March 27, 2022| 4th Sunday in Lent
Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel, dies outside the promised land. It is his successor, Joshua, who brings the people in. Joshua is the one who reorganizes the people under the covenant with God. All the males of the twelve tribes undergo circumcision, the traditional sign that a covenant is “cut” between God and the people. After they have been given the gift that they expected, a new land where they can live and grow, they are ready to be in a covenant with God again. They sound a bit like us. When things go well, that is, according to our expectations, we are ready to be faithful and trust life again. I am not going to fault anybody for this. I am just observing how the ebb and flow of trust is related, often and easily, to our perception of the situation. When things are hard, it is harder for us to trust and we behave like the people of Israel in the desert: we complain, we fight with each other, we make bad choices. When things get better, we believe in the goodness the Lord. We actually need trust especially when things are not very good, when we find ourselves at some difficult turn. Yet that's not how we operate, most of the time.
The parable of the prodigal son, as it is often called, is usually seen as presenting the largeness of the mercy of God. Luke, who likely received it as a piece of oral tradition, places it together with two other shorter parables, which we did not read today: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. The connection is that in all three parables there is something lost (a sheep, a coin, a son) and all three parables end with a great feast because what is lost has been found. Luke also prefaces the three parables by saying that Jesus told them as teaching related to his habit of hanging out with the wrong people, that is, with the lost people. Jesus behaves quite strangely, dining with collaborators of the Romans and even with prostitutes, but he makes clear through these three stories that he intends to keep behaving in such a highly irregular way. God, who is being represented by Jesus through his behavior, goes on a hunt for the lost soul until he gets it back. The main characters of the three stories--the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in the desert to look for the lost one, the woman who cleans the whole house to find one cent, and the father who runs out of the house to hug the son who disrespected him--are very odd people! Theirs is not rational behavior. It is a behavior motivated by a crazy love, and God in Jesus embodies such a love.
The parable of the lost son, however, is a bit more complex than the other two and does something more than praise the greatness of God's love for us sinners. Because it ends with this glorious sentence, “He was dead and he came back to life, he was lost and he is found!” we might have the impression of a happy ending. Not so, I am afraid. If we read the story accurately, we see that neither of the two sons is able to accept what the father is offering. The younger son, the one who left home after hurting his father very deeply, comes back not because he has truly changed his mind, but because he is desperate. He concocts what to tell to his father in order to get something more from him, despite what he already got: half of the family wealth! The father offers him the treatment of a prince, but the story records no reaction on the part of that son. The younger son is unable to understand the behavior of his father, or to welcome the unconditional love and forgiveness that he offers. In fact, we cannot properly talk of forgiveness, because forgiveness entails real repentance. Besides, the father is not interested in hearing words of repentance and does not express words of forgiveness. The older son does not understand the behavior of his father either. The father explains that all he owns he is willing to share with his elder son, who can take anything he wants. To no avail. The parable does not record any understanding on the older son's part. There is really no happy ending, no reconciled family in this story. There is a father who behaves in very odd ways, completely unsuited to a patriarch, and two sons who do not understand him at all.
If we take the father to represent God, and the sons to represent us, we see that whether we are faithful and obedient like the older son, or unfaithful, disobedient, and offensive like the younger son, God treats us the same. But this very fact makes no sense to us at all. Don't we read in the Bible that the sons of Israel who did not trust God died in the desert, while those who keep his covenant will flourish in the promised land? That makes some kind of sense. We want things to be proper. For example: you do something wrong, then you apologize and pay your penalty; then, and only then, your rights and position are restored. The traditional penitential system of the Church works largely in such a way. It is a rational thing. But God, according to this parable, is not rational at all. God throws us a feast, no matter what. God feeds us with manna--that is, survival food-- while we are in the desert of our pain and loneliness, but God wants us to get the best food in the promised land as soon as we are able to enter it. We are the ones who care about regularizing our covenant with God. This is good. It makes us become responsible adults, and we also can know who is in and who is out--for example, through circumcision as a sign of belonging to the God of the covenant. Our assumption of responsibility is commendable, while our policies of membership are less so, but all of this pales into insignificance before the infinity of God's love. And, yet – pay attention!- the infinity of God's love does not win the day. The two sons remain shocked and unhappy.
We also should be shocked, if we listened carefully. This parable is a huge challenge to the limitations of our mind. It is a direct condemnation of our attempts to understand and control God. We don't really agree that God should love everybody equally, independently of their behavior. We don't understand that to follow the stipulations of the covenant, when they exist, is good for us, it makes us happier, but does not change God's attitude a bit. We forget that the covenant, at the beginning, is the unilateral agreement that God “cuts” with Abraham, the choice that the Source of Life makes in order to be at the complete disposal of the human side of the pact, without asking anything in return.
How can we trust such an incomprehensible God? How can we believe that the love of God is true, infinite, and directed specifically to ourselves as well as to everybody else? All of us, independently of our circumstances, are pretty far from completely trusting God. Paul cries out: “Let yourself be reconciled with God!” What does he mean? Can God embrace us and unite us with himself, just as a father welcomes and embraces a lost son? How does this happen? I take these to be the most important questions in a person's life. To these questions there are no general answers, valid for all. Each of us must struggle with our own knots, unraveling and re-reading the story of our own life to learn where the stream of trust was interrupted. If we learned again to trust God as a child trusts that child’s parents, would our deserts magically turn into meadows and fertile land? Yes and no. Hardships and worries would remain, but the landscape would be graced with desert flowers and the manna would taste like the bread of angels. The promised land, after all, would not seem so far away. AMEN.