4th Sun Lent [C] 2016

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3,11-32

There are three characters that in this parable Jesus is asking us to examine. Actually, Jesus is presenting them to us so that we might take a look at our selves in them. How does each one of these characters mirror us, reflect back to us our attitudes and our condition relative to God? Parables invite us to enter into the actors and see ourselves in them.

The first is the younger son. It’s important for us to pay attention to his fundamental condition in which we must see ourselves. The first thing to see is his radical departure from God our Father. When he asks for his inheritance, he isn’t just asking for a big sum of money. He is in effect saying to his father: “I’m treating you as if you’re dead. And I want to get now what I’m supposed to receive after you’re dead.”

How many people do you know who live and act as if God is dead… as if God may as well be dead? Or how often have we had an “attitude” toward God that was awfully close to that? It’s an attitude in which they have in effect said to God: “Drop dead. I’m getting on with what I can get out of life as if you don’t even exist.” If we’re honest, we should admit that we have had moments of total disregard for God and treated Him as if He doesn’t exist, as if He were dead.

The second thing we need to see is that when we walk away from God, while at the same time taking everything we can get from Him, we end up in the slop with the pigs. Not only that but we end up in a state of spiritual poverty… with an unrelieved hunger in our souls that all of the pleasures of this world cannot satisfy, no matter how much we have filled our appetites to the full with what the pigs eat, no matter how much we have wallowed in their slop.

Finally, in order to enter into recovery and overcome our bloated addictions to the drugging effect of this world’s narcosis, we must admit that we were wrong. This is the hardest thing in the world for many of our contemporaries to do. Countless numbers of people simply cannot admit that they’ve done anything wrong. And if they begin to suspect that they’re wrong, they redefine what they’ve done and present it in a way that’s not sinful. In other words, they define sin away, redefine reality, and cast their attitudes in new ways such that they don’t need to admit they’re wrong. The Imperial Self can never be wrong!

It’s called denial; all addicted people live in denial the way pigs live in slop. They simply tell themselves that the slop smells like perfume and anyone who says that it is slop is an idiot and a fool.

In today’s parable this younger son somehow came to his senses and began to recognize the truth. It was then, and only then, that he was able to come back into touch with reality and recognize (1), that he could trust his father to forgive him, and (2), that he needed to go and openly admit to his father that he was wrong and ask for his father’s forgiveness. This required humility . . . along with faith, hope, and courage. It required a radical overthrow of his previously held attitudes and convictions. It also required that he would have to overcome his Imperial Self’s denial and surrender; he would have reject his own independence and accept dependence upon his father’s love.

Do you realize all of this is required to make a good confession? Perhaps that’s why not many people go to confession these days. Too many people are looking for cheap grace. Too many people are looking for a cheap and easy way of tossing off a superficial “I’m sorry” to God so that then they can return to their old ways — ways which in effect treat God’s love so cheaply that they might as well tell God to drop dead, that maybe they’ll pay more attention to Him when they die.

Next, we need to pay attention to the elder brother, the one whose righteousness was cold, hard, and even bitter. Like many of the Pharisees who knew Jesus, they resented the generosity of God’s love as it was manifested in the life and attitudes of Jesus. They resented his generosity in forgiving sinners.

But what we should note is that Jesus only forgave those who were truly penitent, those who genuinely admitted that they needed to trust God’s merciful forgiveness, those who overcame their independence, overcame their denial and then surrendered to God’s love. This is something the elder brother could not do. He retained his independence, even giving his generous father a lecture on being too easy with his younger son. You see, for all of the elder brother’s self-righteousness, he remained fiercely independent of his father’s love. He even lived in denial of this own need for his father’s tender, loving mercies.

Finally, we need to see ourselves in the attitude and love of the father. What sort of conditions do we place on our willingness to forgive others? What sort of attitudes do we have in our hearts that put limits on love and forgiveness that put limits on God’s generosity and infinite capacities to bring back the dead into life?

You see, it is the father’s character and attitudes that we should employ to measure ourselves. We need to see our selves in the prodigal son; we need to see our selves in the elder brother, but most of all we need to see our selves in the father. We need to measure the capacities in our hearts and souls to be Godlike in our love, compassion, care and concern in loving others. The parable, you see, is more about the father than it is about the prodigal son.

For us, living as we do in the culture in which we presently find ourselves, the critical aspect to seriously look at in this parable is the point that in order to be forgiven one must first recognize evil and sin, recognize it for what it is, admit to ourselves and to God that we have sinned, and then genuinely go to our Father and ask for forgiveness. This is the critical movement that is so lacking in so very many people’s souls these days. For we are a people who live in great denial.

As Scott Peck wrote in his classic book of several decades ago, we are a people of the lie. We live in lying to ourselves by telling ourselves that sin doesn’t exist, that we have done no wrong, that everybody’s “doing it” and so it is okay. “God will understand,” we tell ourselves, and thus absolve ourselves from the need to admit anything to Him. That’s called denial — and it’s holding far too many folks these days in its seductive and addictive grip. Consequently they live trapped lives far removed from that which will give their souls the food for which they hunger and the strength that they can derive from it to live lives in genuine freedom.

For what God our Father wants for us above all else is to walk in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God. And to prove it and give it to us, He sent us His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Go to Him and ask Him to help you ask your heavenly Father to give you that food for which your soul hungers so much. Search out and find the freedom the younger son found in the prodigality of his father’s heart. For his father is our heavenly Father.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”