The Gospel reading for this Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) is the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
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.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘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 to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps one of the most famous of Christ’s teachings. Often we forget the context of this teaching, which is that Jesus is being ridiculed by a group of tax collectors for having the gall to sit among sinners and eat with them. In fact the story of the Prodigal is perhaps more vague than the two other parables that Jesus shares but are left out of the Gospel reading (Luke 15:4-10).
The first is the parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus asks the tax collectors: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost oned until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”
Both parables effectively tell the same story, but with different words. Out of this story, there are three main points I’d like to draw out.
1. God isn’t interested in preaching to the choir: God is certainly pleased with the son who stayed with his father or the flock who sticks together. Indeed, to the son who stayed, the father says “everything I have is yours.” But there is greater rejoicing in heaven over the sinner who repents – the son who returns, the lost sheep that is found – than over the flock that stays faithful. This, of course, isn’t an invitation to stray so that God can celebrate our eventual return. But it does suggest we should focus more of our energies on restoring the flock. Christ didn’t spend all of his time sitting with his devoted followers and teaching. He went out, had dinner with sinners who hadn’t heard his teachings and talked with them. That’s where the real work needs to happen.
2. Forgive. Forgive again and again and again. Perhaps you are like me and you feel bad for the son who stays. Why should the father celebrate his other son’s return after squandering his fortune, instead of celebrating the son who always treated his father with respect? Jesus teaches us to forgive – not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22). It’s a lesson in humility, to be sure. But it is also a demonstration of God’s unconditional love. After all, God forgives us not just once – but time and time again.
3. You can always return and be welcomed. We all have times where we feel the space between us and God is an impossible chasm. This week, in my reflection on the beginnings of my vocational journey, I talked about my own time away from God and the Church. One of the reasons it took me as long to come back as it did, was that I was sure that if there was a God, He would be angry with me for doubting and for ignoring Him all this time. But like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal, he greets us with joy and celebration on our return. It’s never too late to return to the fold, and indeed, as last Sunday’s reading taught us, there’s no time like the present.
Those are my thoughts for this Sunday’s reading. I welcome yours too in the comments below! Thanks for reading.