Fourth Sunday of Lent

Homily by Father Jake Mudge

Part of my ministry in the first parish I worked in was to visit the schools within the parish each day.

I enjoyed the experience, which often revolved around helping to prepared the students for the sacraments in earlier years of school, or taking part in discussions about ministry and the Church for students studying in the later years of secondary school.

Naturally, some of the questions and discussions moved onto matters of faith and belief, and of God; and I found that, especially in secondary school year groups, the students began to grapple with deeper issues, and often had the courage to speak out and discuss aspects of their faith openly and honestly: not an easy thing to do when dealing with sensitive matters such as faith!

Sometimes the questions were easy, and at other times they were more direct or thought-provoking. I remember vividly one day when a year seven or year eight student asked, in a slightly challenging tone, “Fr Jake, how are you going to make us believe in God?” For a moment, I felt a little like a salesman being challenged to give my sales-pitch or justify my product.

It was an interesting question for many reasons. Of course we can’t “make” others believe in God – faith is a grace and gift open to all, and is expressed in many different ways and times in a person’s life; always against the backdrop of an ever-patient and understanding God.

Also, the challenge to answer the question reminded me of a strong part of our Australian culture: to challenge the other to “deliver the goods” – to put into words or justify and explain what one preaches and believes, irrespective of your position or who you are in the community.

Yet, on another level, this question highlighted for me a deeper issue – of people’s deep yearning to be able to know about and to talk about God: who is this person we talk about when we talk about “God”? It highlighted for me the yearning that people have to find the expressions and words to use to begin to describe who God is and what God might mean for us.

The gospel today, I believe, offers a rich way to understand, and to talk about, “God.” Today’s gospel is the third – and perhaps best known – in a group of three parables in chapter 15 of Luke that tell of something being lost and a Father’s radical love and commitment to seek-out and “find” that which is missing.

The three parables – that of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son – paint a picture of a God who, in a sense, defies all logic in his willingness and effort to find and welcome back, that which was lost:

(i)            It paints a picture of a God waiting patiently: always ready to hear and see the son approaching, even from far off. It even paints a picture of a God who seems to expect us to approach the house again;

(ii)           It paints a picture of a forgiving and merciful God; a God who, although disowned by those who he loves, rejoices and celebrates at one’s homecoming;

(iii)         It paints a picture of an intimate God: a God who throws himself to us with an embrace as we merely begin to gesture and hint towards reaching-out to him;

(iv)         It paints a picture of a God who doesn’t judge, as we ourselves might judge others;

(v)           It paints a picture of a God who heals; a God who, in putting rings on the son’s fingers and robes on his back restores him to dignity and worth and celebrates this to the full: A God who makes us a “new creation”, as Paul describes it the second reading today.

(vi)         It paints a picture of a God whose desire to love us is always far greater than we can imagine.

What’s more, the God revealed to us by Jesus in this parable is a God who journeys with us – in and through Jesus. A God, who, in a sense, is always with us and never just “far off” or remaining in the house “waiting”. As Jesus Christ shows us, and as St Paul reminds us, God is deeply united with us in all of our faith journey: suffering and feeling with us, and strengthening us all along.

Brendan Byrne SJ suggests that without this parable, and perhaps without the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Christianity would be something very different”. Of course, the story of the lost Son gives us much hope and encouragement, and reveals to us the radical nature of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy. The last part of the parable, however, is indeed challenging and a bit more open-ended and hard to interpret.

Brendan Byrne also says that this parable is not only about a lost son, but about a lost brother, too: there are two lost sons, in fact, in this story.

The older brother, understandably, feels alienated and offended by the Father’s apparent extravagance in welcoming the sinful Son back without probation, explanation or even any type of penance. This is an offence to the brother’s conscientiousness and hard work over many years.

I can easily identify and relate with the feelings of the older brother here! In a sense, there is almost an injustice – at least in human terms – in the Father’s extravagant welcoming-back of the lost Son. How could this be, according to our human terms and sensibilities?

Interestingly, we don’t even find out what happens to him: Does he give-in and accept the Father’s gesture and come in to also join the party? Or does he remain unaccepting, bitter, and angry at the Father’s mercy and forgiveness? This is a part of the story that we are invited to reflect upon ourselves.   

I think that this is why this aspect of the parable – the part that tells of the lost brother – is perhaps the most challenging part of the entire parable. It invites us into a radical and faith and trust in God. It really challenges our faith to try and find words and images to attempt to describe the unfathomable mercy and compassion of God. It is a parable which challenges us to abandon our own prejudices and look deeply and unceasingly into the mystery and depth of God and God’s plan for the world.

In both the setting of the gospel and the parable itself of today, Jesus portrays a God who is discovered very much in “community”. We can imagine, in fact, two important communities who witness this radical mercy, acceptance, hospitality and forgiveness of God. One of these communities is that of the tax collector and sinners, eating and socialising with Jesus, learning and experiencing the acceptance and welcome of God through him. The second community, is that of the friends of the lost son: they join in the Father’s house in an evening of celebration and festivity. Yet in both of these communities we don’t about the next day – the “day after.” However, we can presume that the acceptance and experience they had of welcome was one that they shared and talked about with those who then then met.

In a sense, this is also our task: to paint a picture of, and to proclaim a God of mercy and compassion; and to be challenged to look deeply and unceasingly into the mystery and depth of God and God’s plan for the world.