On the 4th Sunday of Lent we hear a familiar Gospel story. We know it as “the prodigal son”, but some people think it is a case of “like father, like son”, because the father in this story is generous to a fault. However, there are two sons in the story: the one who took his inheritance and went away, and the one who stayed at home working for his father. We could perhaps find ourselves leaning toward the second son, and thinking that maybe he was hard done by – after all, he was the good boy, not like his brother! There’s no doubt the younger son disrespectful towards his father and wasteful in his ways. To an observant Jew it was good enough for him that he ended up feeding pigs – animals that were considered unclean and unfit to eat. Yet look at the rapturous welcome he gets from his father. The father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. When the son started his prepared speech, the father cut across him and started giving orders for a party.
Who was listening to this story? Two very different groups: tax collectors and sinners in one, and Pharisees in the other. The Pharisees obeyed all of the Jewish religious laws very strictly and called anyone who didn’t a sinner, and they complained about Jesus: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”. So this story was good news for the tax collectors and sinners, who could see themselves in the younger son, but bad news for the Pharisees, who were represented by the older one. We know that the father was unusually generous: even his father’s servants had more food than they wanted. Like his father, the younger son didn’t count the cost, and when it came to faith in his father, there was no limit to that either. He trusted him completely and was ready to throw himself on his mercy, believing that all would be well. The older son, by contrast, lacked the father’s generous spirit and wanted justice: we can imagine his speech to his father – “I’ve been good, so I deserve to be rewarded”.
This Lent, in the Year of Mercy, let’s not doubt or have any fear about the reception we will get when we turn to God. He is our loving and generous father, longing to see us coming so that he can celebrate with us whether we think we deserve or not.
Sr Catherine Gibson O.P.