THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
The Scripture readings from this reflection: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:18
Whether a second grader or an adult, one of the steps I often take with an individual in preparing them for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, is showing them the inside of the confessional. It may not seem like much, but I consider it an important step. The intention behind this is simple: I want a penitent to be as “at ease” as possible when receiving the Sacrament. They need not fear the Sacrament, the minister, and even the space itself, as any of those three things can be rather daunting when they are approached for the first time. What is my simple hope in all of this? That they will not be afraid of receiving the Father’s forgiveness, and that they actually come to appreciate and anticipate the joy of being reconciled.
The parable of the Prodigal Son, which is the Gospel for the Fourth Week of Lent, is a memorable one, not simply because of the story itself, but because of the sheer magnitude of what happens: a son, who is presumed to be totally unworthy of forgiveness, is reconciled with his father. The parable opens with a son approaching his father with a rather jarring request: to receive his portion of his father’s inheritance. This was not common practice at the time for a son to receive the inheritance this early, as it would traditionally be distributed after the father had died, as in our day and age. The implication of his request, then, is harsh: he is indifferent to the fact that his father is still with him. The request would be utterly insulting to the father to have been asked! Nonetheless, the father, in his humility, gives over to the son his portion of the inheritance, and the son departs.
The son, we are told, lives a life of dissipation and squanders his inheritance with relative haste. He lives in disregard to the value of his inheritance, and this catches up with him. The point comes when he seems to be enslaved to his vice and his sin that has now swallowed up all he had once valued. He who once devalued his own father’s life has become the one who is “dead” himself because sin and weakness have swallowed him whole. He arrives at a point of utter destruction, and then, out of sheer desperation, hires himself out to work with swine: something an Israelite would never do, since these animals were considered unclean. Worse still, he is cut off from his native land, and is in a land far removed from the Israelite nation, and away from his father. As the son realizes his plight, he decides that he must go and return to his father, to ask for the place of a servant. He goes back to that native place, and confesses his sin to his father. What results is tremendously unexpected: the father, in the midst of his son’s confession, is so overjoyed at his return, that he restores him back to the place of honor he once enjoyed, and, as the Scripture tells us, restores his son back to life as well. Even his older brother is shocked at the goodwill and generosity of the father, and comes to struggle with this radical forgiveness.
One reason that this parable is so thought-provoking is that we are the ones who enjoy this father’s forgiveness as often as we like. Every time we cross the threshold of the confessional and enter, we make that very same return to the Father. We decide a life of dissipation is not worth it, and renounce what has taken up our inheritance of the kingdom of Heaven. We are not proud of where we have been, what we have done, or even what we have seen, and yet, a powerful admission of having “sinned against heaven and against you,” brings us a powerful restoration back to the place where we once were before.
What is the simple invitation from this parable? We need not be afraid of the Father, who is present in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. We need not be afraid of the minister, nor the confessional. We may have many things for which to ask forgiveness, and many things that have made us “dead” in sin. Nonetheless, our Father promises us the same restoration as the prodigal son received.
We need only to return and humbly ask forgiveness in the sacrament to enjoy the restoration of life that it provides!
Father Belken is the Parochial Vicar of Immaculate Conception Church in Springfield and Associate Director of Worship & Liturgy. He is also a Regional Vocation Promoter and Chaplain at Springfield Catholic High School.