The gospel passage for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) is taken from Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tells us three parables of God’s rich mercy: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son.
The story of the prodigal son is sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Merciful Father and his Two Sons.
A common theme runs through all three stories of mercy:
- Something or someone of value is lost;
- A great, seemingly exaggerated search for what is lost takes place;
- What is lost is found; and
- The person who finds what is lost invites all to a great, joyful celebration.
Each parable is intended to show us the mind and heart of God the Father toward us, His children. These parables are particularly rich in imagery, enough for a lifetime of reflection.
For our purposes, let’s start with a very brief outline of the fall of the younger son in the third parable:
- The younger son demands that his father give him is inheritance so that he can leave home and strike out on his own. In effect, he is saying to the father, you are dead to me.
- The father acts in noble generosity toward his son and gives him a share of the family fortune.
- The younger son departs and enters a “far country”, signifying his total separation from the father.
- The younger son found himself to be an alien in a foreign land, not just physically separated from his family, but also separated from them in his interior life, as symbolized by the work he did, the life he lived and the animals he tended. A Jewish man lost in the land of Gentiles.
In this first part of this parable, you can see an image of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden because of their sin. You can also detect an image of the separation from God that we each experience when we freely and knowingly commit a mortal sin.
We can only find meaning in our lives in relation to God, so when we separate ourselves from Him, we lose our meaning; we become inauthentic.
This separation we experience when we commit mortal sin is symbolized by the phrase, “he squandered his property”.
Our persistence in a life of sin depletes us of who we are created to be and is symbolized by the phrase, “he spent everything.”
Jesus wants us to understand just how gravely this son sinned against his father and his family so that we can appreciate the richness of his father’s mercy. Those who heard Jesus tell this story were shocked to see how the father not only acceded to the son’s demand, but especially how he showed great solicitude for him.
As the parable continues, the son comes to his senses. At first, his contrition was imperfect, much like ours can be, motivated out of hunger or fear, but through the trials of his ongoing conversion, he developed a growing perfection to the sorrow he felt for his sin.
As he was returning (as his conversion was processing), his father waiting and watching for his son never stopped loving him.
Luke tells us, “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” (Luke 15:20).
Even while the son was a distance away, the father caught sight of him and rushed toward him. The merciful father is the divine image of our merciful Heavenly Father who demonstrates great solicitude of each of us, no matter how gravely we have sinned and persisted in that sin.
The prodigal son who was lost is found and a great, communal celebration ensues. At one level, this is heaven rejoicing at “one sinner who is saved.”
At another level, the feast is an image of the Eucharist that we celebrate in anticipation of the heavenly banquet.
There is so much more to explore in this parable, but I want to highlight just one more verse:
“…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’” (Luke 15:22).
- The robe symbolizes our human dignity and the grace restored to the son in his repentance and his seeking forgiveness from the merciful father.
- The ring symbolizes authority.
- The sandals symbolize that his son is a part of the family and not merely accepted back merely as a slave.
Take a moment to apply this to your own condition. At Baptism, you were restored to communion with God.
Sacramental Confessions accomplishes the same in regards to our personal, mortal sin committed after Baptism.
No longer estranged from God, the chasm is closed and the path to heaven reopened. And God does not accept us merely as servants, but as adopted sons and daughters of the Most High.
All three of the items the merciful father had placed on the person of his younger son in the parable show the dignity, purpose and responsibility of the younger son and, therefore, each of us.
God the Father does far more than to simply forgive us—that is great indeed. He also calls us to a responsibility to strive to be who He intended us to be. His loving call always requires our heartfelt response. And His grace makes it all possible.
Do you need to experience this kind of love? Do you need to be reconciled with the Father? If you’ve never been baptized, He’s waiting for you to join His family and become His Son or Daughter. If you’ve fallen away, He’s waiting for you in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Go to him and confess your sins! He’s waiting to run to you and embrace you.
Yes, this life is difficult, and we struggle. But let me leave you this encouragement from John’s Gospel…
“But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” (John 1:12-13).
That’s each one of us who have been born from above to new life in Christ through baptism. Glory awaits all who surrender their lives to the Lord and believe.
Into the deep…
A reflection on the the Parable of the Prodigal Son proclaimed during the Mass readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) — Joshua 5:9, 10-12; Psalms 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Second Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
Image credit: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (detail) by Rembrandt | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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