We have reached mid-Lent. This Sunday is traditionally named Lætare, from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon: “Rejoice, Jerusalem.” On this Sunday fast was formerly broken. As you can see, even the color of the liturgical vestments is not the penitential purple, but the joyful rose. At the same time, today’s liturgy keeps on exhorting us to conversion. Paul’s appeal has resounded in our ears: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Today’s gospel portrays the process of this conversion. Jesus tells us one of his parables about mercy. It is the famous parable of the prodigal son. Many people have proposed a different title for it: “The lost son,” “The found son,” “The two sons,” “The merciful father,” “The finding celebration.” You see from how many points of view we can consider this parable: they are all legitimate. We can fix our attention on the younger son, on the older son, on both of them, on the father, on his goodness in welcoming his wayward son, on his joy in finding his lost son.
Since this passage today is offered to us as an appeal for repentance, perhaps it is better for us to focus upon the prodigal son, to see in him the icon of our departure from God, through sin, and our homecoming, through conversion. What leads the younger son to leave his father’s house? Maybe a desire for freedom, a wish to feel adult, totally independent and self-sufficient. But the best of it is that, to do this, he first claims from his father the share of his estate. He does not care about his father, but he demands his inheritance. The father just comes in useful for his estate. The father respects his son’s freedom; the only thing he can do is to wait. We know how the story ends up. At that point, the gospel tells us that the young man comes to his senses and decides to go back to his father. Is he really contrite? It is not so clear: he does not miss his father; he just looks back with nostalgia on the comforts he had at home; what matters for him is to fill his stomach. What we usually consider an expression of profound humility—“I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers”—might just be a sign of indifference to his own sonship: “Who cares if I am no more a son? What matters is to have something to eat.” It seems that he does not really deserve his father’s pardon. And yet for the father that partial repentance is enough. His mercy is greater not only than his son’s sin, but even than his defective regret. He first runs to his son, embraces him and kisses him: he thus demeans himself in front of his son; such a behavior is undignified for an elderly Oriental gentleman. He then restores his son to all his rights: the robe, the ring and the sandals are tokens of freedom and authority. Finally, he throws a party for all: the fattened calf is enough to feed the whole village; everybody has to share his joy.
That is exactly what happens when we sin and then repent. We want to be free, but exploiting the gifts of God. Then, when we realize our foolish mistake, we repent, maybe more for personal interest than for true regret. But it does not matter: for God it is enough. The Church calls this imperfect contrition “attrition”: according to the Catechism, it is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit, because it initiates an interior process which can bring, through confession, to full reconciliation. God is content with little: it is enough for him if we feel just a touch of nostalgia. As for the rest, he will see to it.
Then there is the older son, who does not want to participate in his father’s joy. He is like the scribes and the Pharisees who complained that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. He is no better than his younger brother. He has not left his father; he has remained with him, but without appreciating his presence, his love and even his goods. He stays at home not as a son, but as a servant. He has everything at his disposal; he also has received the share of his father’s estate; and yet he complains that his father has never given him a young goat to feast on with his friends. He also needs conversion; perhaps more than his brother.
With which of the two sons shall we identify? Maybe with both of them. In any case, we need to repent and to go back to God, who is waiting for us.