Fourth Week of Lent
By: Bernadette Moore-Gibson
Today’s Gospel narrates one of the most quoted parables in scripture. In response to the complaint of the Pharisees and Scribes, that Jesus eats with sinners, Jesus tells a long story about the prodigal son and his forgiving father. Given the context, the major lesson is one of forgiveness. Luke’s parable is a classic story filled with a surplus of meaning. We typically reflect on it with the question of forgiveness in mind. The younger son, perhaps spoiled, is foolish and ungrateful. He crawls back home only because he is flat broke and starving. While most narrations don’t describe the younger son as an admirable character, I have wondered about the courage it must have cost him to go back home again when he had lost everything. The father’s love goes far deeper than his son’s behavior, however, and he welcomes him home with open arms. Then there is the older, obedient, hard-working son who pouts because his father throws a party for the wayward brother. Dad makes it clear he is not playing favorites: “My son…everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Relationally and spiritually it’s a challenging parable and it remains for us a profound resource for reflecting on the multifaceted theme of forgiveness: for example, the teaching and practice of Jesus, who ate with sinners and forgave his enemies; the mercy and compassion of God, who is always ready to forgive us, to wipe the slate clean, to offer new opportunities for growth; and the Christian responsibility to bring the gift of forgiveness to strained personal relationships. Luke’s classic parable, however, contains another theme that calls for further reflection. The older son, consistently dutiful to his father, is angry at the preferential treatment given to the wayward son and refuses to enter the celebration. Prodigal Son parable deals not only with the issue of forgiveness, but also with another major theme that is well named “reconciliation.” The father needs and wants a reconciled family situation. The forgiveness he generously offered to his younger son, as well as the heartfelt plea to the older son, are both part of a larger project of reconciliation, making harmonious family relationships possible. Pope Francis has recently asked this and some other very hard questions. As a Lenten practice I have read and been exploring the book, “The Name of God is Mercy”, a conversation with Andrea Tornielli and Pope Francis. Pope Francis seems determined that we are not to be a self-referential Church, a Church that sees membership not as food for the journey, but as the reward for arriving. In the New Evangelization with which this Pope is tasked, the Church must stand as a moral compass and guide to the essential narrative of the Christian faith. That essence is best expressed in the beautiful words of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son Jesus Christ, you have reconciled the world to Yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” That narrative, not our previously devised narratives, is the point of the Jubilee Year. Pope Francis is calling the Church, even defining the Church, as the place where the Holy Spirit is among us for the forgiveness of sins. The words of absolution are among the most beautiful words a human can speak or hear. I wish more people would have an experience of confession where they heard and felt the blessings of those words. They always make me feel like I have been swallowed up, with all my failings, in God’s mercy. These words ask us to consider a healing of memories that recalls the past without neglecting the good and without being overwhelmed by the negative. This is a great spiritual challenge for most of us. All forgiveness comes as a gift from God. Remembering how God has forgiven us can motivate us to share the gift of forgiveness with others. Genuine forgiveness recognizes the good in those who hurt us while refusing to identify them with their misdeeds; it also allows them to begin anew with us without confining them to their past failures. Viewed in this way, forgiveness is an essential component of the reconciliation process that seeks a more harmonious situation which reflects the love of God, the example of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new! And if (and when) we do leave God for a period of time, God patiently will look for us and wait for us until we return home! Then the celebration for us begins!
Bernadette Moore-Gibson is the Director of Pastoral Care at Old St. Patrick’s Church.