Saturday of the Second Week of Lent
Micah 7:14-15, 18-20
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The first reading, from the prophet Micah, is his reminder to Judah that God will be faithful to the covenant made between God and Abraham, and renewed in God’s faithfulness to Isaac and Jacob. This covenant includes the promise of forgiveness from the sins committed in Micah’s generation, when the abuse of money and riches led to a corruption of ritual and honesty among the Judean inhabitants around Jerusalem.
And then comes the Gospel, with Luke’s richly dramatized account of the "prodigal son". There is probably no more easily recognized story from the New Testament, if we put the Infancy Narratives and the Passion accounts in a separate ranking. Now, during the Lenten season, when parishes hold their accustomed "Penance Services", this is the scripture reading that is most likely to be chosen for reading to the assembly.
It is a story that highlights the foolishness of sin, more than the evil intent that also stirs the heart to sin. In this account, the second son is presented as a foolish adolescent who has big dreams of making it in the world. He is a self-centered and impatient young man who fails to appreciate how much he has benefited from his father’s largesse.
When the world of his dreams, which he thought would spring into being by his foolish spending on luxuries and loose-living, comes crashing down around him, he collapses into a confrontation with his own self. He starts talking to himself, he tells himself what anyone could have told him when he embarked on his spending binge. Coming to his senses he thought,‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.’
"Coming to his senses." He was acting foolishly, but he realized that by acknowledging his foolishness, he could get back the roof over his head at his father’s house, even though he would not ask for anything more than to be considered one of the servants.
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
The narrative now takes a different tack. We have followed the fate of the second son. He has rehearsed his petition for pardon from his father. But now the father steps to the fore. He was filled with compassion.
Because of that compassion, even the "bargain" rehearsed by the son, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son;treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers, does not get uttered….His father cuts him off in mid-sentence. His father changes the tone of the encounter. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;he was lost, and has been found.
So often when we re-read this beautiful story of compassion, we hear the events re-told. Think for a minute of the words the son and his father exchange: "Father, I have sinned…." and "this son of mine was dead…." The son would have accepted to be let back under his father’s roof as a servant, but the father’s love for his son is not to be bartered for a relationship based on a penitent remorse. The father cannot not love his son.
This is the exact opposite of the older son’s attitude toward both his father and his brother. The older son, called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him,‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf…’.
Even the servants can see the overflow of love between father and second son. It is the very thing that drives the older brother to protest: 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.
Curiously, it was the second son who thought he could win his father’s love by asking to be treated only like a servant. But it is the older son who actually makes the comparison in his cause: "all these years I served you, and not once did I disobey your orders…." He has been as good a servant as possible. And he also wanted to be rewarded for this servant’s loyalty, "a young goat to feast on with my friends."
Even more tellingly, when this older son tries to plead his cause, he can’t even bring himself to acknowledge his father and brother as such. His choice of words says so much: "But when your son returns…." He can’t can even say "my brother".
It is a true story of God’s love for us and a model of what our love should be for God. It is a relationship rooted on God’s parental love and our filial response. However, it also means that we are brothers and sisters to one another. Without that relationship with one another, we harbor a selfishness and a pettiness that will keep us from appreciating the gift of compassion that God shares with all of us here on God’s earth.
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Missions for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.