is assigned the most menial of jobs, especially for a Jew – the care and feeding of pigs. He can only dream of eating the scraps of the pigs and even though he might have been entitled to eat the slaughtered pigs, Jews could not do that.
Hunger can be a strong motivator, and so it was for the younger son. He sees more clearly what he has done. When he says “I have sinned against heaven and against you”, that is, his father, he means that he has brought dishonor to the family and would now be unable to support his father in his old age.
But he is clever and comes up with a solution, albeit a solution which will make him almost an outcast in the eyes of his neighbors. He will come back and become a “hired servant” and in this way be able to pay back his father by taking care of him in his old age. But was he repentant, or was this the hunger talking? Nowhere in his words do we sense that he was truly sorry for what he did to his father; he was only sorry because he was starving.
Then there is an amazing twist to the story. In the time this was written, a father who had a son who did this would have torn his garments and disowned his son for what he had done. But not this father! He wanted his son back. He loved him, was looking for him and was the first to see him. He throws away his dignity and runs to greet the son, kisses him and throws his arms around him, thus protecting him from the insults of the neighbors and family. Then the father dismisses the idea that he be a common worker or slave and he gives him gifts that symbolize setting a person apart and giving him authority. The father gives a feast, not just for the son, but to reconcile the son with the family and neighbors, who by coming to the feast would be saying that they have accepted him back into the community of family and neighbors.
The reconciliation that takes place here, I want you to note, is not the result of the son, although the son, at least, came home. It is through the impetus of the father that real reconciliation takes place. Reconciliation, Jesus says, does not come about because a sinner comes back and tries to make reparation, but it is the sinner’s willingness to accept the gifts and love of the Father which is given freely and spares no cost.
Such a happy ending to the story. Except it does not end here.
When the father gives the party for the son to reconcile him to the family and community, the older son does not come. He becomes very angry and even refuses to come into the house. Note what the father does again. The father leaves the party and seeks out the older son who should have been with his father and helping host the celebration. The older son is very jealous, but like the younger brother he has seen himself as more of a slave to the father. His jealousy and anger are shown with words like “this son of yours” instead of ‘my brother’, and accusations like “devoured up your property with prostitutes”. He too cannot accept the generosity of his father.
As he did with his younger son, the father goes out to the older son and tries to help him in his lost state. Unlike the typical father of the period who rules with an iron fist and would not dream of ordering a son to do something that he was obliged to do, this father pleads with his son. He starts by calling him “Son”, which contrasts with the feeling the son has that he has always been a slave to the father. In the father’s words “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”, he shows that the boy has always had the offer of love and sonship. It is the son who has structured his world in such a way as to see things differently, perhaps through jealousy and anger.
And here the story ends. Did the older brother reconcile himself to the father? Did he reconcile himself with his brother? Did he become part of the community again? Jesus leaves that to us to figure out as we apply the story to our own lives.
On the level of context, Jesus was telling this story as a parable or metaphor to explain that the Pharisees needed to be more like the father. They needed to be more forgiving in order to bring about repentance. The people at table with Jesus were the sinners, the Pharisees were the older brother. Jesus, like the father in the parable, was welcoming back the sinner and reconciling them to the community.
In our own lives, however, I would like to suggest that we are like the older brother. We come to church faithfully each week, do what is expected of us, and are maybe a bit jealous of those who get away with things, don’t come to church and seem to get by all right. We have tried to be good all our lives, and does it seem fair that someone who has partied all his or her life, but then comes back to the church, gets the same love and affection from God. We have to be aware that the father loves us, and that like the father, he is here with us always and all he has is ours. Keep those words in mind. Do we recognize or acknowledge that? If we don’t, then we too need to reconcile ourselves with God and the community.
Lastly, we need to stop judging people. The father’s acceptance of the prodigal son left no room for judgment. When we ostracize people because in some way we don’t feel they are as good as we are or don’t deserve it – our attitudes to race, to sexual orientation, to poverty, to those whose jobs are unacceptable to us – we are not being like the father that Jesus talks about – who simply rejoices in the return and the fact that his child is back again.
Lent is the time for that reconciliation, the church is saying. This is the time that we need to pray and think about our relationship with God and not put blocks in the way of that relationship. This is the time to think about our relationships in general and to get relationships that may have deteriorated back into line. The restoration of a relationship does not depend on them coming back to you, but on you being accepting and reaching out to them – running to greet them as the father did. This week think about both your relationship with God and your relationships with others. And if there is a weakness there, try to reach out and do somethin about it.
And this is the Good News of the Parable Jesus taught today!
Fr. Ron Stephens, St. Andrew’s Parish, Warrenton VA