4thSunday of Lent (c) 2019
This gospel of the prodigal son is probably the most famous of all the biblical stories about forgiveness. Do you see why Jesus tell us this story? It begins with the scribes and Pharisees who notice that ‘tax collectors and sinners’ were seeking out Jesus to hear what he had to say. Why weren’t they seeking out the scribes and Pharisees? Therein lies the tale. The scribes and Pharisees lived respectable, upright lives, they didn’t do any harm to their neighbours and were looked up to precisely because they were scribes and Pharisees. But for all the good things they did they were still harsh and judgemental; the tax collectors and sinners therefore avoided them.
The two sons represent two kinds of Christians. They are, in a sense, caricatures, rather than real people; most of us are not like the Prodigal Son, if anything we are more like the elder brother; but there is something of both sons in all of us; we are not always good, we have our faults and failings, but nor are we always bad; in fact, I’m sure we do more good than bad.
We are not told why the younger son went off once he got his money. But we do know that the love of money can destroy people. Recently a man won a staggering £70 million. A journalist asked him if this was going to change him. Normally people who win such sums say, “no it won’t change me, I’ll still be the same”. However, this man said candidly, “You bet it will change me”. I remember many years ago a beautiful blonde lady won a fortune. And when a journalist asked her what are you going to do with this money, her reply was headlines in the newspaper, she said, “I’m going to spend, spend, spend”. Sadly, this sudden fortune led to the breakup of her marriage, and other serious problems. Like the prodigal son a sudden fortune did her not good in the end.
But the story of the prodigal son has a happy ending. Instead of spending the rest of his life in poverty he returns to his father who welcomes him with open arms. At this moment the son learns an important lesson: that His father is merciful. Now, why do you think the father is so merciful? Could it be that when he was a young man he did something similar? Could it be that the Father also returned home when life became so bad, and instead of being scolded by his father he was also welcomed with open arms?
Of course I don’t know if this is why the Father was so merciful. But I do know that his son had to learn the hard way, by his mistakes, his weaknesses and sinfulness. But learn he did. Surely most of us learn about the mercy of God too by our mistakes. Surely, all of us have made mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, many of us have made bad decisions in life. In our youth some of us have lapsed from the Church, in search of what we thought was freedom. Yet we found our way back; there was no harsh judgement, just mercy and forgiveness.
The parable Jesus tells is not just about the younger brother, it’s also about the older one. Never having made a mistake he has yet to learn about God’s mercy and compassion. He is, without doubt, a good young man but, like the scribes and Pharisees, he is judgemental. He suffers from the sin of pride. The problem for the Older Son is that he won’t learn. But, one day, he will fail, he will let himself and others down, but when that happens he may well find it hard to forgive himself. And if he can’t forgive himself he’ll find it impossible to believe that God has forgiven him.
In this story the problem isn’t the Prodigal Son but rather the Older Brother. Jesus tells it because he sees the judgemental attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees. It is a lesson for us all.
When your child or grandchild goes off and forgets all that you taught them, stops going to Church, don’t despair. Just keep praying. The Lord gives us time to come to our senses, only some people learn quicker than others. Eventually, like the prodigal son, they will realize that they were happier, much happier, in the Church. Not only that, but having made a mess of their lives, having been humiliated, they will be humbled. And the best Christian is the humble one. He or she will be less judgemental, will be more compassionate. When they see the proverbial ‘tax collectors and sinners’ of today they will say “but for the grace of God go I”.