Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent which is frequently known by the Latin word that opens the entrance antiphon. And that word is laetare. Laetare means rejoice. And as we enter the church on this fourth Sunday in Lent we are met with the command to rejoice.
And on this Rejoice Sunday we are given the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is one of the best-known parables of the Gospels, and it has been covered many times over by better preachers than me. So if you heard it all before, my deepest apologies.
But what strikes me on reading the scriptures for today is how the reading from Saint Paul’s letter ties in with the parable to show us that the life of Grace replaces the life of the Mosaic law, as the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant, the New Covenant which will be sealed by Jesus Christ’s passion and death and resurrection.
Saint Paul says, “whoever is in Christ is a new creation, for the old things have passed away and new things have come.” St. Paul explains how this happens when he says, “God has reconciled himself to us through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, not counting the trespasses against us so that we might become the righteousness of God.” The message is clear: something is entirely new thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross.
And the scene before the parable gives us a hint at what this new thing is. Our old antagonists, the Pharisees and the Scribes, do what they do and complain to Jesus about his violations of the Mosaic law. Rather than argue with them, Jesus tells this parable about a man who has two sons.
So let’s look at the two sons. The older son is a dutiful and obedient and quiet man who does what his father expects him to do. He is the kind of young man who would make sure to follow the Mosaic law. The younger son is a piece of work. No father really wants a son like this one. He is impatient, and he is disrespectful. He is impatient to receive his inheritance, and so he asks for it from his father so that he will have it before his father dies. Remarkably, his father agrees.
So the young man takes his new wealth and goes off to foreign lands and squanders it on wine and women. Out of money and down on his luck, he has to take a job feeding the pigs. In that low position, he admits the reality of what he has done, and decides to go back to his father and seek employment as a servant rather than to be returned to his status as the son.
When the younger son comes back asking only to be treated as a servant, he is embraced as a son. This parable is clearly as much about the parable of the loving father as it is about the Prodigal Son.
Contrast the older brother with the younger brother. The older brother in the story represents the Law. You may remember that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his face was brilliantly white, and he looked too scary to the Israelites. So he sat down and gave them the second law — also called Deuteronomy — which was much more detailed than the very simple and comprehensive first and second great Commandments: Love God with all that you have, and love your neighbor as you wish to be loved.
After a thousand years of following Mosaic law, many Israelites had slipped into the mentality that it was the following of the law that justified them and gave them their dignity. They were dignified to the degree that they followed the precepts of the law. From their point of view, dignity comes from what you do. That is not merely an ancient mentality; we see that in our world today all over the place.
The Christian view rejects that idea, and we point to this parable for proof. The younger son was all kinds of trouble. He was disrespectful to his father, even asking for the death benefit before his father died. Well that’s a violation of one of the Big Ten commandments. It’s Number Four: Honor your mother and father. Then he engaged in unsavory behavior, wasting his wealth. There could be hardly anything less dignified for a good Jew than to have to feed pigs, yet that’s where he found himself. The younger son clearly shared with the older son the idea that dignity comes what you do, for he dared not go back to his father as son but only as servant. For a son has more rights than a servant.
His father’s joyful embrace must have shocked him. It shocks us a little bit today. In that hug, the loving father, abba, daddy, was telling the boy that dignity comes from who you are rather than what you do. The loving father in the parable represents our loving father in Heaven. Our loving father in Heaven loves us the same on our best day as he does on our worst day, and his love for us never changes. That was a radical concept then, and it is a radical concept today.
Our righteousness comes from who our heavenly father is, not from what we do. We are blessed because of who our heavenly father is, not from what we have. And how did he come to be our heavenly father? We are made sons and daughters by adoption through baptism, and we are redeemed in the blood of the Savior: the blood of the Savior that we will see on Good Friday. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross is our ticket into the life of Grace. The younger son’s journey is a foreshadowing of the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. First it was John the Baptist, then it was Jesus, who invited people to turn away from their sins and to turn toward the Messiah. Jesus is the messiah, Jesus is the anointed one, Jesus is the Christ.
He was anointed to take upon himself all our sins so that we could turn back and go to the father. Our heavenly father is waiting for us with his arms open wide, he has a fresh robe for us and a beautiful ring. He wants to feed us with Heavenly food that gives us the true life of Grace.
Turning back to the parable for a moment, do you notice how unhappy the older son seems even at the end of the story? He still thinks that the Mosaic law, or the life of duty, should be the way we all should live. He is struggling accepting the gift of the life of Grace. In that way, he is very much like the Pharisees and the Scribes. They struggled with the Messiah, and in the final chapter they rejected him.
The heart of the parable is that point in the story when the younger son turns back toward the father. That is conversion. Most of us use the word conversion as though it only happens one time in somebody’s life, sort of like confirmation. But the life of Grace revolves around continuing conversion. Some of us have had a feeding the pigs moment when we finally turned around. It was inescapably bad, and we had to do something.
Even if we’re not stuck feeding pigs, we can still be converted. The life of Grace is a life of conversion because all things are new. As we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Graces of God rain down upon us, our spiritual vision improves, and we will see we now are in a different pigsty feeding different pigs even if nobody else sees it that way. We turn back – we convert – to our father and ask his forgiveness and welcome his embrace.
He is always standing there at the edge of the property with his arms open, a big smile on his face, a robe in one hand and a ring in the other, waiting for us to come home and return to our dignity, the dignity that he gave us.
The New Covenant, given to us through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is how the life of laws is replaced by the life of Grace. It is the Cross that gives us the courage to turn back and run to our Father’s open arms and be embraced as good sons and daughters.
There are three more weeks of Lent. But rejoice. For it ends in Triumph on the Cross of Good Friday.