The parable that characterizes this fourth Sunday of Lent opens with this simple yet sublime and valuable Gospel presentation.
Only a man who has children (carnal or spiritual) is called a father. The father begets a son (or a daughter), but it is the birth of a son (or daughter) which transforms a man into being a father.
These considerations are elementary, but not trivial: for it is in the relationship between father and son that the identity of the two people is configured. This is also the case in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The development of the parable opens us to an understanding of the decisiveness of this relationship.
Jesus points out that “a man had two sons”. The verb is in the imperfect tense, that is, it emphasizes a prolonged action, which knows no pause or interruption. The father in the parable is faithful to his fatherhood: he never tires of generating, that is to say, maintaining a living relationship with his children, although both of his children assume choices and attitudes that deny their “sonship”.
The younger son, asking his father for his share of the inheritance in advance, before his father’s death, in a certain sense, seems to almost act as though his father were already dead, in the presumption of being able to live without any need to be taken care of by him: it is the presumption of a branch that claims to bear ripe grapes by detaching itself from the vine.
The son moves away from the paternal home and from the relationship that generated him, exposing himself to a progressive and inexorable failure. We find him minding the swine, they being considered impure animals in the Jewish world: very far not only from his home and land, but also from his father’s tradition and religious tradition. His father, on his part, remained at home, respectful of his son’s freedom of choice, never staying far in thought from this rebellious and presumptuous young man: fidelity to his love and paternal care kept him “very close” to his son. The Father never lost his paternal identity.
It is only when the young man is humiliated by failure that he takes stock of himself and remembers the source of his life: his father.
So at this point, he decides to return home, repentant and unpretentious.
The encounter with the father is moving: it manifests the absolute and amazing gratuitousness of the father’s forgiveness. Once again the father “generates” his son: it is a new birth. The feast becomes like an explosion of unconditional love!
The father’s gratuitous love, however, scandalizes the eldest son, who rebels, manifests his bitter disappointment and does not want to join in the joy of his father.
In his words we see the evil he is suffering from, the same evil as his younger brother: he refused the relationship with his father, living “as a slave” and will not recognize him as his brother. He does not understand the joy of the sinner’s return. He rejects the victory of life over death.
Once again, the father, true to his paternal identity, goes out as a loving father to embrace his son.
Original sin and personal sin, from their perverse root, are configured as the presumption of being able to live without the father, without the creator, and everything falls into disorder, loneliness and death (LS).
Nobody “generates” himself or herself: our life is possible only within the fundamental relationship with the father. Moreover, no fraternity is possible if we do not recognize the same father who generated us (FT): with our meager human strength we can give life to earthly fragile societies, associations and agreements, however, true and lasting fraternity is a gift that comes from above.
From the humiliation of our personal and social failures it is necessary to pass to the humility of recognizing ourselves as children, in need of forgiveness, of being always and repeatedly generated by a Father who continually comes to us in an infinite impulse of love by giving us His Son, in whom we have become children, and it is the Holy Spirit who generates divine life in us and gives us the ability to live in true fraternal communion.
Fr Luke Gregory, ofm
Custody of the Holy Land