Gospel Reflection for March 26, 2022, Fourth Sunday of Lent

A society or an individual who lives without hope seeks fulfillment in immediate satisfaction. Jesus tells a parable about a man has two sons. The younger son decides it is best for him to take his inheritance and live for today. He takes his money, rejects his family and his faith, and heads off to a distant country. There he takes up the vices and pleasures that his money allows. In time his money runs out and he is forced to work on a pig farm.

He hits “rock bottom.” He recognizes, too late, that he has no future there. He decides to swallow his pride and return home. He has no expectation of anything other than, hopefully, working as a hand on the family farm.

Stories similar to this can be found in virtually every family. So often we hear stories about the child who ran off to “find herself,” or the uncle who is the “black sheep of the family.” Bitterness, resentment and jealousy seem to be common in all our families.

The wayward son in this parable does not know how much his father longs for his return.

The gift of patience and hope, to patiently wait as this father does serves as a challenge to each of us. His was not an easy journey as his son delved deeper and deeper into the destructive world of his own making. Like so many parents today, he did not know whether or not this prodigal child would have the wisdom, or even the ability to return home.

As we reflect on this parable, we can see several pivotal points of mercy present. The father exercises mercy as he let his son go. Even realizing that this was a bitter separation on the part of the son, the father respected his wishes and let him go. Then the father exercises mercy as he waits for the son to return home. While he did not pursue him, he did not reject him, either. He waited, patiently and probably with great trepidation. Then the clearest expression of mercy is the father immediately and completely welcoming the son home. This takes a great deal of love, but it also demands an ability to overcome the harshness and bitterness that caused the son to leave in the first place.

But, just because the father is merciful and welcoming to his son does not mean that everyone else in the family will be. The elder son, the one who probably swallowed much resentment and ambition to stay and work with his father, deeply resented the full restoration to the family of his younger brother. His resentment is understandable, and maybe many of us sympathize with him. Yet, when this older son demonstrates that he has no mercy for his brother, the father challenges him to look past his own selfishness and welcome his brother. We do not know how the older son reacts, but we can be sure that it would take a long time for him to come to terms with this situation.

Sadly, not many families welcome home the lost with the same sense of mercy, and all too many families never get the opportunity to reconcile with lost family members.

This is one of the great mysteries of mercy: often as we exercise mercy in our lives we fuel anger in others who cannot be merciful. However, this fear should never prevent us from being merciful, and  remind us that we need to show mercy even in the face of the merciless.

Lent challenges how we value of mercy. Probably no parable demonstrates a better outline for mercy than does this one.

Let us take this time to reflect with compassion on those whose lives are on the path to rock bottom and pray that they might find the strength, the love and the mercy to find their way home, wherever “home” is, and be welcomed home into the loving arms of family. For those who do not make it to their earthly home, let us pray that the Lord slaughters the fattened calf and offers them a welcome embrace into the heavenly banquet. No matter who we are, when we cry out for mercy, we have a loving God waiting at the door to welcome us home.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.