Fourth Sunday of Lent – Year C Readings
There is a trend these days, which on the periphery seems pious and holy, but if we look deeper, is concerning. There are people who come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation not because they have committed serious sins, but because they have made the sacrament a weekly or monthly devotion. Some priests encourage this practice as well. The claim is that you have to be in a ‘state of grace’ to receive Holy Communion. Being in a state of grace is totally consistent with Catholic teaching. However, the boundaries of the state of grace have been changed. It almost demands perfection. This trend is a resurgence of an old heresy called Pelagianism. Pope Francis addressed its danger in his apostolic exhortation Rejoice and be Glad. The danger is that we believe that grace, rather than being a gift of God, is earned by us by our own merit and actions. If there is anything that the parable of the prodigal son teaches us it is this: even when we are sorry for our sins, God’s forgiveness is not our right. In every sense of the word, God’s mercy is a pure gift.
Today, as we reflect today on the parable of the prodigal son, I want to reflect on it more than simply as a cute story of God’s unfathomable mercy and love. In my three points, I would like to reflect on the real issues of sin and forgiveness that many people encounter today.
- To truly understand this parable, we have to begin elsewhere. The parable of the prodigal son begins Luke Chapter 15. Chapter 14 ends with Jesus saying, “Whoever has ears, ought to hear” (Lk 14: 35b). Chapter 15 begins by saying, “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him” (Lk 15:1). We can conclude then that “Whoever who has ears” were “the tax collectors and sinners.” For the Pharisees and the scribes, this was nothing more than a scandal. Luke captures the scandal by saying, “but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”” (Lk 15:2). “So to them,” Luke says, “he addressed this parable” (Lk 15:3). Luke literary skills are amazing. Right at the beginning, Luke wants us to identify ourselves. Which group do we belong to? Are we the tax-collectors and sinners who listen to Jesus or are we the righteous people do not hear? Are we the new Pelagians who think that grace can be earned or do we believe that grace is God’s free gift? Does our being in a ‘state of grace’ make us more merciful or condemnatory? Perhaps we both of these people at different times.
- To the Pharisees and the scribes, the sight of tax collectors and sinners drawing near to listen to Jesus, was a scandal. Jesus countered the scandal with a scandal – the parable of the scandalous love of a scandalous father for his scandalous son. There is also something scandalous about the son’s repentance. We might say, he was shameless in his remorse. However, his father’s scandalous love gave him the confidence to return to his father in spite it all. Often in the confessional, I try to impress penitents of the immensity of God’s scandalous love. I say, “If you put all your sins together, you cannot beat God’s love. If you put all the sins of your entire life, you can’t beat God’s mercy. If you put all the sins of all the people in the world together, you cannot beat God’s love. If you put all the sins of all people in the world from the beginning of creation to the end of the world, you still won’t beat God’s love.” And the scandal lies in this – it is free! We never can do enough to deserve it.
- How do we forgive ourselves? From my personal experience and the experience of sitting in the confessional for twenty-five years, there is an issue that torments many penitent. For many people it is easier to believe that God has forgiven them. The biggest struggle that they have is forgiving themselves. Particularly for people who have committed a serious sin – abortion, infidelity, stealing, or caused an accident, or failed to act when it was necessary to stop an evil, or other sins of a serious nature, the hardest thing to do is to forgive oneself. What can one do to get beyond a serious sin? How can we forgive ourselves? In the confessional, when I realize someone struggles with self-forgiveness, I ask them this question: “Who is bigger, God or us?” Of course, the answer is “God!” And then I ask them, “If God has forgiven us, who are we not for forgive yourself?” And then I continue, “If God who is God has forgiven us, and we who are God’s children do not forgive ourselves, are we setting ourselves above God?” I sometimes even say, “This could be a form of idolatry!” In this way, I encourage people to allow God’s forgiveness to take the form of self-forgiveness. So, every time we are reminded of our sins for which we cannot forgive ourselves, we have to keep reminding ourselves that we are not above God. Constantly reminding ourselves about this reality, slowly helps us to get beyond our difficulty to forgive ourselves.
In the Eucharistic prayer, the priest prays, “Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of life and the chalice of salvation, giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.” Let us remember that none of us, including me, are worthy to offer this sacrifice. It is God’s love that makes us worthy. And it is free. It is a scandal.
- Satish Joseph