If you were around before Vatican II for long Latin choir rehearsals, you may recall the melody of the antiphon that announced the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It’s one of those that stays with you … (sing) Laetare translates from Latin to English “Rejoice”. This is also known as “Refreshment Sunday” – a day when the austerity of Lent is relaxed a little, and the violet vestments of Lent can be replaced with rose-colored ones. A special kind of fruit cake was often served on this Sunday modestly breaking the Lenten Fast.
According to another old tradition, although it probably is not on anyone’s list of approved feast days, is “Laugher Sunday” or “Holy Humor Sunday” – a day celebrating the big joke that God pulled on Satan. Thus the name: God’s Joke or the Easter Laugh – a day to lighten up, relax, and recall the joy and the goodness of the Lord. (We anticipated it a bit with our Hoedown!) In honor of Laughter Sunday, here’s one to tickle your funny bone. During a lesson on Easter, a religious education teacher asked the class, “What did Jesus do on this day? Getting no response, she prompted: It begins with R. “I know!” blurted out a child: “Recycle.”
But on a more serious bent … The context of today’s Gospel is not to be made light of. Sinners and social outcasts were “all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say”. The Pharisees and Scribes, who were the “good and religious” people, were shocked and disturbed. “This man welcomes sinners and [even worse] eats with them.” By their standards, a “good” person avoids “bad company”. To be quite honest, don’t we think the same? If so, then we are not thinking like Jesus.
We typically title this Gospel story the “Prodigal Son” but, in fact, the emphasis is less on the son than on the father, who clearly represents God and Jesus.
No one can deny the appalling behavior of the younger son in this Gospel. He took all that his father generously gave to him as his inheritance and used it in leading a life of total debauchery and self-centered indulgence. Eventually, he had nothing and was reduced to living with pigs, something utterly abhorrent to the Jewish mind, and even sharing their slops, something even we would find appalling. “Served him right,” might be the reaction of many, especially the good and morally respectable.
This, however, is not the reaction of the father, who has only one thought in his mind – how to get his son to come back to where he belongs. The father does not say: “This son has seriously offended me and brought disgrace on our family. He better not come crawling back here. I disown him!” Instead he says: “My son went away, is lost and I want so much to have him back.” He stands in the doorway of his house many long hours, watching, waiting, longing … His love for his wayward son has not changed one iota.
There is no force involved. The police are not sent out. There is not an “Amber” alert. Servants are not instructed to haul him back. No, the father waits. It is up to the son himself to make the crucial decision: does he want to be with his father or not?
Eventually he “came to his senses”, that is, he realized the wrongness of what he had done. He became aware of just how good his father had been. The process of repentance had begun. He felt deeply ashamed of his behavior and then, most significant of all, he turned around to make his way back to his father.
The father, for his part, filled with compassion for his son’s experiences, runs out to meet him, embraces him and brushes aside the carefully prepared speech the son had prepared. If the son had known his father better, he would have realized that such a speech was unnecessary. Immediately, orders are given to bring the very best things in the house and a banquet is laid out. This is forgiveness on the part of both the father and the son – a return to where each ought to be in relationship to the other.
This is where the elder son comes in. He simply cannot understand what is happening. “It’s just not fair!” How many times have we heard this spoken or, be truthful, felt in our hearts? “It’s not fair, just because she’s the baby; you didn’t let me stay out that late when I was her age!” And the litany grows. We challenge our parents and one another’s generosity, operating from the perspective of limited resources. If she gets it, perhaps there won’t be enough for me.
Jesus wants his hearers (us) to understand that this is not how it is with God’s mercy, love and forgiveness. God offers love to all of us in abundance. The forgiveness of the father in the parable is an image of God’s love for us: generosity beyond measure!
By our standards, even God is unjust. In fact, he is corrupted by love! That’s fortunate for us! Supposing we went to confession one day and the priest said, “Sorry, that’s it. No more forgiveness, no more reconciliation. You’ve used up your quota. Too bad! ” Of course, it’s not like that. Thankfully there is no limit to God’s forgiveness, mercy and love. God has a deep desire to forgive – to be totally reconciled with us when we’ve severed the bond of relationship. There is always a place in God’s company for us. The question is: Do you truly believe that God acts this way towards us? Can we humbly accept divine mercy without jealousy, knowing that God’s love for another does not diminish the love shown and showered upon us?