04 March 2016

'So he set off and went to his father.' Sunday Reflections, 4th Sunday of Lent Year C

Museo del Prado, Madrid [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable:
“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. 
Departure of the Prodigal Son, stained glass window, c.1210
Bourges Cathedral, France [Web Gallery of Art]

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. 
The Prodigal Son, Albrecht Dürer, c.1496
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, Germany [Web Gallery of Art]
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.
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC [Web Gallery of Art]

“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 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.’”
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, c.1669
The Hermitage, St Petersburg [Web Gallery of Art]

A priest-friend, now deceased, told me a story about three priests whom he knew in his own country. I'll call them Father Andy, Father Bert and Father Chris. Father Chris, younger than the other two who were quite well on in years, no longer used the title 'Father' as he had left the priesthood.

Father Andy was in hospital and knew he was nearing death. Father Bert went to visit him. The dying man asked his friend for his blessing. But he got a response that he had never expected. 'When you forgive Chris, then I will bless you'. Father Bert knew that his dying friend had been deeply hurt when Father Chris had left the priesthood. He also knew that he still carried resentment in his heart towards the younger man.

The tears welled up in Father Andy's eyes and he asked his friend to invite Chris to visit him. He let go of his hurt and resentment, was fully reconciled with Chris - and received from Father Bert the blessing he had asked for, a blessing far greater than he ever could have imagined.

Part of the genius of this parable of Jesus is that it doesn't have an ending, but an invitation. We don't know whether or not the older, dutiful son joined the celebration. He can  only see at this moment the wasted life of his younger brother and the immense suffering this had brought to their father, suffering that Rembrandt captures so movingly. 

The father doesn't argue with his older son. He is well aware of that son's sense of responsibility. The father also hears his angry and dismissive 'this son of yours'. He gently points out, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.

The invitation in the parable is not only to the older son. It is to me. Is the Father inviting me to let go of sins that have separated me from him, a separation that he doesn't want, by asking his pardon, especially in the sacrament of confession? Or is the Father inviting me to let go of my self-righteousness, my lack of humility, my lack of gratitude for daily blessings, even though I am conscientious in doing what is right?

The Father has reserved a place for each of us at the celebration.

Pope Francis: 'When was the last time you went to confession?'

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