Fourth Sunday of Lent
Even Gold is not as Precious as the Return of a Prodigal Son
First Reading (Josh 5: 9, 10-12):
The Israelites entered the Promised Land to celebrate the Passover
“The son said to the father, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you: I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe - the best one - and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”... The elder son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”(Lk 15: 11-32, summary)
The parable of the 'Prodigal Son' is the most tender parable in the gospel. We feel regret and anger at the thinking and behavior of the wayward son and we easily condemn him. He grew up in luxury and did not know how to appreciate his good fortune. He did not know how to treasure all that he had. To him the saying , “Treasure relationships and treasure all that you have already”(1) were wasted words.
It is not quite correct to say that the son wanted adventure and was trying to find his identity. He seemed to know little about the world or how cunning people could be, nor did he seem to have any idea about his future. He did not seem like a person fully prepared to face adventure, develop new enterprises, or start a big business.
Perhaps he was like many young people today, bored with life, but wanting to find out what it would be like to have a life free from any worries or restrictions. To do whatever one wants to do, to be completely free, would that not be happiness? In the poem “Hwa Mei Bird”, did not Ou Yang Xiu say that though the bird locked in the golden cage had security and all that it wanted, it thought that that could never be as enjoyable as singing in the forest?
We do not know all the reasons but in the end the son decided to leave home and go away. He went far away 'to a distant country.' However, for a youth who had no aspirations, was totally unprepared, and was carrying a great deal of money, this could only lead to disaster. So he fell and fell completely. “He squandered his property in dissolute living.” There was nothing whatsoever left. With nothing remaining he was forced to hire himself out to feed a farmer's pigs. But even when he was very hungry he was not allowed to eat the pigs’ leftover pods.
Si Ma Guang in “Instructions on Thriftiness to his Son” said, “From thriftiness to extravagance is easy. From extravagance to thrift is difficult.”(2) It is not difficult at all to move from an abstemious life to a life of luxury. However, to go back to thriftiness from an extravagant life style is really very difficult.
How could the son of a wealthy man, used to fine clothing and rich food, mentally or physically accept the rough life of a servant and raise pigs? To be in contact with pigs was even against his religion, and here he was among them day and night. Even to describe the life as ‘painful’ was not vivid enough!
When persons have reached such a state of pain and despair, they may turn to the heavens or God, or think of their parents.
The prodigal son thought of his father, the father who had loved him so much. He was full of repentance and decided to return home. Scripture says, “while he was still far off, his father saw him.” From the day his son had left, the father had gone out daily to look and wait for him, meanwhile passing many sleepless nights. He continued to hope his son would return and waited for him day and night. Finally one day he saw him coming – his love had brought him back.
We all know the parable has a happy ending. There is only one flaw and that is the elder son's anger and stubbornness. “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” .
We know the father's answer, but the elder son who asked only for 'fairness' did not fully understand his reasoning. ‘This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ Therefore you should be especially happy and we should celebrate. It is a great event for our family!
I recall a situation Zhuang Zi described in “Immortality”: “As fish forget everything else in the bliss of rivers and lakes, so men forget all else in the Tao.”(3) A fish must live in water to be happy. It is the same for us human beings. To be happy a person must live in harmony, friendship and congeniality. When there is no water two fish can use their mouths to keep each other moist so that they will not get thirsty. When the world is in confusion, two people can support and help each other. However in a large lake, why would a fish need the saliva of another fish? In a utopian world of the good, true and beautiful, or in the realm of heaven, why would a person need the support and assistance of another human being?
The son was dead but had risen, was lost but had been found, the family was united once more and could be happy together again. It is an event of the greatest magnitude, why should we not celebrate? What does it matter any more who has the greatest merit, or deserves the greatest reward?