This 4th Sunday of Lent we hear one of the most beautiful and moving of Jesus’ parables. (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32) It is a story that touches the heart of every person. It expresses something that is part of the human experience. All our relationships are marked in some way by this story – a story of disappointment with self, of self-righteous resentment and of abundant, healing, unconditional love.
The parable of the “Prodigal Son”, sometimes called the parable of the “Prodigal Parent” is one in which we find ourselves identified. Luke tells it as Jesus’ response to the scribes and the Pharisees who were criticizing him for his willingness to reach out with openness to all, even those who were seen as most undeserving. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” For Luke and his community in early Christianity the story focused on the religious elites of their day. For us, perhaps it has an even fuller meaning – both personal and communal as church.
The story of the “Prodigal Son” has three characters, the younger son, the older son and the father. Each of these persons is us. Each of them presents some aspect of our own personal experience and each of them presents to us both a challenge and a consolation. As well each of the persons expresses something very close to our communal or our church experience, with its challenges and consolations. The younger son is us. The older son is us. The loving parent is us.
The younger son, after receiving all of his inheritance from his loving parent, leaves home and squanders what he has received. He wants to return home but he is obsessed by guilt and cannot allow himself to return forgiven. His failures and sin pose a barrier to his home-coming. He is unable to see that his father loves him. The challenge he has is that he cannot “let go” of his past, his sin. It blocks his capacity for full reconciliation and joy. To “let go” of sin and failure means we can remember, without identifying with it. This allows for compassion and joy to be experienced. This son had a struggle.
The older son faced a different challenge. So intent was he on doing the “right thing” that he had come to behave more as a slave of his loving parent than as a son. He kept all the rules, he worked for the father and spent his energies in what he saw as the father’s commands. But he was filled with resentment and this boiled over when the father welcomed home the younger son. This older son could not see the relationship of love that bound the father to both his sons. He could not see that his father’s love was an unconditional gift, not an earned or merited love. His resentment blocked all hope of compassion and joy for him. The older son had a struggle.
The father in this story faced the challenge of freely giving love and compassion in a setting where it was deeply needed. For him compassion and joy was overflowing, but he faced one son who seem incapable or accepting this gift and another son who could not understand it. The father had a struggle.
Jesus’ parable is truly the story of us all – as persons and as church. It is a challenge, but challenge we must face, personally and as church. We have a struggle, but Lent offers us an opportunity to transform.