“We might say that when the prodigal son “came to himself,” (Lk.15:17) he came to know that he was loved by his father and in his father’s embrace he began to learn the love of neighbour.” Fr. Marco Testa is a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Here is his homily for the fourth Sunday in Lent “Laetare Sunday” (C)
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son (Lk. 15: 18-19).
The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps one of the better known of our Lord’s parables. His method of preaching was such that His parables are meant “to lead gradually to the hidden reality that can be truly discovered only through discipleship” (Pope Benedict XVI). Our Lord says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may see, and hearing they may not understand” (Lk. 8:10). What is the hidden reality of the parable we have just heard? The answer to this question may depend on a number of factors. The spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture can speak to our faith, our ultimate destiny, or it can lead us to act justly or morally. Given your age or life experience you may in turn, identify with each of the characters in the parable. All of us can in some measure identify with the prodigal son for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Perhaps, like the father in the parable you are in search of a family member who has distanced himself from the family or the Church, and you long for his coming home. Or you may identify with the elder brother; like him you have borne the heat of the day’s work. Perhaps you have shouldered heavy responsibilities without any help from other family members – perhaps in the care of an ailing parent; or perhaps you may feel that your sense of duty and responsibility is taken advantage of far too often.
We are defined by our relationships; and the dynamics of relationships described in this parable, like the dynamics of our own relationships are predicated on the virtue of justice. In common usage, the term justice implies to render to every man his due (‘dare cuique suum’, Ulpian). In the parable, the younger son asks the father for the share of the property that will belong to him by virtue of the laws of inheritance. The older brother complains that the younger brother who has squandered his inheritance is upon his return treated in a manner that clearly violates what is just; despite the father’s assurance that all he has does indeed belong to the elder brother. Clearly the formula for guaranteeing justice in the world – to render to every man his due – both in the parable and in reality has shown itself to be lacking. No material goods or equal redistribution of wealth can guarantee real happiness. In order to be happy, truly happy, man needs something that cannot be guaranteed for him by the law of justice.
The Christian understanding of life’s purpose and meaning goes beyond the demands of strict justice. We are wont to speak of justice tempered with mercy precisely because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). St. James declares that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:13). This compassionate perspective on life and specifically, man, that is to say ourselves and others, is the something that enables us to triumph over strict justice. It could be said that this attitude is our response to the God who has loved us first. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10). As Pope Benedict explained in his Lenten Message for this Year of Faith, “The entire Christian life is a response to God’s love. The first response is precisely faith as the acceptance, filled with wonder and gratitude, of the unprecedented divine initiative that precedes us and summons us. And the ‘yes’ of faith marks the beginning of a radiant story of friendship with the Lord, which fills and gives full meaning to our whole life. But it is not enough for God that we simply accept his gratuitous love. Not only does he love us, but he wants to draw us to himself, to transform us in such a profound way as to bring us to say with Saint Paul: ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’” (cf. Gal 2:20).
The parable of the Prodigal Son is a clear expression of the divine initiative that precedes us and summons us. “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Lk. 15:20). The hidden reality of this parable that the Church proclaims is the truth about God and about man. God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4), and man is the recipient of this mercy; and no matter how disfigured we may be by sin and its consequences, the truth is that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). This is the hidden reality of the parable that enables us to rejoice with God whenever those who are far from God return to Him; no matter how long the separation has been. “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk.15:32). This hidden reality is in fact an open secret evident for all to see for it describes the nature and purpose of all of the Church’s efforts, always and everywhere. This parable teaches us that God is love and that man who is created in God’s image and likeness can only be truly fulfilled in, by and through love. In his Lenten Message (2013) Pope Benedict again explains: “When we make room for the love of God, then we become like him, sharing in his own charity. If we open ourselves to his love, we allow him to live in us and to bring us to love with him, in him and like him; only then does our faith become truly ‘active through love’ (Gal 5:6); only then does he abide in us” (cf. 1 Jn. 4:12).
On this Laetare Sunday when the sacred liturgy enjoins us to rejoice and exult (Cf. Introit of the Mass The Roman Missal), the lessons of the Mass help us to hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come “with prompt devotion and eager faith” (Collect, IV Sunday in Lent; The Roman Missal); certain in the knowledge that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away…All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). This is the Gospel of Salvation that the Church proclaims in every time and place. The Church is the visible community of God’s mercy and love where “everything begins from the humble acceptance of faith (‘knowing that one is loved by God’), but has to arrive at the truth of charity (‘knowing how to love God and neighbour’) which remains for ever, as the fulfilment of all the virtues (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13)” (Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten Message, 2013). We might say that when the prodigal son “came to himself,” (Lk.15:17) he came to know that he was loved by his father and in his father’s embrace he began to learn the love of neighbour. So we too receive the Father’s embrace in the Church, the visible community of God’s mercy. It is here that we learn evermore deeply that “everything comes from love; that all is ordained for the salvation of man, and that God does nothing without this goal in mind” (St. Catherine of Siena). It is also in the Church that through our discipleship we arrive gradually at the truth of charity, learning how to love God and neighbour.
You are no doubt aware that on Tuesday, March 12th, the Cardinals in Rome will begin the Conclave that will elect a new pope. The Church exists for no other reason than to bring God to men and men to God. Let us keep them at the forefront of our prayers and our Lenten sacrifices and penances. Just as God does nothing without the salvation of man in mind, so too may the Cardinals be guided by this one and most necessary goal. In the history of the Church, explains Pope Pius XII: “there have been alternating victories and defeats, ascents and descents, heroic confession with the sacrifice of material goods and life, but also in some of her members, falls, betrayal and division. The evidence of history is unequivocally clear: ‘portae inferi non praevalebunt’ [the gates of hell shall not prevail] (Mt. 16, 18); but other evidence is not lacking – even the gates of hell have had their partial successes.” (Address, Di gran cuore; September 14, 1956). Despite the partial and apparent successes of hell, the Church is not shaken by persecutions, nor by the heresies and sins of her members; rather, does she draw new vigor and new vitality from the grave crises that hit her. This is why we can always profess belief in “the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”. Among his last public pronouncements Pope Benedict said, “We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new” (Sunday, February 10, 2013). May we dispose our hearts and minds ever to receive this grace for our good, for that of His holy Church and the salvation of the whole world.