Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lent 4

Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Though we call it “the parable of the prodigal son”
it is really a parable about two sons.
It’s a familiar dynamic.
The younger son is the “baby” of the family
(no matter what his chronological age),
the free spirit who gets to do everything at a younger age,
who pays little attention to rules or social norms,
who presumes that the world is his oyster.
The older son is a typical older sibling:
the dutiful child who colors inside the lines,
who saves his allowance,
who does what is expected
and expects his hard work to be repaid
as a matter of justice.

The younger son displays
no particular malice toward his father,
but simply a kind of self-centered disregard
and a slavery to his own immediate desires.
His alienation from his father grows
not from any ill will toward him,
but from the fact that he can barely be bothered
to think about him at all.
It is only when the money runs out
and times get tough,
that he “comes to his senses”
and returns to his father’s ready embrace.
The older brother seems to be the dutiful son,
but he shows himself on his brother’s return
to be no less—
and possibly even more—
alienated from his father.

As the story unfolds we see
that his rule-following responsibility is rooted
not so much in love and concern for his father
as in resentment toward his brother
and a desire to be recognized—
and rewarded—
by his father as “the good one.”
His actions seem exemplary,
but they grow from a bitter soil;
he keeps such careful count of each and every slight,
calculating the rewards and penalties each is due,
that he blinds himself to his father’s generosity
and the possibility of mercy.

The parable invites us to reflect
on our own lives in relation to God.
Am I, like the younger son,
neglectful of my relationship with God?
Do I focus on my immediate desires in life
and forget the God who is the source of that life?
Do I reflect on my duties toward God?
And if I do fulfill those duties,
is this out of love for the one
who has given me my life
or is it, as with the older son,
out of a desire to set myself up
as one of “the good ones”
by casting others as “the bad ones”?
Do I treat God’s love as a zero-sum game
in which the goal is to win
as many point of divine favor as possible
and in which there are a limited number
of points to be won?
Do I think that in order to have more of God’s love
others must have less?
Do I, in my resentment
toward the mercy shown to others,
make myself unable to see the mercy
I am being freely offered,
and that I need no less than they do?

But this story is not simply a vehicle
for examining our own consciences
so that we may receive
God’s forgiveness and mercy;
it also provides an occasion for us
to reflect on our call to be,
as our second reading today puts it,
“ambassadors for Christ”:
those who have been reconciled with God
through the cross of Jesus
and who have been entrusted
with that message of reconciliation.
The official theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy
that began in December
is Misericorde sicut Pater
“merciful like the Father.”
It is a phrase not only that reminds us
that God is to us like a merciful father
but is also a call to us to be embodiments
of the mercy we have received.
How do I respond to those who, like the younger son,
treat my love thoughtlessly,
carelessly trampling on my feelings
as they pursue their own lives,
casting me aside as they pursue their dreams?
Do I, merciful like the father in the story,
welcome any tiny act of thoughtfulness,
any small gesture indicating a desire
for a restored relationship,
and run to greet them when they return?

Perhaps more challengingly, how do I respond
when I discover that someone who, like the older son,
had always done his duty in relation to me,
had been in fact been seething with resentment for years?
How do I respond to those who see
any favor, any love, any mercy
that I show to others
as something that they have been deprived of.
How do I show mercy to those who see the world
entirely in terms of who owes what to whom?

The parable does not answer
all of these questions for us,
in part because it leaves the story incomplete.
We hear of the joyful return of the younger son,
of his reconciliation with his father,
of his passage from death to new life,
but we don’t know what happens with the older son.
The father assures him of his love
and invites him to rejoice in the good news
of life’s triumph over death,
but we do not hear of the son’s response.
The younger son,
true to his passionate if thoughtless nature,
willingly enters into his father’s welcome,
while the response of the older son,
locked into calculations of justice,
remains uncertain, unresolved.
Will he be able to hear the good news
of his father’s mercy and compassion
as good news for him as well?

This story offers us a dual challenge.
Are we willing to examine our own lives
and be open to hearing the good news
of mercy and forgiveness,
even if it means that we must give up
what we imagine is due to us in justice?
And if we do hear that good news,
are we willing to share it with others,
to be ambassadors of God’s compassion
shown to us in Christ,
to be merciful like the Father,
to proclaim mercy in word and deed
even to those whose hearts
seem most closed off to it,
to trust in the power of the Gospel of mercy
to overcome even the hardest of hearts.