A week ago at the end of a retreat in a rural village, Marco Tulio commented on today’s Gospel of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32) during the Celebration of the Word. He noted how the father addressed both sons as “son”.
I had noted before that the older son refused to acknowledge the younger son as his brother, referring to him as “that son of yours.” But he does not even address his father as “father.” Instead he emphasizes that he has been “slaving away” for so many years.
In contrast, his younger brother who had asked for his part of the inheritance (basically treating his father as already dead) thinks of his father when he is nearly dying of hunger. He decides to go, addresse his father as “Father,” admit his unworthiness and ask to be treated as a day laborer.
The older son sees his life as slavery and wants nothing to do with his brother (and maybe not even with his father). The younger, rebel son is willing to become a hired worker.
But the father sees both as sons. He asks the servants to welcome his younger son who has come back to life. He addresses his angry older son not merely as son, but as “child,” which seems a more familiar term.
The father wants relationships restored; he wants a family. He wants, as St. Paul writes in the second reading (2 Corinthians 5: 17-21), reconciliation.
But what makes this so hard.
In one sense, I think Gustavo Gutiérrez (Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, p. 61) is on to something. How often do we see following Christ as slavery, doing what we have to do, full of obligations – not as a response to God’s freely given love?
Failing to see the gratuitousness of live is failing to understand the gospel. By converting the gospel into a mere set of obligations, external rules or a guarantee to authorities without moral worth, we make a caricature of it. The gratuitousness of love alone guarantees its being creative of ways to express it…
We just have to slave away, doing what “God” commands.
But discipleship is something else.
I have just finished reading Timothy Radcliffe’s Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation, which I highly recommend. Seeing following Christ as merely following commandments misses this dimension of relationship that God so wants from us. As the father, he goes out to meet both sons, who are precious in his sight.
Radcliffe puts it this way (p. 38):
Commandments in the Bible are given in the context of friendship with God and each other. They are not about control but the formation of a heart and mind for mutuality. They are the vastly demanding invitation to grow up into the true, genuine, equal love which is the Trinity. We are indeed loved without condition, but God’s friendship, like any friendship, transforms us.
So today let us respond in love,letting ourselves be transformed by God’s friendship, seeking reconciliation and relationship with God and with our sisters and brothers.
I think that’s what Lent is about.