Sunday, March 31, is the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C). Mass readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34:2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
As I was growing up in North Dakota, I never thought that I would live 1,528 miles away from my parents and family. Yet that is precisely how far the Lord has called me in my service as his priest. Though the distance is quite formidable at times, I still feel connected to my family, since regular conversations and periodic visits are made possible by modern technology and transportation.
Such was not the case in the time of Jesus Christ, however, and this fact has an impact on interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. On a first (or even second or third) reading of this Gospel passage, we might think that the son’s sin only began when “he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:13), as though it had something to do with his imprudent and wasteful spending. However, the real egregiousness of his sin consists in his request for his inheritance and his subsequent moving away from his father and family.
Why is this so? It is because with these actions the son essentially said that his father was dead to him. It is perhaps an obvious point, but one would only ever receive one’s inheritance upon the death of one’s father. The fact that the son asked for it while his father was still living is thus shockingly insulting. Perhaps the only thing that is more shocking is that his father actually gave it to him. It is also worth pointing out that the father’s bestowal of his inheritance was not a matter of withdrawing a sum from a bank; instead, it was a matter of dividing up the family plot as well as the herds grazing upon it. The implication is that the son sold off his inheritance to obtain money so that he could move away from his father and family, an action which ensured that he would no longer see or have any relationship with his father. Thus the son’s request was, in fact, a drastic severing of his relationship with his father, and this is an important facet of the parable because it captures so eloquently the essence of human sin.
The gravity of the son’s selling his inheritance is further illumined by the reading from the Book of Joshua for today. In this account of the first Passover celebrated in the Promised Land, we learn that the people were able to eat of the produce of the land (Joshua 5:10). Because of this, the manna — the miraculous bread from heaven with which God had nourished his people throughout the desert wanderings — stopped appearing. The reason was that the Promised Land replaced the manna as the means through which God would nourish his people. In fact, the land had become the principle of relationship between God and his people; in some mysterious way, this particular land would provide the space for their encounter. Therefore, we can see that when the son sells off the land of his inheritance, this action not only alienates him from his human family but also cuts him off from relationship with God. This parable is thus a means by which Christ teaches us that sin is not a matter of breaking an arbitrary rule; rather, it is a matter of severing a personal relationship with God and, by extension, with his people, the Church.
Lent is an ideal time to meditate upon these lessons regarding gravity of human sin since it is a season marked by penitential detachment as a means of focusing our attention on our need to return to God. Recognizing that we squander the inheritance of our heavenly homeland through sin is the first step in this return to God, for such recognition prompts us to seek God’s mercy in the sacrament of penance, in which the Father runs to us, embraces us and restores our inheritance with him.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor in sacred
Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.