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Summary: The father only seems like a chump, taking back the wastrel son. But I am not the elder son, I am the prodigal, needing forgiveness.

4th Sunday of Lent 2010

So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

If God had to join the rest of us in filing an annual tax return, what do you suppose he would write as his occupation? When I’ve asked that to folks in the past, they said “Creator,” even “Savior.” But if we look at the Bible for God’s occupation, we’d find most of the evidence points to the work of God chronicled in the first chapters of Genesis. God is a gardener. In Eden, to the East, he planted a garden. Isaiah describes him planting a vineyard. And in Jesus’s most profound analogy, this parable of the father, God is described as a farmer. Moreover, he is a farmer who plans so far ahead that he keeps a veal calf at all times, fatted and ready for an impromptu party.

But not today. Ever since his younger son left home he hasn’t been the same. Oh, the boy was just the opposite of his older sibling. When Judah got right to his lessons, Benjamin dallied over his games. When Judah answered his dad’s summons right away, Ben yelled “just a minute,” and then sauntered into Dad’s study a half-hour later. Judah was serious; little Ben was frivolous. Judah’s room was always in good order; Ben had to use a rake to find his bed under all the debris.

But Dad loved them both–too much, it seemed to the hired hands. When Ben got it in his head to demand his share of the inheritance and run off to some contemporary Sodom, Dad should probably have practiced tough love. Instead, he acted like a chump and let the boy go. And ever since, from dawn to dusk he sat on the veranda, sipping his julep and scanning the horizon for his wastrel son. If the older boy hadn’t been hard at work, the farm would have gone to seed. He worked all the harder to protect what was left–the part of the homestead his hopeless father hadn’t sold off to fund his kid brother’s extravagance.

And when, predictably, the boy came back, broke, tattered, diseased and starving, what did the father do? He should have at least done what the boy had asked, and made him a servant. But no–he called for a robe and a ring and killed the fatted calf and threw a party such as the farm had never seen. Is it any wonder that the responsible one pouted and refused to come in? Here comes the lazy, no-account profligate bum. Could we share the same genes? He probably has lice and syphilis and AIDS and who knows what? DADDY, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?

One of my favorite lines from Pope Benedict goes something like this: God loves us so much that He acts against his own self-interest in our behalf. God’s forgiveness is so consistent, his desire to reconcile with us so profound that in doing so, he seems like the ultimate, eternal patsy. All the thief next to Jesus had to do in his dying moment is ask for fellowship with Jesus, and he was taken to paradise. The woman caught in adultery, Peter, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius Loyola, Dorothy Day–all they needed to do was ask for reconciliation, and the Church opened its arms and the Father forgave them and made them saints. It doesn’t seem fair to those of us who have led such . . .

Well, not such good lives. I am not the elder son; I am the prodigal. I have nothing to boast of except the mercy of the Father we share in common. Over and over again I ran after lesser goods than He. Over and over again I thought my way superior to His. Are any of us any better than the prodigal Son? Surrounded by the banquet of grace, have we not preferred the moral fast food of the culture? Have we succumbed to the lure of the world and the flesh and even the devil?

He waits for us here. He scans the horizon, yearning to run out and put his arms around us and forgive us. Years of rebellion, of pornography or adultery, of tax cheating or theft from employers, of taking short cuts in our student work or short words to our students. All these sins are nothing compared to God’s mercy. Perhaps we have practiced contraception, even sacrificed a child by abortion. Have we neglected our religious duties on Sundays and holy days? Have we neglected or abused our parents, spouse, or children? There is no sin that He cannot forgive, as long as we are truly sorry and determined not to do it any more. God wants to hear us say with the psalmist: “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.”

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