March 6, 2016

Lent 4 Year C

The story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel teaches us something important about God and God’s love for us.

A man with two sons is rejected by each of them, but the father forgives each son in turn. One day the younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. Now an inheritance normally comes after the head of the household has died. And the older son generally got first choice on the estate. So this younger son not only sees his father as already dead, but his brother too. Strangely enough, the father goes ahead and gives the son his share of the inheritance.

People who hear about what the younger son has done are scandalized. They find his behavior utterly disgraceful and the father's acquiescence utterly inexplicable. The old man must be losing his marbles. The neighbors think. The elder son remains silent, but inside is aflame with rage.

The younger son takes his money and flees. In a distant land, he goes through his money quickly, living a disgraceful life. He runs out of money, a famine strikes the countryside, and this one-time spoiled rich kid finds himself working as the lowliest of farm hands, slopping the hogs. Carob pods are what these pigs eat, and the boy is hungry enough to down a few himself. Remember that when Jesus tells this story, he is talking to a Jewish audience. Jews avoid any association with pigs, and here Rabbi Jesus talks about a wayward jewish man who is reduced to serving pigs their dinner.

Finally, a light goes on in this young man's mind. He's figured a way out of the pigpen. He'll go back to the family farm. It won't be home any more, but he'll get a job there, and he won't be close to starving as he is now. This realization is not true repentance. It is calculation, problem-solving. Going back from where he came from will mean a full stomach. There's no clue yet that he's concerned about his hungry heart. So off the boy goes, crafting a smooth speech as he walks along. He manipulated his father once; maybe he can do so again.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, the father has been keeping an eye on the horizon. He has been doing so since the day the boy left. But now he sees a figure that looks familiar. It's his son! What matters to the old man is that his boy is back. Why he's back, what his motives may be simply doesn't enter the father's mind. And so he does something that an old man in his society is unlikely to do. He runs down the driveway in the direction of his son. The old man is close to tears. He grabs the boy in a bear hug and plants a big kiss on his cheek. The son doesn't get the chance to complete his smooth speech.

The father yells to one servant for the best suit in the closet, shiny black dress shoes, and a ring so flashy it would put a Mafioso to shame.

He tells another servant to slaughter and prepare the calf they've been fattening. The welcome home dinner will not be some small family affair, instead, it will be a party for the whole town. Roast the calf, but don't expect to have leftovers. Soon the house rocks with music and dancing and the smell of roasting meet.

Jesus has no more overt way than this to tell us we are forgiven when we play the part of the younger son. When our behavior is scandalous and our repentance less than perfect, there still is this mighty welcome home. Our sin is never greater than God’s love.

But sometimes our poisonous behavior does not resemble what the younger son does. Sometimes we defect in place. We look righteous, act righteous, feel righteous. But inside, our heart is a cesspool of resentment. We hate anybody who seems to get away with anything. We hate the father who shows concern and compassion for them. In such a case, we do not travel, yet end up in a place of profound alienation.

Such is the case with the older son in the parable. He's hard working, responsible, upright, but he's also bitter and spiteful. His soul is dry and hard.

Having worked longer than anybody else that day, he finally comes in from the fields. The house is alive with music and the sound of people dancing, and he doesn't know why. He finds out from a servant: "Your brother's back, and your father's putting on the party of the century to welcome him home. Hurry on in, while there's still something left from the calf we roasted!"

The older brother looks like a boiler about to explode. His father hears about this, runs outside, and pleads for him to come in. The older son lets loose. "Listen!" he screams disrespectfully, "I've worked like a slave for you, and you've never thrown me a party. But when this son of yours comes back, after blowing your money, you give him the party to end all parties!"

"My boy," the father responds affectionately, "you're always with me. Everything I have left belongs to you. But your dead brother is back. Your lost brother has turned up safe and sound. It's right to celebrate and rejoice. Come in and join the party."

Jesus has no more overt way to tell us that when we take the older son's part, we are still forgiven. When our heart turns cold as ice, when our eye looks hard with judgment, when we withdraw because mercy disgusts us, still we are invited back into the house. Our highhandedness cannot outreach divine mercy.

It is disconcerting to find in ourselves the younger son, the older son, each in desperate need of the new life that comes with his father's mercy.

––That mercy bears fruit when we accept forgiveness of ourselves.

––That mercy bears fruit when we forgive others as we have been forgiven, when we welcome others as we have been welcomed.

We are made to feel at home at a party that lives through eternity, an event so great we don't want to miss it and we don't want anyone else to miss it either. And so we walk through the door of God’s forgiveness in Christ and we come to the table to celebrate.