FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY OF LENT, LAETARE SUNDAY, March 31, 2019:
A teacher explained to her CCD class the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and then she asked, "Now tell me: Who do you think suffered the most in this story?" A child raised her hand and answered plainly, "the fatted calf."
Charles Dickens was known to say that the story of the Prodigal Son is the best short story ever written. It is such an important story in our culture that some of the phrases from it have become common and even proverbial in our language – phrases like the Prodigal Son, or the “fatted calf” or “he was lost and has been found.” We hear these words regularly in our daily life and they take on a whole new level of meaning.
This is a story that has enriched the vocabulary of the world. It has also changed the way the world looks at things. No story tells us more about God or makes us feel better about ourselves in God’s sight. It is a brief tale with tremendous scope, so wide that it embraces all of our sinfulness at one end and God’s tremendous and endless mercy at the other. And it does so in such a way to bring them both together. It is no wonder that we hear St. Paul beg us today, “I implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” Seeking God’s mercy and offering God’s mercy are the most important things that we can do.
Jesus shares this story in response to his regular adversaries in the Gospels – the Pharisees and Scribes. They are upset with the people He keeps company with. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” is their accusation. And Jesus gives them this story in the hopes that they will understand – once and for all – His nature and the welcoming and merciful nature of God. The word Pharisee means literally “separated ones” and this is often exactly what the Pharisees are trying to do – trying to use God’s law to create a world where some people are “in” and others are “out”. The consequence of their view of the world is to exclude many people from God’s love. Today, Jesus gives this wake-up call. He reminds them and us that God’s love is for everyone; God’s forgiveness has no limits. Jesus has come so that all people might know – whether the greatest saint or the worst sinner – that all people might know that they are welcomed, loved and forgiven in the Kingdom He came to inaugurate.
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” is the accusation that Jesus turns into a motto; into a way of life; and it should describe us as well. And, I think, this message of the Prodigal Son is one that we need to hear over and over and over again because we know that this tendency to separate people and exclude them is something that persists in our world. We are called to reject that notion.
God, of course, never asked us to be in the business of judgment or exclusion. Pope Francis said it more succinctly when he famously said, “Who am I to judge?” It was a powerful statement and reminder from the Holy Father, but it is one that should come from each one of us too. Who are we to judge? There is only one judge; and it is not us – it is God, the true and only judge we will face. And, our story today reminds us that the one true judge is abundantly forgiving and merciful.
But, who are we to love? Who are we to show compassion? Who are we to forgive and show mercy? Who are we to reach out to the needy, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the refugee, the immigrant? These are our common call; this is our mission statement. Jesus is very explicit about these things. This is what He asks us to do – to love, to be His loving, kind, compassionate, merciful and forgiving presence in our world. So, how are we doing with that?
Let us remember that no sin of ours is ever too great to be forgiven. God never tires of forgiving us. And let it be said of us that we too “welcome sinners and eat with them.”
Today, let us “come to our senses,” as the Prodigal Son did. Today let us reject the voices in our world that want to exclude people; let us reject the voices that seek to judge others; and let us return once again to our loving and forgiving Father. Let us heed St. Paul’s command, “I implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Let us run into the embrace of His welcoming arms and receive the mercy He has prepared for us. And then let us go forth sharing that same love, that same mercy with the world.
“Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
May the Lord give you peace.