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Saturday, second week of Lent

February 26, 2005

Blessed Saturday!

Readings: Micah 7:14-15, 18-20 (God is merciful)
Psalm 103: 1-12 “The Lord is kind and merciful”
+Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (prodigal son)

Jesus follows up yesterday’s exposition of sin and call to repentance with a description of mercy, of God’s response to our repentance. First we read Micah’s reminder to God that He is merciful, his confident expectation that God will again have compassion and tread underfoot our guilt. Then we hear the story of the prodigal son. This story was aimed at two groups of people in Jesus’ audience: the Pharisees and scribes who were murmuring among themselves about the disgrace of Jesus’ welcome toward sinners (Luke 15:2), and the publicans and sinners themselves who were coming near to Jesus to hear Him (Luke 15:1). Both were represented in the story; the sinners saw themselves in the younger son, the Pharisees in the elder. At its most basic, the parable is an encouragement for sinners, whose repentance will be welcomed with great joy, and a plea to the Pharisees, who are invited to share in God’s joy over the repentance of those who were once lost. At a deeper level, the story tells us a great deal about what God desires of us and about the way He works in our lives.

The first attribute of God that comes out in the story is His respect for our free will. The father knew his sons. He knew that his youngest was likely to make a bad use of his inheritance, but he gave it to him anyway. He didn’t force his son into obedience. Likewise, God gives us free will and respects our use of it. He commands obedience, but if we rebel, He does not force us. We are free to choose sin. This isn’t the same as saying that freedom means being able to sin. Quite the contrary, as the younger son quickly found out. In giving in to his desires, he became their slave. His status as a slave became clearer when famine struck the land and he was reduced to starvation in a pigpen. It’s worth a cultural note here to say that any association with pigs was utterly abhorrent for the Jewish people. God had declared pigs unclean (Leviticus 11:4-7), and the Jews’ disgust toward pigs was so much a part of their identity that when the Syrian invader Antiochus wanted to destroy their religion, he commanded the people to eat pork under threat of torture and death (II Maccabees 6:18 & 7:1). In other words, the younger son’s starvation in the pigpen signified utter degradation. He’d “hit rock bottom”, as it were, and it brought him to his senses.

This in itself was a result of God’s mercy. God could have averted the famine. He could’ve had this youth stumble upon another fortune (like the man who found a treasure in a field, Matthew 13:44) or in some other way maintain his standard of living. He could have allowed this son to remain a slave of his desires, to remain estranged from his family and from real love. Instead, He gave outward expression to the youth’s inward destitution, letting him see himself for what he really was. God does that for us too. He strips away the glitter and the things we’ve made our gods (i.e., the things we’ve come to depend on outside of Him) so we can see ourselves for who we really are, so we see more clearly our need of Him.

God then gave the young man yet another dose of mercy in the grace of humble repentance. Had the young man clung to a false sense of pride, he might have stayed in that pigpen until he actually did die of starvation. Given what we hear in the story, it’s not hard to picture his older brother doing just that. “I’ve degraded myself this far, I’m not going to humiliate myself further by letting my family ridicule me for it.” Instead, this younger son decided that it would be better to humble himself in his father’s house and live than to die among the pigs. He had left home with a sense of abandon which had led to destruction. He now returned with a sense of self-abandonment which led to life. The passionate nature which he had previously turned toward sin, he now turned toward humility and repentance.

God loves whole-hearted, passionate repentance. When the sinful woman washed His feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and lavished them with perfume, He proclaimed that her many sins were forgiven because of her great love (see Luke 7:37-48). On the contrary, to the church at Laodicea He wrote, “Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).

As the prodigal neared home, his father’s own extravagant nature revealed itself in his haste to welcome and honor his son. The father interrupted his son’s confession, ordering his restoration to the family dignity through a robe, a ring and shoes. Even here, the prodigal needed God’s grace in order to humbly accept these honors, to receive as a gift the dignity the father wished to bestow upon him, rather than to proudly insist on his own plan of becoming a hired hand.

As Catholics, we see in the robe our Baptismal purity, restored to us in the sacrament of Confession (Clemens Alexandrinus). The robe is also a sign of the wedding garment we must be wearing in order to enter the wedding of the Lamb (see Matthew 22:11). The robe is a sign of new life (Pope John Paul II, Message for the XIV World Youth Day), of immortality (Clemens Alexandrinus), and of honor (note that Joseph was given a linen robe when Pharaoh made him second in command of Egypt, Genesis 41:42).

The ring, likewise is a sign of honor and dignity. Joseph received a ring as well, when he became ruler in Egypt (Genesis 41:42). The ring was a sign of covenant (Pope john Paul II, Message for the XIV World Youth Day), a seal of authority. In Esther 8:8 we read that the king gave Esther the authority to save her people by giving her his ring, for no one dared challenge letters that had been sealed with his ring. The ring is also a pledge of faith, a seal of the Holy Spirit (St. Ambrose, “Concerning Repentance”), an impress of consecration, and a signature of glory (Clemens Alexandrinus).

Shoes are also a sign of dignity. Only those in mourning, those on holy ground, those in extreme poverty or those who were being humiliated went without shoes (_Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life_, Madeline S. and J. Land Miller). In addition, shoes are a sign of protection against evil (St. Ambrose, “Concerning Repentance”), a sign of zeal to spread the Gospel (see Ephesians 6:15) and a reminder of the Israelite’s journey to the Promised Land, forty years during which their shoes miraculously did not wear out (Deuteronomy 29:4).

When we return to God in Confession, He runs to meet us, to dignify our souls with these same gifts, to restore us to the family and to call all Heaven to join in His joy (“there will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” -Luke 15:7).

In addition, the father kills the fatted calf, that a feast of celebration may begin. This calf is a symbol of Christ, slain for our salvation and given to us for nourishment in the banquet of the Eucharist (St. Ambrose, “Concerning Repentance”).

This ultimate expression of God’s mercy is not a matter of belittlement, of God patronizing our impoverishment. When we return to God with the words, “Father, I have sinned”, we courageously open ourselves to Him after having shut Him out of our lives. We allow Him to set us free from the slavery of sin and to restore our broken relationship (Pope John Paul II, March 16, 1980). It is this courage, this new freedom, goodness and dignity of ours that God celebrates. He rejoices as a Creator eager to redeem that which had been distorted, to restore that which had been lost and broken (see “Dives In Misericordia”, John Paul II).

All this equips us for a new life of holy service, for a mission and a responsibility far greater than any we could have imagined for ourselves. The Father is not content to make us hired hands. “No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master does. But I have called you friends, because all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you…I have chosen you…that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:15-16). Now that we have turned around, now that we have stopped running in the wrong direction, we will be able to direct our resources toward the goals of Heaven.

This is where the elder brother (and, by implication, the Pharisees) got it all wrong. He didn’t have his father’s (or brother’s) big heart. He wasn’t looking for redemption, for a means of bringing good out of evil, nor could he see his own sin, his own smallness of soul that had toed the line without ever opening itself to his father’s generous love. He took for granted the benefits his younger brother would never see the same way again: three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, honorable employment and the dignity of sonship. He didn’t realize that he, too, needed to repent. His ever-merciful father didn’t wait for him to come to his senses, but went out to plead with him, to explain the joy of redemption and invite him to enter in. We’re not told if he did or not. Certainly most of the Pharisees did not, at least not then, for they were instrumental in putting Jesus to death. Yet there were some, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who became secret followers of Jesus (John 19:38-39), and Luke reports that after Pentecost a great multitude of priests converted to the faith (Acts 6:7).

May we open ourselves to God’s mercy, welcome His redemption and share His joy.

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