We are at midpoint in our Lenten journey – not exactly in the throws of Holy Week, nor the beginning where our dedication and enthusiasm might have been stronger. We are in a liminal place. Liminality is where God seems to thrive within us. It’s a period of transition, of being in the middle, where because of self-reflection and confession, one’s identity dissolves a bit, and when we are open to something new. So at this point, we need a story, which reflects this, which mirrors our Lenten experience and gives us hope. The prodigal son is such a story.
By giving us a story of a family, of fathers and sons, we are given something that inherently rings true, a story of our humanity. Jesus, in wisdom, knows our struggles and expectations within our own families, and gives us a reversal of our expectation: He shares with us the very nature of God.
I wish to focus at first on the place where my heart really goes out to the younger son. And it is a place of desperation. The money is squandered, there is famine; his employers won’t even let him eat the slop the pigs eat. Our hero is starving and he is alone. Jesus tells this story, as he often did, to the poor and the sinners. These are people who know desperation. He preaches to them because he loves vulnerability. When we are in that vulnerable place, we are open to connection to the presence of God. When we reach a place of vulnerability we realize we cannot go at it alone. We no longer have illusions of pride or own will. It is the beginning of change.
The younger son has to make a choice and he chooses to go home. He apologizes to his father for his actions and asks to work with the slaves just so he can eat. In his view this is the best situation available – the future that makes most sense. But the father in this case, and God always, does not limit the expectation to what is minimally required. God’s love, God’s goodness is always more gracious, more giving than we can hope or imagine for ourselves.
But we have to initiate that relationship. God is ever inviting relationship with him, but if we do not step forward, and say yes, even in the smallest of ways, he will not force his presence upon us. And by going home the son invites God’s greatest give to us: intimacy and grace.
Our experience tells us that love is conditional, there are strings attached. If you do this, I will leave. I will love you as much as possible but even I have limits. This is not personal. It is simply our humanity. Jesus tells us that only God’s love is truly unconditional.
By the father’s gifts of the sandals, the ring, and the feast, Jesus shows us the over abundance of grace, even when we least deserve it. But he is so happy to be with us that he cannot contain himself. It is God’s nature to give and keep on giving. God’s love was so great; he could not help but bring Jesus into the world. He is the unending overflowing cup.
The other son, of course, is bitter about the whole thing. He says he’s never received a feast, not even a young goat for him but “this son of yours who devoured your property with prostitutes, you give him the fatted calf.” But the father responds that because he has come back, “this brother of yours,” was dead and has come back to life. He stresses the relationship. It is when we forget that we all incarnated because of God’s love and come from one source, that we can dishonor each other. God stresses that he is our brother, our son, we are in relationship with this person. No one is other.
It is a paradox that in discovering our relational interdependence we can as Paul says, “regard no on from a human point of view . . . If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away . . . everything becomes new” and we can “in him, become the righteousness of God.”
It is then that we can then in honesty pray as Francis did by saying “My God and my All!”