Mass begins each week with a verse from Sacred Scripture. Mother Church provides this for us, for our nourishment – although in recent decades we have commonly replaced it with a hymn or a ditty or something. I make a point when I reflect on the readings for a homily, to begin with that verse. Mother Church provides it for our nourishment, why should we neglect it as if she would give us something we do not need? And this Sunday, which we call Laetare Sunday, begins with “Laetare” - which in English is, “Rejoice”.
Rejoice Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.
It is a beautiful verse from Isaiah calling on us to rejoice with our mother the Church, and to drink from her 'consoling breast', that is to joyfully feed from that which she provides for us.
So we come to our mother the Church joyfully for food. And what food does she provide for us today?
We are fed today with possibly what is the literary highpoint of gospel writing; what we call generally the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Unfortunately by calling it that name, we reveal a lot about ourselves, because by prioritising one of the sons and side-lining the other, we kind of say that really the parable is about the very wicked son; and the other son, well, he's just a bit grumpy. In fact the parable is the parable of the two sons. Both sons represent immature ways of relating to God (to quote the Pope emeritus). It is very important that we realise that both are wrong; both are sinful but in very different ways; both are immature but in very different ways.
The first son thinks he knows best. He doesn't want to hang around at home wasting his time, so he commits a dreadful sin. He dishonours his father; he demands his inheritance there and then: he effectively says, I wish you were dead. This is an incredibly wicked thing to do and would have seemed even more wicked at the time of Jesus. It would have been the height of disrespect. And then, he travels to a foreign land and his life then dissipates in dissolute living, until eventually he has nothing. His fall is very great, but it has the virtue of shaking him up and brings him at last to his senses. He now realises his sin. He exemplifies the folly of rebellion. He is immature through rebellion. He goes against his father to the very extreme, and then falls, and then repents.
The second son, who has remained at home and who has not disrespected his father, who has been obedient, who has not lived a dissolute life, who has worked steadily at home, is nevertheless equally immature in his relationship with the father. His obedience is childish. He thinks himself superior. He doesn't remain at home out of love, he remains at home to be different to his brother, to be better than his brother... And we can see that he has become filled with pride. When his brother returns, he is not pleased at his brother's repentance (unlike his father). The elder son is envious. He is sorrowful at another person's good. He is immature. He is full of his own merits.
We call the parable the prodigal son because, partly at least, we would rather not hear the second part about the elder son. In fact, the elder son, despite the fact he has not sinned in obvious ways, he has not sinned in lurid or scandalous ways, he has not publicly humiliated himself, despite all this, he is in fact in a much more difficult sinful position. He doesn't believe he needs forgiveness. It is clear now that this parable is a warning to the religious, the pious, to those who practice their religion meticulously, who are careful not to cause scandal … but are doing it out of childish obedience.
This parable is perhaps the highpoint of gospel literature not least because it announces the truly astounding love of the Father. The Father's love is greater than our wretchedness – the parable portrays this very, very beautifully, with wonderful detail. The bit which I love is when it says “while he was still far away, his father saw him and was moved with pity...” An extremely moving and touching detail. The father sees him coming and goes out to meet him. You can sense in this the enormous compassion and eagerness to have his son return home.
The Father's love though, is greater also than our own merits. For us to enter into a mature relationship with God we need to appreciate that we can do absolutely nothing to earn His love for us. Very beautifully the father says to the elder son, “My son”, despite the atrocious thing the elder son said, “all these years I have slaved for you!” How could it be slavery? It was slavery in the elder son's heart! But tenderly the father draws him out of his anger, pride and envy, and says “all I have is yours”. To enter into a mature relationship with the Father is not loss of freedom (i.e. slavery) but in truth the greatest freedom of all.
As we grow in maturity in relationship to our heavenly Father, we grow to love obeying Him and His commands, it gives us delight, in fact it gives us joy. Today is Laetare/rejoice Sunday and we rejoice because we know our Father in Heaven. Our Father has created us out of free, unselfish, love, and has created us to be free – that is with a conscience that suffers when we get lost, and is joyful when we return.
The world has twisted our notion of freedom – that somehow we express our 'freedom' when we rebel and do our own thing, and sees obedience as a slavery, as the elder brother did. What the world has done is to mix up freedom and license. Often the world is talking about licence to sin, rather than freedom! Christ Himself reveals to us that freedom is found through obedience to the Father who love us, and whom we freely and lovingly obey, and do so in joy. And that is where freedom is, in the joy. It is not in the knowledge that I can chose to sin if I want to! Sin is always slavery, is always misery and suffering in our conscience (however well it is hidden), and is far from freedom. To be free is to be in a mature relationship with the Father as His adopted sons and daughters, delighting in doing what He asks of us, delighting in lively virtues growing in us, and not being afraid. That is freedom and that is living in love and that is what causes us to Laetare/Rejoice. IH