4th Sunday of Lent (C)

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The parable of today has a particular context and in order to understand better, we should look at the whole chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. It begins this way (Luke 15:1-3): “The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and scribes complained, ‘This man’, they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus is with sinners because they sought his company; now Jesus tries to seek also the company of the Pharisees and scribes, as he tells them this parable.   Actually Jesus tells them three parables: the story of the lost sheep (Lk. 15:4-7), the story of the lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), and the story of the lost son (Lk. 15:11-32).  Acknowledging the allegation that he mingled with the sinners, Jesus outlines the three aspects or dimensions of repentance, by presenting three characters in this parable: 1) the repentant younger son, 2) the forgiving father and 3) the self-justifying elder son.

The repenting son:He began by wanting freedom from his father. Hence he forced his father to give him his right to one-third of his father’s property (as stipulated in Deuteronomy 21:17). The son then sold his property and traveled to a far-off city where he realized all his wild dreams of a carefree life. Finally, when he became bankrupt, was abandoned by “friends,” and was faced with a local famine, he was forced to take up the job of feeding pigs – a job forbidden to the Jews. At last, awakened by his sufferings, he gathered enough courage to return to his father and confess his sin, thus becoming the model for repentant sinners.  He resolved to become a “hired servant” of his family, thereby regaining a measure of honor and independence, but with a social status matching his guilt and failure. Moreover, he would be able to take care of his father for as long as the father lived.

The Forgiving Father:The father in the story represents God the Father. He promptly gave a share of his property to his younger son, bid him a tearful farewell and waited daily for his return.  Finally, when the boy returned in rags, confessing his sins, the father promptly forgave him, kissed him on the cheeks, and healed the broken relationship between them.  He ordered a bath for his son, gave him new garments (a sign of honor) and a golden signet ring (sign of authority and trust).  By ordering sandals for the feet of his son, the father signaled his reacceptance as his son. The killing the fatted calf,specially raised for the Passover feast, meant that the entire village was invited for the grand party given in the returned son’s honor.  

When the elder brother refused to join in the party, the father goes out searching for the dutiful son(Lk 15:28), just as he went out to welcome the prodigal son (Lk. 15:20).  But the response of each son is quite different. It is comparable to the “Two men [who] went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector” (Lk. 18:10-14). It is similar to the parable of the story of two sons in Matthew (21:28-31): “A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go.”Thus, the father symbolizes the loving and unconditionally forgiving Heavenly Father who is excessive, extravagant and generous with His forgiveness and mercy.  

The self-justifying elder son:He represents the self-righteous Pharisees.  The elder son had no feelings of sympathy for his brother.  He played the part of a dutiful son, but his heart was not in it.  He was resentful, bitter and angry.  He was so jealous of his younger brother that he never wanted to see him again.  He leveled a series of allegations against his prodigal brother, whom he viewed as a rival.  Instead of honoring his father by joining him in accepting his brother and playing an appropriate role at the meal, the elder son publicly insulted and humiliated his father (vv. 28-30).  Jesus includes this character in the story to represent the scribes and Pharisees who began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  We are not told how the elder son responded to his father’s plea, or to his father’s assurances of continued love, place and inheritance (“All I have is yours”).  Perhaps that is because Jesus meant the scribes and Pharisees to see that their own final response to the Father’s love in sending Jesus had yet to be made, and that they still had time to “return home” to their Father in welcoming Him.           

Paul emphasizes the uniqueness of every individualin the Corinthian community – “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation!”  Then he explains “the ministry of reconciliation,” received from Christ, as the continuation of Yahweh’s ministry, and of the reconciliation that occurred in Temple worship.  He tells the Corinthian converts that they are a new creation, made so through the blood of Christ.  It is the shedding of Christ’s blood that has reconciled them with God and made them righteous.  So they have reason to rejoice.  Paul further reminds the faithful at Corinth that the apostles are ambassadors of Christ, announcing this reconciliation, which God offers to all humanity through Jesus Christ.   Hence he appealed to the Corinthians to be reconciled to God and to one another, thus sharing in God’s plan of salvation.  The Apostle believes that God is constantly reconciling everyone to Himself.  Like the Corinthians, we have been made a new creation and we have been given many second chances.  Hence, it is also our ministry to proclaim that reconciliation by being reconciled to those around us, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

We need to acceptthe fact that we are all prodigal children who have squandered our Father’s inheritance.  There is a spiritual famine even in countries with a booming economy.  Because of this spiritual famine, we resemble the younger son who lived with pigs.  Examples of this spiritual famine are seen in drug and alcohol abuse, fraud and theft in the workplace, murders and violence, premarital sex, marital infidelity and priestly infidelity, as well as in hostility between people.  Sometimes this “spiritual famine” exists in our own families.  That is why we condemn some of our family members to “survival-level” existence, and even contribute to the death of some of them, by refusing to associate with them.  Let us accept the fact that we have been squandering God’s abundant blessings not only in our country and in our families, but also in our personal lives.