Fourth Lent: Joining God in Forgiveness and Celebrating His Love
The Son repents.
The Father forgives.
The brother misses the meal.
My guess is that most of us could recite the parable of today's gospel almost word for word. When we think of God's forgiveness, the picture of the Father looking out across the fields, longing and waiting for his son to return, enters our minds. We see God giving us a hug, embracing us, calling out to the servants to put a ring on our finger and get the finest cloak. We know that God is not concerned with the hurt He feels when we reject Him. He is concerned only about us, how we are hurting ourselves. When we think of our own sinfulness, and picture the son who offended his father, we remember how sin puts us in the mud with the pigs. We remember how we've hurt ourselves, as well as others. We know that we can have the courage to get out of the mud, turn back home and say I'm sorry. The Loving Father will forgive us before we even tell our sad story. For years the focus of the parable was on the offending son. In fact, this has always been called the parable of the prodigal son.
More recently the focus of the parable has been on the forgiveness of God. The parable is now often referred to as the Parable of the Forgiving Father. Having come from an age when God was hammered into us as the terrible judge, this was a valid and needed insight into the parable. In confession we priests most often emphasize how much God loves the penitent and how forgiveness is an expression of love.
There is a third character in the parable for this Sunday, a character that with whom we all tend to identify and with whom we are tempted to agree. That is the elder son. The elder son is angry because even though his brother had committed horrible offences, the ingrate was being given a party on his return. "I've struggled for you for years," the elder son says to the Father, "You never had a party for me." We all have the inclination to say that this son is right. In his mercy for the prodigal, the Father did not treat the elder son justly.
Or did he?
Let's look at the parable closely. The younger son was a real selfish brat. The sons of farmers were expected to work the farm for their fathers until their father's death. This was ancient social security. The prodigal son wasn't about to do this. He shirked his responsibility to his father by selling his portion of the property. Furthermore, to the ancient Jews, property was sacred, their family's portion of the chosen land. "God forbid,” Nabaoth tells King Ahab in 1 Kings 21, “God forbig that I sell the vineyard the Lord has given my family", Nabaoth is pius. The Prodigal Son couldn't care about anyone or anything except himself. He has insulted his father, his God, and his whole family.
The elder son has cause to be upset. He did the right thing in his life. He worked his portion of the inheritance, his two thirds of the property, for his father. He suffered through his brother's insulting of the father. There is nothing that gets us angrier than when a loved one of ours is offended. The elder son has cause to be angry with his brother. But he himself errs by letting this anger control him.
A banquet is thrown, but the elder son refuses to enter. The Father who was offended has forgiven the Prodigal, the elder son refuses to forgive. In scripture a banquet is a way of expressing the intimate sharing of God's life. God will love his people so much that he will set a banquet for them, bring them into his intimacy, the Old Testament says. The Elder Son separates himself from the intimacy of his Father's love because he refuses to forgive his brother. We separate ourselves from the intimacy of God's love when we refuse to forgive others who have sinned.
We all have battle stories. We have all had people who have consciously and callously tried to hurt us. I've been offended and so have you. But if we don't forgive those who have hurt us, we will be keeping ourselves out of the banquet of God's intimacy. If we want to receive God's forgiveness, we have to give God's forgiveness. If we don't, then do you know what we do, we stand outside the banquet griping and grousing, but separating ourselves from God's love. At the conclusion of the parable, only the Elder Son is excluded from the banquet. And he does this to himself.
Today we pray that we might be like the forgiving Father, not like the Elder Son. We pray that we may live the words we pray when we recite the Our Father: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.