The 4th Sunday of Lent–The Return of the Prodigal Son

4th Sunday of Lent

Have you ever heard the expression “no good deed goes unpunished”?  Yesterday  morning I was on my way to Saint Bernadette to do a communion service.  I was almost there when I came up on a minor traffic tie-up.  There was one car each way stopped in the middle of a block.  The reason they were stopped was because there was a dog standing in the middle of the street.


He was a big, black, bear-looking beast and he was obviously confused.  He was trailing a very long leash and it looked like he had gotten loose from being tied up.  The driver ahead of me went on when the dog had gotten out of his way but the lady coming toward me got out of her car to try to corral the critter.  I turned on my flashers and got out to help her.


She managed to stand on the leash and was trying to reel in the dog, but he was too big and strong for her.  I walked up to him and held out my hand for him to sniff, hoping he would calm down and let us see if he had a tag.  Instead of sniffing, he tried to take my hand off.  He was scared and confused and wasn’t about to let this stranger get close to him.


So, we decided it would be best to tie the animal to a tree in hopes that his owner would find him.  An hour later, when I left church he wasn’t where we had left him so I’m guessing that his owner did find him.  I pulled my hand away before he had time to bite me and apparently his owner found him and took him home.  Everybody was happy.


It made me think about life, particularly life as a Catholic Christian.  How often do we try to help others, especially when it comes to their relationship with God, and end up getting bitten?  Maybe you have a friend or family member who’s fallen away from the Church.  You gently try to steer them back and end up getting snapped at.  Your help isn’t wanted or appreciated.  They’re like that big, black, fuzzy dog.  They know they have a problem.  Something is missing.  But because of fear, or confusion, or guilt, they don’t want to be led back home.


Evan worse, in Father’s and my vocations, we have an obligation to help people find their way home.  We’re supposed to be evangelists.  It’s our job to offer help to those who need it.  But sometimes people just don’t want to hear what we’ve got to say.  They don’t want us to rock their spiritual boat, even if we see that it’s about to run aground.


That brings us to today’s Gospel, the story of the return of the Prodigal Son.  In this case, the returning son is more than happy to accept his father’s help, but it’s the other son who’s the problem.  The prodigal son has squandered his half of the inheritance on wine, women, and song while his brother has stayed at home, doing what he’s supposed to do.  It’s not hard to see why he’s jealous and resentful that dad is so excited about his missing son’s return.  Look at what he says, “‘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.”


The thing that makes this parable so powerful is that we can see ourselves in it.  There are three characters; the father, the prodigal son, and the son who stayed home.  Depending on where you are in your spiritual life, you may identify with any of the three.  In fact, you may find parts of yourself in all three characters.


prodigal son bookIn 1992, Henri Nouwen wrote a book called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”  His inspiration was Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.  Rembrandt was fascinated by this story and actually painted several pictures based on it.  As a young man his painting was from the perspective of the returning son.  You could see the son’s face but not the father’s.  Later in life he did the more famous painting, the one on the cover of the book.  This time the focus is on the father.  You see his face but only the son’s back.


The son is on his knees, with his face buried in his father’s chest.  Dad has his hands on the young man’s shoulders, welcoming him home.  The boy is dressed in dirty rags and he has only one shoe.  You can’t help but see God in the father’s face.  The other son stands off at a distance.


The original painting is in Russia and Nouwen managed to pull some strings and actually got to spend several hours alone in front of it.  Rembrandt was a pretty talented guy and we can only imagine the detail and the nuances of his work.  This tiny reproduction on the cover of the book is a poor representation of what it really looks like.  It’s pretty clear that Nowen’s life was changed forever after he saw the original work.


One of the most important parts of the story is one that you and I could miss entirely.  Those of us who are parents can relate to our kids needing money.  They come to us and we help them out, not knowing if we’ll ever be paid back.  But we’re parents and we do what we can.


In Biblical times, things were very different.  Here’s how Nouwen describes it: “The evangelist Luke tells it so simply and so matter-of-factly that it is difficult to realize fully that what is happening here is an unheard-of event:  hurtful, offensive, and in radical contradiction to the most venerated tradition of his time.”

Then he quotes Kenneth Baily, who did an in-depth study of the story:

“For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living.  The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:

Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?


Could anyone ever make such a request?


If anyone ever did, what would happen?

His father would beat him, of course!


The request means he wants his father to die!”


I wonder if you or I would have the compassion to forgive something like that.  Not only did the father forgive him, he threw a party when he returned!


Of course, the lesson for us is a simple one.  No matter what we do; no matter how many times we turn our backs on God; no matter how many times we wish He would just go away and leave us alone, when we do come back, He’s there waiting for us with open arms.


The opposite side of that coin is that, as parents, we should forgive our children, no matter what, just as God forgives us.  And it’s not just about our children.  In a few minutes we’ll all ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  We’ll actually ask God to limit His forgiveness, treating us as we treat every one else.  That’s a little scary.


And, we can’t ignore the older son.  We can see ourselves in him too.  How often are we resentful of someone who gets ahead of us even though we’ve been around longer, worked harder, and think we deserve it more than they do.


As we speak, 115 Cardinals are gathered in Rome.  On Tuesday they’ll be sequestered in the Sistene Chapel.  One of them will emerge as Pope.  114 of them won’t.  These are the Princes of the Church, the holiest of holy men.  But some of them will feel slighted.  They’re human and Satan tries his best to tempt them.  Some of them are older than the man who will be selected.  Some of them probably have more experience.  But the Holy Spirit will lead them to chose the right man.  He always has and He always will.


Today’s Gospel is very appropriate for them to consider as they go about the business of selecting the man who will lead our Church.  It’s also appropriate for  us as we begin the final two weeks of Lent.  Think about which character or characters you are in this story.


Are you repentant like the younger son.  Are you resentful and jealous like the older son.  Or are you forgiving like the father.  Chances are you’re a combination of the three.  Pray that God will give you the grace to be more like the father and the prodigal son.  Our repentance will lead to God’s forgiveness.  Jealousy and bitterness will get us nowhere.


Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.  The word means “rejoice”.  As we begin this week, let’s all rejoice in the fact that we have a loving, forgiving God.  This afternoon we’ll celebrate the crowning of the Infant Jesus.  It’s a joyful occasion.  It reminds us that God chose to become one of us to save us from our sins.  If that’s not a reason to rejoice, I don’t know what is.


If you can’t be with us this afternoon, please take a moment around 4 o’clock to say a prayer of thanks for all the blessings you have received in your life.  Our prayer to the Infant, which we say after every mass, ends with these words, “That with Thee and with Mary and Joseph I’ll be, sharing joys that will last through eternity.”  Amen


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