Wednesday, March 2, 2016

THE MERCIFUL FATHER, THE TWO LOST SONS


Lent 4C.  2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk 15: 1-3, 11-32
AIM: To help the hearers understand the good news of God=s love, free but not cheap  
A preacher held up a crisp new $20 bill. AHow many people here would like to have this?@ he asked. All hands went up. Then he crumpled the bill into a ball and asked again: AHow many people would like to have it now?@ Again all hands were raised. So he threw the crumpled bill on the floor and stomped on it. AAnd now, how many would like to have it.@ Still all hands were raised. 
AWhat I have just shown you,@ he explained, Ais that the difference between a crisp new $20 bill and a soiled one in our eyes is the difference between a good person and a bad person in God=s eyes. God loves them both equally.@ Why?  Paul gives us the answer in Romans 3:23, AAll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.@ 
At the beginning of today=s gospel Jesus= critics protest angrily: AThis man welcomes sinners and eats with them.@ Jesus answers that complaint with one of his best loved stories. It has just three characters. Each is important, as we shall see. The story begins with C
The younger son. 
AFather, give me the share of your estate that should come to me,@ the young man demands one day. He is bored, fed up, and rebellious. He wants to get out, live it up, do his own thing. Sin, of any kind originates in the idea that my desires are the most important thing in the world; that the only thing which stands between me and happiness is my inability to do or to have what I want. The younger son assumes that once he is free to do his own thing, his life will be transformed and wonderful.  Transformed it is. Wonderful it is not. 
AAfter a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings, and set off to a distant country, where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.@ In a single sentence Jesus paints a picture of wasted talents, wasted time, wasted human potential. The young man is not only physically distant from home. He has also traveled far from the atmosphere of love which had surrounded him there, and which he mistook for interference with his freedom. When he has run through all his money he is forced to take work far more degrading than any he had to do at home: feeding pigs. Jewish dietary laws brand pigs as unclean. Even today observant Jews eat no pork.
AComing to his senses,@ Jesus tells us, the young man reflects that he is worse off than the lowliest servant back home. He realizes that there must be yet another change in his life. The carefully rehearsed speech which he prepares for his homecoming shows, however, that this change is only skin deep. What actually motivates his return is not regret for wasting his father=s money, and wounding his father=s love, but still concern for himself. To put food in his belly, and a roof over his head, he is willing to accept a certain amount of embarrassment. Skillfully Jesus now directs our attention to the second character in the story C 
The father. 
He is clearly an affluent farmer and landowner. AWhile he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.@ How was it that the father saw his son Awhile he was still a long way off@? He was looking for him!  He grieved for his absent boy. At once the father runs down the road to greet him, to fold him in his arms. That detail would have shocked Jesus= hearers. In the patriarchal society of that day the sight of a wealthy head of a family running was as unthinkable as, for us, the spectacle of a bishop entering his cathedral on a skateboard. There is no word of reproach. He won=t even permit his son to finish his well rehearsed speech.  Immediately the father orders a celebration.
This is the heart of the story. AThat is how good God is,@ Jesus is saying. God is not a stern judge, who must be appeased by prayers and sacrifices and good works.  God is not difficult to satisfy, a fault-finder to be feared. God is a God of love. Like the father in this story, God forgives us when we wander off into distant places, when by our own fault we squander and waste our Father=s gifts in ways which may bring us short-lived thrills but no true happiness C only misery, servitude, and shame. The son in his father=s arms is a picture of what the theologians call Agrace@: God=s forgiveness and love C granted not as a reward for services rendered, but as a free gift. God=s grace is free. But it is not cheap.
Paul tells us the price of God=s forgiving love in today=s second reading. AFor our sake [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.@ Those words refer to Calvary, where Jesus, dying a criminal=s death, cried out: AMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?@ (Mk 15:34). In that moment Jesus felt that he was in a distant country, far from his Father=s love. Jesus, who did not know sin, freely took his stand, on the cross, where we are, as sinners: under the wrath of God, alienated from God=s love. He did this so that we might become what Jesus is: Athe righteousness of God.@ Jesus= agonizing death, with its feeling of being shut out from God=s love, is the price of God=s forgiving love, which we see in the father=s free forgiveness of his younger son. I repeat: God=s grace is free. It is not cheap. It cost the lifeblood of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This second scene in Jesus= story ends on a note of joy: AThen the celebration began.@  There is one, however, who refuses to share this joy C
The older brother.
He stands for Jesus= critics, who complain: AThis man receives sinners and eats with them.@ He stands today for people who, when they are told that God loves sinners, are indignant. How outrageous, they protest, to suggest that God loves people of bad moral character: drunkards, spouses who cheat on each other, people who lie, steal, destroy people=s good names through gossip; people who go to singles bars, gays. AYou=re telling me God loves scum like that, Father? People who never go to church? I don=t buy it.@ God is supposed to love faithful, Mass-going Catholics; members of the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary, the Blue Army.

The older brother=s litany of complaint shows that he too is in a distant country: physically at home, but far removed from his father=s attitude of love. He has never noticed his father=s grief all the time his brother was away. Now that he is home again, the elder brother refuses to acknowledge him. AYour son,@ the older brother calls him, as if to say: AYour son, perhaps, but no brother of mine.@ He is filled with resentment, envy, and hate. The father does not condemn this son either: AEverything I have is yours,@ he reminds him. Farther than that love cannot go. 

AWho in the story suffered the most?@ a Sunday school teacher asked the class after reading them this story. One of the brightest children answered at once: AThe fattened calf.@ Next to the fattened calf, however, comes the older brother who remains outside while the party goes on inside. He does not even taste the fattened calf he himself probably helped to raise. 

Or did he? Did he change his mind and go in after all? Jesus doesn=t tell us.  Jesus leaves the story open-ended. He does so because us wants us to supply the ending. This Mass C every Mass C is a celebration of our heavenly Father=s freely given love and forgiveness. The price of that forgiveness was the poured out blood of his Son, who did not know sin, but whom God made to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. We supply the ending to the story by confronting honestly the questions Jesus is putting to each of us right now:

Is the Mass for you a celebration of joy? Or is the Mass for you merely an obligation to be fulfilled?  In other words C Have you heard the good news? Are you joining in its celebration?