(nb: some parishes will use the readings from cycle A this Sunday, which are an option for all and required if a parish is doing the Scrutinies of the Elect in preparation for the Easter Vigil)
Of all the parables in the Gospels, I would venture to say that the parable of the prodigal son is one of the most recognizable. The story of a man with two sons, whose younger son asks for his inheritance ahead of time and then wastes it on frivolities only to return to his father to be welcomed home has all the details of a tale that will stick in the memory.
Poor adolescent judgment with painful results? Check.
Surprising twist at the end? Check.
Aggrieved sibling upset by an apparent show of parental favoritism? Check and then some.
As is often the case, however, familiarity encourages us to gloss over some of the significant features of this peculiar parable.
The typical reading seems to revolve around a “which brother are you” set of reflection questions, almost turning the parable in to a Buzzfeed quiz. I don’t want to deny the value in that analysis, but I personally find it a lot more meaningful to take the approach of the theologian Michael Himes, who argued in Doing the Truth in Love that the parable of the prodigal son is fundamentally about the father (i.e., God) not the sons (that is, us).
In Himes’s estimation, “this is not a story about repentance,” which is how we might read it if we focus on the sons. Instead, “it is about the incomprehensibility of the love and mystery of God” (13).
From this perspective, the key actor is the father who goes out of his way to shower love on his wayward son. The older brother’s reaction is meant to highlight what Himes calls the “incomprehensibility” of this generous offer of love, for the offended son is quite right that his younger brother does not deserve any of the kindnesses shown to him at the end of the parable. Indeed, this is the point.
When I think of the parable this way, I am reminded of the way sin functions in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The first section, or First Week as it is known, focuses on the exercitant’s sinfulness, but not in a way that is designed to condemn. Rather, the point of appreciating how much one has sinned is to recognize how remarkable God’s mercy actually is. When I know that I have sinned that much and yet that God still loves me and has in fact come into the world and suffered death to save me from all that, then the significance of God’s grace comes into starker relief.
This is such an important recognition here, in the middle of Lent. As we embrace the traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we embody a penitential spirit that asks us to acknowledge our sins. And yet we are not supposed to see ourselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God (no offense meant to Jonathan Edwards). We are called to see ourselves in relation to a God who loves us and wants to restore the divine relationship with us.
Sunday’s second reading makes this link perfectly clear.
“Whoever is in Christ is a new creation,” St. Paul assures us. How? Because “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their [read our] trespasses against them.”
This is what we are to remember in the midst of our penitential season, namely that the very reason we can be penitential at all is that God’s mercy took on human flesh in the person of Jesus and assured us of God’s willingness to wash away our sins.
Perhaps we can see a contemporary manifestation of the grace the Israelites experienced in Sunday’s first reading, when God “removed the reproach of Egypt” from them and delivered them into the land of Canaan. The message of the prodigal son is that God wants to offer the same deliverance to us, even though we are not deserving any more than the younger son is.
Let us not forget to turn to this merciful God, seeking our own deliverance from the reproach of our sin. (Perhaps by seeking out one of the Lenten reconciliation services that are common in dioceses throughout Lent.)
When we appreciate this bountiful mercy, we can pray Sunday’s Psalm even more fully: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.”