4th Sunday Of Lent
31st March 2019
Tony van Vuuren
Listening to the Gospel, we hear Jesus illustrating to us through the parable, the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation, both on the part of the penitent sinner and of God. Appropriate then that we are celebrating Laetare Sunday this weekend.
One of the major strands of biblical religion is the conviction of God’s holiness, his perfect love, truth, and justice. Next to the all-holy God we don’t look very impressive, and this aspect of Lent is highlighted mainly in the Old Testament readings on Sundays and weekdays, which concentrate on the occasions that the Chosen People abandoned their faith, and their tendency to wander away from God, only to be called back by him in a series of new beginnings, with expressions of sorrow and remorse on their part, and a constant readiness to forgive on God’s part.
This is the moral of the story Jesus tells in the gospel this Sunday, the parable of the Prodigal Son. People sometimes prefer to see the father as the leading actor in the drama but I would argue that in the context of Lent, at any rate, it’s the delinquent and finally repentant younger Son that should attract our main attention.
Would I be out of line if I suggested that adolescence and youth, in our culture, is often a time of rebellion, of abandoning the beliefs and values learned in childhood, and that when this happens in Christian families it causes great upset to parents, who regard the Christian faith as among the most important things they provide for their children? Obviously there are exceptions to that rule, as to every other. There are of course many families where the children go from youth to adulthood and their faith and their relationship with God simply progresses and grows, apparently without major upset or interruption.
But the general point is still true, I think, and in fact Jesus’ parable implies that it isn’t only something that happens in our modern “un-religious” culture. It was common, or at least unremarkable, even in his day
The Prodigal Son has many of the typical characteristics of youth: he’s egocentric in the normal, carefree, un-malicious way of young people, he’s attracted to a life of pleasure and enjoyment, he feels invincible. And while the sun shines he makes hay. But eventually his circumstances pass out of his own control and his fortunes change. We often need this sort of experience, an experience of failure or suffering, something that makes us aware of our sinfulness and our need to atone for our sinfulness, to know God and grow in our relationship with him.
This is the sort of experience that the Prodigal Son has. The end of his days of wine and roses brings a first of all a spiritual awakening – “he came to his senses,” Jesus says, and secondly it brings a transformation of character: “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.”He realizes the superficiality and self-centeredness of his former life and starts to learn humility.
Those two elements make up the essence of genuine repentance. First we awaken, sometimes with a great shock, to the extent that our outlook and behaviour has revolved around ourselves.
We realise what an unworthy purpose in life that really is, and we have a powerful sense of our weakness and our capacity for error.
And second, in the light of this awakening, our will, our emotions, our way of thinking – our whole person – is gradually transformed. We turn to God and we rely on him to guide us, rather than on our own judgements or appetites. It has become commonplace for religious people to talk about God’s “unconditional love” for us and to put it forward as Christianity’s great selling-point. But we can talk about “unconditional love” in such a one-sided way that it appears as simply a permission to go on sinning, to live unawakened and untransformed lives.
In the welcome the younger son got, Jesus shows us God’s attitude to repentant sinners. If we are sinners—and who amongst us is not a sinner?—then God loves us not less but more. It doesn’t do us much good to be loved for only being perfect. But it is an extraordinary experience to be loved in one’s sinfulness. Such love is like rain falling on parched ground! One can even build up the courage to start forgiving oneself for an ill spent past.
It is in and through our sins that we experience the goodness and mercy of Christ. If we never sinned, we’d never know his forgiveness. This is not an excuse for sinning. All of us to a greater or lesser extent are in the sandals of the younger son. Which of us can say that we have always been faithful? Do we not at times all squander God’s grace and misuse his gifts? Which of us would like to be treated by God only according to strict justice? Do we not all need more mercy than justice? God’s forgiveness is not a cold, half hearted forgiveness, but a warm and generous one. The story doesn’t give us a license to sin. But it does show that if, through human weakness or wickedness, we do sin, then we can come back. Our past can be overcome. We can make a fresh start.
This is the great lesson of the parable!