God doesn’t think the way we do. That’s Jesus’ message in the parable we’re listening to today. The story is well known, perhaps the bestknown of Jesus’ parables. We’ve labeled it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but we could also call it the Parable of the Loving Father, or the Parable of the Unforgiving Brother.
The parable is set at the home of a wealthy farming family. This property would have been handed down from one generation to the next. The youngest of two sons did something that would have been scandalous at that time in that culture. The younger son asked his father, the patriarch of the family, for his portion of his inheritance, 50% of the family’s wealth. His request was horrendously insulting to the father and financially devastating for the family remaining on the farm.
Jesus continued by describing what the young man did with his wealth. He left Israel and settled among the Gentiles. There he took on a lifestyle of carefree spending and dissolute living. The day came, however, when his wealth was gone and his “friends” with it. To add to his misery, a terrible famine hit the land and he was forced to hire himself out to a pig farmer, something unimaginably humiliating for a Jew. Humiliated and hungry, he made the decision to return to his father and offer himself as a slave to the family.
Jesus noted in his story that “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him.” He was painting a picture of a father who, heavy-hearted, had his sight constantly focused on the horizon hoping to see his son returning home. When that moment finally came “he ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” His son was alive! He was home again!
This is the point in the story when Jesus’ audience would have begun to cringe. The father rejected his son’s offer to return to the family as a slave. So, the young man received no punishment for almost destroying himself and his family. What the father did next must have raised grumbles of protest from Jesus’ audience. The father ordered that his son should be dressed in the finest robes. He should be given sandals – the symbol of a free man. (Slaves didn’t wear shoes.) His
final move would definitely have raised boos; the father put a ring on his son’s finger. He re-instated him into the family with the same rights as his older brother! He again had the right to inherit half the family’s wealth!
Jesus then gave voice to the grumbling he heard in his audience. The elder brother, coming in from the fields, heard music and partying. He learned that his brother had returned and that his father was throwing a huge party for him. He became angry, refused to enter the house, and confronted his father. “Look, all these years I served you, and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” His first reaction revealed his jealousy and resentment. He then questioned his father’s sense of justice. “But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”
Jesus then wrapped up the parable by exposing the father’s heart and his unconditional love for his sons. “My son, you are here with me always and everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Let’s conclude with a few lessons from Jesus’ parable.
God’s heart defies our moral logic. We want justice. We want the prodigal son to pay for what he did, but punishment never crosses God’s mind. The divine longing to love doesn’t embrace the human need to punish.
The father pleads with the older son whose anger and resentment are separating him from communion with his father and his family. Ironically, the prodigal son returns, as the unforgiving son departs.
This may be the most challenging of all Jesus’ parables. It attacks our sense of justice. It challenges our conditional love. It questions our understanding of sin. It teaches us that God ‘s ways are not our ways. That God doesn’t think like us, doesn’t judge like us, doesn’t punish like us. God loves the prodigal son and the unforgiving brother. God desires both to enter the divine embrace. This parable is our invitation to change our ways, to begin to act like God.
We’re told in the gospel today that it had been reported to Jesus that Pilate had mingled the blood of Galileans with a pagan sacrifice. There’s no proof that this event took place, but whether it was true or not, Jesus used the moment to teach. He even added an incident to the conversation: the death of eighteen people in a tower collapse.
We might add our own contemporary example to the two events that were presented, the horrific attack on Ukraine we’re witnessing today. Were the Ukrainians such terrible sinners that God would have unleashed such horrendous barbarity as a punishment upon them? It was common Jewish belief that bad things happened to bad people, and good things to good people. Jesus bucked this belief.
Jesus taught that suffering wasn’t God’s punishment for sin. To make his point, Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs to address questions about sin, the sinner and God’s response.
The owner of a property wanted to cut down a fig tree, the symbol of a sinner, because it wasn’t fruitful. This was the human way of thinking. The gardener, God, committed to do all he could to save the tree, to make it fruitful. God’s purpose wasn’t to punish the sinner; God tried to bring new life to the sinner.
Today, I would suggest that that you take a renewed look at God. God’s desire is to help you, no matter what you’ve done or how you’ve acted. God’s way is not to condemn or punish. People may do so; institutions may do so; but that’s not God’s way. Throughout his ministry Jesus never spoke of sinners as being bad. Instead, he said they had lost their way. Examples of these are the woman who lost a coin and rejoiced with her friends when she found it, the sheep that wandered away from the ninetynine and was rescued by the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to search for the one that was lost, the son who abandoned his father and family and lost all his inheritance and was welcomed back home unconditionally.
I’ll leave you to your own thoughts, now, but before I do, I ask you to read these words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus to convince him of God’s love. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus is my favorite for two reasons. He told us what Jesus was talking about with Moses and Elijah: “his exodus and what he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” He also told us that “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.” There’s a beautiful and powerful message here.
First. Jesus was in conversation with Moses, the spirit-filled leader who led the people of Israel from the slavery they suffered in Egypt to the promised land. Elijah was with them. He was Israel’s greatest prophet who did battle with the priests of the pagan god, Baal to assure Israel’s purity of faith. These three, Jesus, Moses and Elijah were speaking with one another. They were in communion – a harmony of mission. Moses and Elijah guided Israel to the very door of the kingdom of God. Jesus was the key that would open it.
Jesus was preparing for his personal Passover from life to death to resurrection his exodus. His journey into the Paschal Mystery, will bring redemption not only for Israel but for humankind, and for all time.
Second. Luke told us that the disciples, Peter, James and John, “becoming fully awake,” saw his glory. What does he mean by “becoming fully awake?” He means that the fog of spiritual sleep had been lifted. Now, they saw Jesus, the fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies and the Son of God, wrapped in the divine glory. “His face
changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The disciples represent the Jewish people, tired, sleepy and disheartened from their longing for redemption for two thousand years! Jesus’ transfiguration was their moment of spiritual awakening. At that moment they saw heaven and earth united.
The Church wants us to reflect on this account of the transfiguration every year. It’s meant to alert us of our possible sleepiness. To respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow him we have to be awake – alive to his message and his example. We have to keep his glory in mind so they we can put on that same glory.
At the last supper Jesus prayed to his Father. “I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know they you sent me, and that you loved them even as you love me.” The Church wants us to take this to heart. Are we aware of God’s glory in us? Are we aware that we’re one with God? Does the world, the dark energy that perpetuates violence and aggression, poverty and injustice, disinformation and lies, feel the threat of the divine light within us?
Lent is our annual retreat into the desert. It’s the time we convert – turn ourselves around – face a new direction. It’s the time we get back in line to follow Jesus. It’s the time we wake up to see Jesus with alert, new eyes. It’s the time we reflect on his transfiguration and hope for ours.
“Filled with the Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.”
This is Luke’s introduction to the account of the temptation of Jesus. To get a clearer understanding of the temptations to come, we need to understand this introduction.
John had just baptized Jesus along with the crowd that gathered at the Jordan River. Afterwards, as Jesus prayed, the voice of the Father anointed him for his mission. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit then descended upon him in form of a dove, recalling Noah’s sending out a dove as the water resided, revealing a new world.
He immediately retreated to the desert and remained there alone for forty days. Luke comments that Jesus ate nothing during that time. It’s impossible for anyone to live without food for that length of time. What could Luke be saying by noting this? This time in the desert was a period of gestation. Jesus had been anointed for a mission by the Father and fortified for its execution by the Holy Spirit. Now, he had to do some inner work. He had to ponder his mission, his father’s will for him. When he con
cluded that time in the desert, he left hungry to begin his mission. That was his food he yearned for. As he would later tell his disciples, “My food is to do the will of my Father.” (John 4:34)
Taking his first steps out of the desert he was confronted by the dark energy he was appointed to battle against. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Here’s the temptation. Jesus’ mission is directed to the human heart. His miracles and healings will certainly get people’s attention, and relieve some personal suffering. But Jesus was anointed to address deeper needs. “One does not live on bread alone.” His mission is to feed the heart, to bring new and deeper life to the spirit.
A second assault followed. Jesus was shown the glory and power of the great kingdoms of the world. The vision was a bribe. All Jesus had to do was to embrace the dark power that rules the earth. But Jesus was anointed to plant the seed of the kingdom of God in the midst of its darkness. God’s kingdom is one marked by unity and harmony, of justice and peace. It’s in direct opposition to the dark power that controls the world. Jesus’ answer came: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
The last temptation is a prelude to the
agony that Jesus would experience in the garden. The tempter twisted the words of Psalm 91, words of comfort and reassurance of God’s fidelity, into a challenge. “Throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you.’” Jesus’ response was quick and to the point. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Later on, Jesus leaned on the support this psalm conveyed when he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still not my will but yours be done.” In spite of his fear, Jesus submitted himself totally to the will of his Father.
Why does the Church ask us to reflect on this passage to begin the season of Lent? We’re beginning a forty-day retreat, a time of spiritual rejuvenation, a time of reflection on our mission as disciples of Christ. We tend to forget that as disciples we stand in total opposition to the powers of darkness, to the world. In order to accomplish our mission, we, like Jesus, have to submit our will to the Father. This is what Lent is all about. Getting in sync with Christ, uniting our wills with the Father.
As I write this reflection, the powers of darkness are ravaging Ukraine. Those same powers are dividing the country we live in. Many Christians have succumbed to the darkness. Christians are among those invading Ukraine. Christians are among those dividing our country. Christians are among those peddling lies and spewing hatred, division, and racism. Many Christians have fallen. Many Christians have been consumed by the darkness.
Now more than ever, every one of us needs time in the desert. Every one of us needs to recoup, to recommit ourselves to Christ and his gospel of peace and harmony, of sacrificial love. Let’s be brave. This Lent, let’s proclaim with Christ, “I have conquered the world.”