Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C.
If familiarity breeds contempt, it’s surprising that this parable can still captivate and move us. It is, after all, the most familiar parable in all the gospels. And we may be tempted, having heard it so often, to think that there is no new insight we can glean from it. The moment we hear the words, “A man had two sons,” we may be tempted to stop listening. We know how it goes; we know how it ends. What new could be said about the most famous parable in all of the gospels? What more could be said about God’s mercy? To look at this parable with fresh eyes, perhaps the best place to begin is not with the concept of mercy, but of justice.
Justice is to give to another what is their due; it’s to pay to them what we owe them. In conversations about justice today, we tend to focus on our rights, on what people owe us, rather than what we owe them. We see injustice as something done to us, rather than something we do to others. But someone who is truly awake to the demands of justice is someone who is aware of their indebtedness, of what they owe to others. The just man will then try to repay his debts. In doing so, he will realize that there are some debts that are impossible to repay. It is impossible, for example, to repay the debts we owe to our parents, to our country, and to God. This is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, and it makes perfect sense if we think about it. Without our parents, we obviously wouldn’t exist. Without our country—the very land we live on, we couldn’t continue to exist after we are born. And, of course, without God, nothing would exist, neither our parents nor our country. These are debts that are impossible to repay. No matter how much we honor our parents, no matter how patriotic we are, not matter how often we worship God, we will never be able to repay the debts that we owe them.
Now it’s clear to me, as I’m sure it is to many of you, that the sense of indebtedness to our parents, to our country, and to God is on decline in our culture. Over the past century, we have become less respectful of our parents, less patriotic, and less religious. Because of this, we have a hard time grasping just how horribly unjust the actions of the younger were in our gospel. If the younger son was the main character in a movie today, he would be the hero of the story. His decision to leave home would be portrayed as a brave decision to leave the clutches of an oppressive father figure. He would not have returned home when the famine hit, but would have stayed and died—better to be a martyr for the values you create for yourself than embrace the traditional values you were raised in. “After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.” He rejects his parents, rejects his country, and rejects God. These are not the actions of a hero, but of a terribly unjust man. The younger son owed a debt to his parents, his country, and to God. And not only did he not attempt to repay these debts, but he failed to acknowledge their existence at all. It’s as if he said to them, “I don’t owe you anything. You are nothing to me. And worse than that, you are a hindrance to me. Only by rejecting you will I find true happiness.”
This is what we say to God when we sin. Only when we feel the full weight of our indebtedness to God, and the impossibility of repaying that debt, will we grasp the true injustice of sin. We already owe God everything, because without Him we’d have nothing. And even if we give everything back to God we still will not have repaid Him. We are in debt to God even if we never sin. This is what the older son doesn’t understand. The older son thinks that because he has served his father faithfully for many years, and never once disobeyed his orders, that his father owes him something. Even if we never sin, God doesn’t owe us anything because of that. God didn’t have to create us in the first place, after all, but He did. God in His goodness gave this great gift to us: our very existence. And if God’s mercy is His goodness to us even if we don’t deserve it, then we can say that His mercy is very foundation of our existence. In this sense, we are just as dependent on God’s mercy even if we never sin. This is what the older son doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that he has just as much reason to celebrate his father’s mercy as his brother does. Both sons are incapable of repaying the debt they owe their father; both sons are recipients of their father’s mercy.
Only when we grasp just how indebted we are to our Heavenly Father can we appreciate just how merciful He is to us. The father didn’t owe the younger son anything; the younger son owed everything to his father, and then some. And yet, when the father caught sight of him, he ran to him, embraced him, fitted him with the finest clothes, and threw a feast for him. The extravagance of the father’s mercy is beyond comprehension in light of his son’s indebtedness. And the same is true for our Heavenly Father’s mercy toward us: the extravagance of it is beyond comprehension.
The Mass we celebrate each Sunday is the feast of the Father’s mercy. We owe God everything. One of the ways we attempt to repay this debt, even though it is ultimately beyond repayment, is to participate in Mass. And Mass isn’t efficient, it’s extravagant. We recognize that there is never a point where we can say, “that’s enough.” What we owe God, in terms of worship, is always more than what we can offer Him. That is why we wear costly vestments and use vessels made out of gold at Mass. That’s why we build expensive churches. That’s also we repeat things at Mass. When we sing the Sanctus, it would be more efficient to say, “Holy Lord, God of Hosts,” but instead we say, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts.” When we sing the Gloria, it would be more efficient to say, “we praise you for your glory,” but instead we say, “we praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory.” All of these mean the about same thing, but we repeat them, we string them together, because we recognize that we can never worship God enough. It’s not efficiency, but extravagance, which is proper to our worship. Our indebtedness to God is too great to ever say, “that’s enough.”
So where are we at in our sense of indebtedness to God? This sense of indebtedness is not meant to make us feel bad, but to make us acknowledge just how incomprehensible God’s mercy is toward us. If we think we have fulfilled all our debts to God by avoiding sin and going to Mass, then we are like the older son. If we don’t think sin is big deal or that deliberately skipping Mass is a grave injustice, then we are like the younger son, but we haven’t yet come to our senses and decided to come home. Just as the father’s mercy was on offer to both sons in the gospel, so is our Heavenly Father’s mercy on offer to us. Let’s acknowledge our indebtedness, let’s be reconciled to our Father, and let’s join in the feast of His unfathomable and inexhaustible mercy. Amen.