4th Sunday of Lent Year C

We have just heard the story of the Prodigal Son what is possibly considered the greatest story of forgiveness in the Bible.  And I hate to burst your balloon, but I actually believe that is not really a story of forgiveness at all.  My evidence?  No one says they are sorry and no one offers forgiveness.  Instead, I think it centers on a far more integral action:  compassion.  Yes, compassion will include the grace of the forgiveness but it promises so much more.  It means anticipating needs, reaching out, surrender and above all love.  The Compassionate father is perfect model of God’s free, incandescent love.  Our Lenten challenge then is to embrace the gift of compassion.

And one way to learn about compassion is to focus on the two sons who lacked it.  I admit that I am always too hard on the younger brother.  It is because I have one and older brothers are always too hard on the younger ones.  First, the younger son asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive –RUDE!  Then you cannot be surprised that he was going to blow it.  What really upsets me about the younger brother is that he practices a speech to get back in his father’s good graces (when, if he had truly known his father, he would have known he would be welcomed back.)  You can see him walking the long road back to his father’s house saying over and over, “Father, I have sinner against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired hands.”  And again, “Father, I have sinner against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired hands.”  What really burns me is that after his father spots him, runs to him and embraces him in love, he still has the nerve to repeat the speech! He is still strategic and unmoved by his father’s embrace.  Not even the completeness of his father’s loving welcome has taught him the nature of compassion.

Then there is the older brother.  A few years ago, when this last came around at Lent, we gave a reflection telling the story of from the three perspectives.  Deacon Dick voiced the point of view of the Compassionate Father and Sr. Betsy the younger son.  I spoke from the perspective of the older brother.  After mass, people came up to me, “I am on your side Fr. Bob”  “Go Team Older Brother.”   And I kept on saying, “You know we were left outside in the cold, outside the party, bitter and angry.”  Indeed, the older son represents the Pharisees at the beginning of the story who resent Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.  He chooses to be away from the compassionate love of God. 

Most infuriatingly, he cannot even be happy that his father’s heartbreak, with which he must have lived every day, was now healed.  His anger is so great that he can show no relief even at his father’s healing.  Instead, he is caught up in the everlasting consumption of me.  What about me?  What about my rights?  How is this fair?  What do I deserve?  As long as those are the questions that dominate our lives, we cannot get to compassion because we will never be centered or even tarry at the idea of the other.  Selfishness precludes compassion. 

I recall a small turning point in my life.  I was a campus minister and I heard one of my students was angry with me.  I did not know why and I mentally prepared my defenses as to why she should not be angry with me; going over all the scenarios that might have made her upset and then proclaiming why I was innocent.  Then I realized, the only thing she was looking for was for me to say I am sorry.  And why would I not give her what she needs?  How could I let my pride interfere with her healing?

The Compassionate Father puts asides every obstacle that stops love.  He does not greet his younger son with a thousand “I told you so’s.”  He rejoices to have found what was lost, to see resurrection emerge from death.  Yet, he still had a sharp sense of the absence of his older son and went to get him as he went and got his younger one.

We are called to be as the Compassionate Father who saw his son at a distance, just a speck on the horizon.  How many times did he see a figure out his window and rushed to greet him only to find it was not his longed for son.  We are to be a people who celebrate returns, who do not forgive reluctantly, but joyously.  Who overwhelm the damaged and hurting with outrageous generosity. 

If we consign ourselves to our pride, we will never know the true face of our God.  We will be mired in the ungratefulness of the younger son or the foolishness of the older one, too dumb to ask the most generous man in the world a solidary favor. 

We will only know the true love of God when we imitate that compassion.  That does not limit what is given to what is deserved.  That surrenders pride of place for the celebration and the duty of love.  That feels like Christ who surrendered everything in his own passion and did not bother to ask whether we were worth living for or dying for. Who only wanted to save what was lost. 

If others will see the face of God in us, they will not do so because we are the most deserving or had accumulated the most self-righteousness.  They will only see it in our outsized, generous and unearned compassion.  They will only see it in our love.