Today's Gospel story, traditionally known as the story of the Prodigal Son, has been re-captioned by some as the story of the Merciful Father, shifting focus from the wasteful son to the merciful father who unconditionally accepted and joyously celebrated the son's return. It is one of the most powerful parables that illustrate an important aspect of Christ's mission on earth: to reveal the heart of the Father. It becomes more powerful and appealing in this year of mercy. Let us take a brief look the characters and what they represent to us.
The Prodigal Son: Though some may say that the reason for his return is still selfish – to save himself from his present misery – it is good to acknowledge some of his characters that we sinners often lack. He has the honesty to realize and acknowledge, without any pretence, justification or excuses, the misery of leaving his Father's house. He feels nostalgia for his own home. On the contrary, some Christians today pretend to be happy and comfortable away from their Father's house, celebrating sin and misery, sometimes boasting of what they should be ashamed of (Phil. 3:19). They seem to make “gain” out of sin and relish it. The truth revealed to us by the prodigal son is that, whether we acknowledge it or not, there are only misery and sadness for those who leave the Father's house. Their fate is to feed on husks. The prodigal son represents man's greatest illusion, namely, that he can find happiness and satisfaction in anything outside God. Secondly, he does not only look at his misery to the face, he also has the wisdom and courage to apply the only remedy to this misery: return to the Father. And in going back to the Father, he stops at nothing.
The Elder Son shows us the lamentable situation of the “holy” one. He faithfully serves the Father but in selfishness, ignorance and blindness. Oh, this cursed blindness that is capable of keeping someone in hell even in the heart of paradise! His own words describe him as well as the extent of his misery: “Look, I have slaved for you all these years.” (The New Jerusalem Bible). A slave in his own Father's house! Enslaved by his attachments, he serves the Father for temporal gains and rewards. He would have been happy and contented to have a kid for a party with his friends. Little does he know the paradise he has lost, the reality of the Father's words: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” He does not know who his Father is, does not know that all that his Father has belongs to him. What wretchedness comparing a kid to all that this infinitely rich Father is and has! The pain of Christianity today is that many are serving God for temporal gains, just to be in the position to receive his “blessings.” And they measure God's goodness and the joy of serving him according to temporal wellbeing.
Again, under the same illusion of man, the elder son thinks his brother enjoyed life away from the Father's house (with his women!). Now he is accepted back without the deserved punishment. So he becomes indignant. If it is like this, what have I gained remaining faithful and missing all the “enjoyments”? Some Christians today struggle not to sin just to avoid God's anger and punishment – especially losing his favor and blessing. Like this elder son, they are afraid of the consequences of leaving home. So they stay, joylessly slaving it out. No wonder they still have an eye on the “gains” of sin and feel they are somehow missing something. They envy the sinner and are indignant that he is not punished the way they want it, after he has “enjoyed” everything!
Only in love can God be known and truly enjoyed. Thus unless man loves and serves God out of love, for who He is, he will continue to suffer the misery and wretchedness of this elder son. The paradise of the Father's house will be lost to him. His lot will remain bitterness and anger, jealousy and greed and all forms of selfishness that motivate him and manifest themselves at one point or the other.
The Merciful Father: this shows us the image of God, the Father of mercies (2Cor. 1:3), who always thirsts after the sinner, unconditionally pardons him, celebrates his return and restores him to his lost dignity. “God is always waiting for us, He never grows tired. Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so that we can regain confidence and hope — always!” (Pope Francis). The first and second readings of today help us to explore the characteristics of this merciful love of God.
The first reading begins with God's consoling words: “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” God's mercy redeems us and removes the reproach of the past, leaving no records of wrongs behind. (Col. 2:13-14)
The second reading shows us that God's mercy, revealed in Christ, makes us new creatures. “Brethren, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Stupendous! The sinner is not only pardoned, he is recreated! And we know that any renewed creation is an improvement on the old. Finally, this reading shows us not only God's merciful love and its effects but also its demand on us. God did not only reconcile us to himself through Christ, he “gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” the ministry of mercy. The vocation of every Christian is not to end up with the prodigal son or the elder brother but the merciful father, capable of merciful love towards all. This captures the theme of this year of mercy: Merciful like the Father. In the words of the Supreme Pontiff, “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us.”
Today is Laetare Sunday, the name given to the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It is taken from the Sunday's Latin entrance antiphon, "Laetare, Jerusalem" which means Rejoice Jerusalem. This consoling text is from Isaiah 66:10-11. Lessening briefly the austerity and rigors of Lent, the Church invites her children, who are weighed down by their sins, to look up with hope and joy to Easter, now in sight. The Christian is called to consolation and to rejoice in the ultimate victory to be won. Our Lenten observances are aimed to help us participate in this Easter victory won by Christ and we are invited to refocus the intention for those observances accordingly. Today flowers may be used and rose vestments are allowed instead of purple.