Reflection on the Fourth Sunday of Lent
In the second reading we have a strong reminder that things have changed with the coming of Jesus in human form. We are told “… the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
I would like to retitle today’s Gospel that we know as “The Prodigal Son” to “A Tale of Two (or more) Truths.” Everything in this story speaks of both the realities we face today and the 2,000-year struggle to reconcile the God of the Old Testament and the Christ of the New Testament.
The parent in this story is like some of our images of God: someone who is an Old Testament just judge and a New Testament merciful, forgiving authority figure. This person is someone who loves others deeply, treats people fairly and is also willing to welcome back those who have strayed and repented.
One son is like us when we are faithful and seek fairness for ourselves, as we perceive it. The other son is like us when we make mistakes and seek mercy and forgiveness. Like this son, sometimes we are vulnerable to temptations, distractions and poor choices. And, like him, we sometimes seek mercy and another chance to do better. We understand that our choices have consequences, and sometimes we prefer mercy and forgiveness over what may be fair and just consequences.
We see different perspectives on the same situation in many instances today. The faithful son wants fairness and just consequences for his errant brother. The other son seeks mercy and only to be treated like one of his father’s hired workers. He has now seen poverty and abundance, and longs to return to his father’s generous care for all. The faithful son does not want too much generosity bestowed on his brother.
And today we have all three of these people represented within Christian communities and outside of these communities. We see very different versions of what has passed away and what this new way is from Jesus. There are so many different answers to the question “What Would Jesus Do?” In the face of war and unrelenting suffering in the world, there is still disagreement.
For some, “justice” is the only “right and fair” response to those who have broken some rule or law. Incarceration, not rehabilitation; deportation, not entrance to refugees; minimum wage not a living wage; protection of property over protection of the life of another; and a lack of housing, health care and good education for those who are poor. We have legislated “justice” that is coated in racism, sexism and elitism.
No one wants repeat violent offenders walking among us. Few of us believe the apologetic behavior of repeat domestic abusers. But for some, justice is tempered with mercy. Repentance and desperation call forth compassion and forgiveness. Each person deserves respect, consideration and another chance. Others have some sense that “there, but for the grace of God, go I” when they look at the “crimes” or failings of others.
And, like the Gospel story, it is difficult today to find agreement or even to hear the “truth” as the other perceives it. Some seem to want to put personal responsibility over compassion. It is a personal failure today when someone is labeled “soft on crime” as the father in this Gospel might have been labeled or labeled a socialist as Jesus might be labeled today. Fear and insecurity pit people against each other, and we are convinced too often that we live in an “us or them” world where one person’s gain causes another person’s loss. Divisions grow and distrust prevails.
When I thought about the second reading and this Gospel, I am reminded of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s song entitled “Love Changes Everything.”
I hope we can always be compelled by love and willing to accept the consequences that come with that choice to try to love as God has loved.