Cowering – John Foley, SJ

Luke 15:1-32; Fourth Sunday of Lent


Watch the dog hang its head when it is scolded. It grovels. It tries to wheedle its way back into good graces. To us humans it looks as if it is saying, “I’m really, really, really sorry for what I did and please, please, please, please forgive me. I will do any base thing you want!”

Poor dog.

And poor prodigal son in this week’s Gospel. Happy as an animal up on your Easter table, he spent his father’s money on riotous living in a far away country. Obviously he would run out of wealth, but he was having too much fun to notice. Finally terrible famine hit the country and this once pampered youth now fell to simply feeding somebody’s herd of pigs. At this point he would have been happy just to gobble up some swine husks.

It took a while for the truth to get through to him—what he had done to himself and to his family. First, he noticed that he was starving. Then he made a forced and slightly humble decision to go back to his father and ask for mercy. He hung his head just like dogs do. “Please, please, please forgive me!”

Imagine dragging yourself down the jagged road to your father’s estate, practicing your speech over and over:

Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.

You and I have fear also. Often we are terrified that anyone might know our faults. Especially God. We think God will respond with rage if he finds out. So we make a Lenten “firm purpose of amendment,” or a New Year’s promise or whatever else. We want to be “worthy” before God, with our sins hidden.

But pay very close attention to the young man’s father in the parable. He spots his prodigal son far down the road, the boy still memorizing the his lines. Did his father fold his arms and put on an angry face? Not at all. He sets out running. See them meet, enveloped by the thirsty road-dust. He embraces and kisses his son. The boy tries to blunder out his lines.

I have sinned terribly! I am no longer worthy of …

His father drowns him out, calling for the finest robe in the house, plus a ring for the young man’s finger, sandals for his feet, and a huge banquet for celebration. He understands. He is ecstatic that his son came home.

Apply that now to you and me. Watch as our own shame says to God, “Father, I am a no good. I am totally unworthy. You must be very angry.”

  “I know what you have done, child,” says God. “You needn’t cower. You are precious to me, and not because you never sin. Come, come, have back your brothers, sisters, neighbors and, most of all, your Father. Let me hug you.”

Because God holds us so close to his heart, he is most willing to absorb the losses we inflict. Even if we were to join forces with evil in the world, God would wait and pray and welcome us back with open arms. This is God’s Lenten message.

By the way, notice that Jesus’ arms are wide open on the cross.

*image from the Internet

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