Sunday, March 31, 2019

Laetare Sunday: a Father and his Sons

Today is Laetare Sunday, which gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Our Lenten pilgrimage is half-over, and we are already half-way to Easter.  So, on this 4th Sunday of Lent, the Church replaces her somber violet vestments with bright rose-colored vestments, adorns the altar with flowers, and allows for a greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the joy which we are meant to feel at mid-Lent as we prepare for the Easter feast – whether we are new Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter or life-long Catholics called to a life of ongoing conversion and discipleship. At an earlier time in the Church’s history, when the observance of Lent was so much stricter, this mid-Lent moment of relaxation must have been much valued and much more appreciated than it is now, when it is hardly noticed apart from the always popular rose vestments.

Speaking of popular, the Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday in this year of the 3-year Lectionary cycle (which I will not get to preach on this year, since I will be celebrating the Scrutiny Mass instead) is the ever-popular (perhaps overly popular) Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, commonly called the "Parable of the Prodigal Son," sometimes the "Parable of the Two Sons" (which is closer to what it is actually about), sometimes the "Parable of the Forgiving Father" (the main point of the parable). 

Of course, the main figure in the parable is, in fact, the father, who is obviously meant to represent God (as God has been revealed to us by Jesus). That he must be meant to represent God is evident not just from the context (cf. Luke 15:1-3), but from the obvious fact that he hardly resembles your typical human father.

On the other hand, if we forget that the parable's father is a stand-in for God and consider him and his family in human terms, then we get a very messy situation, indeed a veritable parable of family dysfunction. We start with a common-enough story of a bad (but presumably charming) younger son, who gets his way with his father, and a good, dutiful, older son, who seems unappreciated and hence is full of frustration and resentment. It would not be hard at all to find any number of analogies for that in human families and society. (An obvious Old Testament analogy is, of course, Jacob's favoring his son Joseph over Joseph's older brothers and the extreme jealousy and resentment this then produced in the older brothers.)

As the parable begins, however, the bad son really does go too far, successfully manipulating his father to give him his inheritance in advance - and then leaving town. Did he always plan to escape village life for the big city, or did he leave because what other option would there have been after doing such a  despicable thing to his father? In any case, he leaves, lives the high life, then loses everything, and is reduced to a total loss not only of money and resources but of any residual self-respect. Coming to his senses, he remembers how he manipulated his father in the past and reasons how he can do so again. So he heads home, having prepared a silly speech to conceal his arrogance in the subtle language of false humility. 

That his father sees him from a distance is not, presumably, a statement about the father's good eyesight, but rather is intended to suggest that his father was on the look-out for him, that his father wanted him back. (So the bad son's guess that his father would take him back was accurate.) The son starts his rehearsed speech, but his overjoyed father has no interest in anything other than getting his son back. He promptly restores him to his proper status and throws a party.

In a world without refrigeration, if you kill a fattened calf then you pretty much need to invite everybody. What the neighbors thought of the prodigal son is unstated. Perhaps they too appreciated his manipulative charms. Or perhaps they despised him as he deserved to be despised, but came anyway out of respect for his father.

The only one who didn't come was the older, dutiful son, whose frustration and resentment now finally explode. After all these years of faithful service, now he too finally misbehaves. If the neighbors can come out of respect for the father, how much more should the dutiful son do so? In an honor-based family culture, the son's place is by his father's side, supporting him, not undermining him, no matter how righteous his resentment!

Never one to stand on his own dignity, the father goes out to plead with his son, an astonishing reversal of roles, surely as shocking to the neighbors as the father's undignified earlier running to welcome back his younger son.  Father and older son argue, the son finally getting to express his long-felt frustration and resentment. And there the parable ends, the conflict unresolved - leaving us (who presumable identify with the dutiful son) to decide whether to come in and join the party on the father's terms or else to remain outside condemned to a forever of frustration and resentment.  

As the context makes clear - to them (those who complained that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them), Jesus addressed this parable - we are presumed to identify with the older son and are being challenged, like to older son, to come to the party, to enter the kingdom, not on our own terms, our own human notions of entitlement, but on the Father's terms.

While such behavior on the part of an ordinary human father might be unusual in human terms, God's behavior as exemplified by the father in the parable vividly illustrates the topsy turvy character of the kingdom, where the standards of this world no longer apply and we are challenged to live on God's terms rather than on our own. 

Finally, the father's lack of preoccupation with his dignity (dividing his property,  seeking his son, running to him, going outside to plead with the older son) suggest a new, very different model of behavior, both individually in our interpersonal relationships and institutionally as a Church in relation to the secular world.

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