Summary: We are challenged by God to rejoice. That doesn't always mean "enjoy," but if we repent of sin we will be forgiven gladly by God and have room to rejoice.
Fourth Sunday in Lent 2013
“Laetare, Jerusalem! Rejoice, Jerusalem, and gather round, all you who love her. Rejoice gladly, those who were sorrowful; exult and be refreshed with motherly consolation.” These words of today’s beautiful Introit antiphon remind us that the gift of Lent is over half given, and proclaim that the fruit of our Lenten observance must be joy. That does not necessarily mean pleasure, because joy often comes entwined with pain. Or at least Jesus and the saints knew that.
Consider the Gospel story. Joachim Jeremias, the great Lutheran scripture scholar, taught that many of the parables, including this one, had their basis in real life–the original reality program. Think about what the young man was really telling his father at first: “Dad, I wish you were dead!” Isn’t that what “give me my share of the inheritance” means? Now I know what my father would have done if I had come to him at fifteen with that kind of request. I would not have been quite as harsh if I heard that from my children, but I can certainly understand how the father might have felt. Abject disappointment. He knew the boy was a spoiled brat, but this was beyond belief. But, amazingly, he liquidated assets and gave the money to his kid, who immediately went off to Antigua and spent it all on loose living. St. Luke then has a little fun with the story. He tells us that when the boy ran out of money, the whole country fell into an economic depression. There was a famine, and the boy went to work taking care of pigs–the worst possible job for a first-century Jew.
The translation then says he “came to his senses.” In the NT, this rare phrase is used for someone who is recovering his wits after sleepwalking. Sinful habits are like that–they put you into a moral coma. The grace of God works in us even when we are in sin–we call that actual grace. God is like a bloodhound who will not stop chasing us until we catch Him. He loves us too much to let us wallow in a moral swamp. He pursues us until–God forbid–we turn away from him as we die. Well, finally this boy gets his head half screwed on and does something logical–not an act of love but of self-preservation. “None of my dad’s hired hands is starving like I am. My dad doesn’t even keep pigs. I’ll get up and go home and admit I messed up and ask for a job sweeping out the horse barn. I’ll tolerate my older brothers sneering; at least I’ll have some food and a bed.” He even rehearses a little speech for his father.
Now consider the father’s response. Apparently he has been waiting all these months, searching the horizon for some sign of the boy. These days he would have hired a private investigator to try to find him. Every day, dawn to dusk, he awaited the lad’s return. And then the payoff–he sees the young man in the distance; as he draws near the father sees his tattered clothes, his gaunt frame, his hang-dog facial expression. The father’s emotional core was moved. The Greek word is esplanchnisthç, which literally means his gut was wrenched. He ran to the boy–something no self-respecting Jewish landowner would do–and embraced and kissed him even though he probably stank to high heaven. The penitent began to speak but didn’t even get through half of his well-rehearsed speech. The father was already giving orders for a party in celebration. The sin was forgiven; the disappointment, forgotten.
I’ve had many disappointments in my life; all of us who have circled the track a few times have had them. The big ones have to do with the big parts of our life–our family, our career, our Church. The worst disappointments come when we have invested time and resources into someone we love and they let us down. You plan out a project for family, business, church and someone with more influence, more power shoots it down. You feel so let down that you think you can never forgive, never forget.
But true love always forgives, always forgets. The spouse or child or boss or cominister comes to you and says, “I really botched this. Can you forgive me?” And, if we have the heart of the Father, the heart of Jesus, the Spirit-filled soul of a true disciple, our inmost self is moved. Of course we forgive. Of course we help the other to move forward together.
There’s one more part to the story of the Father. The older brother is just as self-absorbed, but not quite as cheeky as the younger. He kept right on working, day and night, to please dad. He never complained–at least not out loud. But this reunion was too much. He might have understood taking the prodigal back and giving him a berth in the servants’ quarters. But the old man put on the best robe, the signet ring, and put on a party such as he had never even offered to his good son. “You bet I’m upset,” the elder spat. “Not once have I disobeyed you. I work my hands to the bone while this mess wastes half of all you own with hookers. You never let me have a half-baked party and yet when he comes back you kill the fatted calf. How fair is that?”