Fourth Sunday of Lent, 31st March

Luke 15:1–3, 11–32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were
coming near to listen to him.  And the
Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes
sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: . . .

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had
two sons.  The younger of them said to
his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered
all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property
in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place
throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired
himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields
to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the
pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he
said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but
here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to
him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer
worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he
set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw
him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and
kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and
before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said
to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a
ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill
it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive
again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and
when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called
one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has
come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back
safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out
and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these
years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your
command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might
celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has
devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then
the father[e] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine
is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours
was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


familiar parable told by Jesus in our Gospel reading today refuted the
Pharisees’ objection to Jesus’ friendliness with sinners. The Pharisees and
Scribes were a minority among the Jews at the time of Jesus. They were the
self-appointed leaders of religious thought in Palestine. They kept the Mosaic
law strictly, in fact too strictly, and were so proud of their strict
observance that they despised all the other Jews for not behaving as they did.
Externally they kept the law that God had given to Moses, but in their hearts
they gloried in themselves rather than in God.

they were so proud of their observance of the laws, they were blind to the
infinite mercy of God, the Father of saint and sinner, is brought our very
clearly in the story of the younger son. Even though he abandoned his father,
the father did not abandon him. The father’s mercy was big enough and generous
enough to forgive and forget. His love for his son was strong enough to smother
any feelings of personal resentment. His son’s return, humble and chastened,
blotted out all his past faults and failures. It was surely an occasion for
general rejoicing.

the Pharisees fail to see that the father in that story was God and the wayward
son the sinners with whom Jesus was associating? That the elder son who had
stayed with his father looking after the part of the property given to him
represented themselves, must have been evident to them too. They were faithful
to God and to his law in most ways even if not from completely unselfish
motives. But their lack of charity, especially their lack of interest in their
fellow-men and the pride they took in their own strict observance, vitiated all
their otherwise good deeds. They were the elder sons, they were still nominally
God’s chosen people. But their place was about to be taken by the younger son,
by the sinners and publicans, by the Gentiles they so despised.

must have seen the point of the story and the message Jesus had in it for them.
Yet they failed to learn its lesson. They remained obdurate in their pride and
refused to accept Jesus as the Christ and his salvation.

For the
vast majority of us Christians, our message of consolation and hope is in the
first part of today’s parable. All of us have, many a time, been prodigal,
ungrateful, selfish sons and daughters of our loving Father. But he is still a
Father of infinite love, of boundless mercy. He is not only waiting for us to
return, like the human father in the story. He is continually sending our
messengers to recall us and to help us on the return journey.

Like the
prodigal in the story, we may have squandered the gifts that our heavenly
father gave us. We may have abused our freedom and broken his laws. We may have
descended to the deepest depths of degradation. We may now feel torn and
tattered, but we should never forget that our loving, merciful Father is
waiting for us with open arms to welcome us back the moment we come to
ourselves and decide to return. Until we have drawn our last breath on earth,
the mercy of God and his pardon are there for our asking. Amen.