It is always good to recommit ourselves during Lent; we are half way now and some people are already worn out with their prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and others have not done anything substantial yet. Whether you have done much or not done anything at all, today is a time for us to recommit ourselves for the preparation for Easter.
Today is called Laetare Sunday; “Laetare” is a Latin word that means rejoice, because there is something joyful that gives us hope and a burst of energy as we heard toward Easter. Let us look at the readings and see how they make us joyful.
Lent is a 40 day retreat and the readings are lessons in basic Christian virtue. You want to learn how to be Christian read the readings from scripture especially Sunday’s. In today’s Gospel is one of the most important lessons of being Christians: it is the story of the prodigal Father. We usually say “prodigal son.” “Prodigal” means woefully extravagant, to be woefully extravagant. If someone say you are prodigal you are woefully extravagant in whatever you do. Woefully is a big word and extravagant means really big. So is the really big person here. It is not the son – he is a really big sinner, but that is not extravagant; to be a sinner is kind of narrow. The father is prodigal – he is extraordinarily forgiving, and that is what this story is all about.
I have always had a problem with authority but it is not a rebellion against authority. My problem is I wanted those in authority to like me and to say I am a great person to coach or a great student or, in the priesthood, to say I am holy; I wanted to be admired by those in authority. I liked to be admired by authority but I do not want to be to close to authority because I like to be admired from afar and to be admired you have to keep your distance; but if you want to be loved, you have to be up close.
Jesus tells this story to those who are self-righteous, those who think of themselves as better than others. Some of us may be in that group. Jesus tells us of a man who had two sons and the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me a share of your estate that should come to me.” When do we get our estate from our parents? When they die. So the younger son is saying to his father, drop dead! I do not care if you are alive or dead, I just want what I want, even if it means you are dead. It is a very serious thing for a son to say to his parent. The father gave him the money and he went to a foreign land and he spent all the money on a wild life and it is all gone. And then there is a famine.
Do you know what a famine is? The reason I am asking this and people do not know what the word famine means. Some do not know what swine is, and both of these are significant to the message Jesus is telling us. Famine means no food and swine means pigs. There is a famine and the young man does not have a job and no money, so the only place he can work is a pig farm, feeding the pigs the pods they were eating. And he wished he had some. Now you know the Jews do not eat pork. So for a Jew to have a job in a pig farm is falling as low as you can fall. This man betrayed God, his father, and now he is working with the pigs. Jesus tells us he finally comes to his senses. Now when he comes to his senses, he does not feel bad about what he did. He just wants a better life. It is a natural sense not a supernatural sense. It is not because he feels so bad about how he treated his father or that he loves him wants to go back. He wants to go back because he is starving to death. I sometimes go to confession not because I am so sorry for my sins, but I just do not want to go to hell. Our consolation is that this is enough! “I do not want to starve” is enough for the Father to take his son back. “I do not want to go to hell” is enough for the Father to take us back as well.
The Father takes his son back and overreacts – he runs to the son when he is a long way off. In ancient Jerusalem, you do not run anywhere, especially if you are the elderly patriarch. The son should come to him, but the father runs and embraces Him and kisses him – this son who has been living with pigs! He gives him the best robe and the symbol of authority, the ring on his finger, and the seal of the fathers house and he is reinstituted as a member of the family. He is also given sandals, which means he is not stuck there: “If you want to go, you can go; you have sandals on your feet”. He calls for the fatted calf to be prepared for a celebration and the son says, “I have sinned against heaven and against you and I do not deserve to be called your son; I deserve to be treated like a slave.” Does the Father let him be treated like a slave? He does not. He celebrates his return to his senses.
Now the eldest son comes in and finds outs his brother who he thought was dead is alive and he becomes angry and stays outside and does not come to the party. The father leaves to beg his eldest son to join the celebration. But the son says, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and you have not even given me a young goat! I have done everything you asked and you have never celebrated with me.” He is mad.
So we see there are two ways we can live so we do not need God. The younger son lives a life so bad that he does not need God. The older son lived a life so good that he does not need God. Sometimes, we live so good so we do not really need God. The Father said you are my son and everything I have is yours. The son saw it differently; he saw it as a slavery. He did not receive the admiration he wanted. That can be the problem: we live like slaves, hoping for admiration from afar. But we are meant to be sons.
How often has your desire to be admired kept you from the love of the Father? How many times have you fallen into the trap of desiring to look good for others, or even to ourselves, so that you do not rely every day on God’s grace? How often have you wished you did not have to struggle with this sin, or wish you were good enough to live independently and be admired. But we should want to be loved by God, and not admired.
Maybe you subtly think: “I will be a saint someday and I want the priest to admire me.” It can be really embarrassing to go to the sacrament of confession and confess the same things over and over again, and be forced to admit that we are not worthy of admiration. The confessional is where the desire to be admired by the Father and by others goes to die. When we allow it to die, we finally grow close to God. We stop living like a slave when we admit that we need a Father in heaven, we need God’s grace.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy reminds us that God is waiting for us with open arms, just like the father of the prodigal son. You have a Father in heaven that desires to embrace you in the sacrament of confession and there is no sin – no sin! – too big for the mercy of God. We do not have to live anymore as slaves because we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” So let us rest in the truth that God forgives always, and let us never tire of asking for forgiveness.
Pray now that you are able to accept that God is your Father. You may have been a slave for Him, but He does not want you to be slave; He wants you to be His child. It is your Father in heaven who has brought you here because he desires to be one with you in your lives, as a Father with His children.