“The Lord said to Joshua: ‘Today I have taken the shame of Egypt away from you.’ ” This single sentence, pronounced by Joshua as the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, summarised the new beginning that the Exodus had represented for God’s people. It is a timely reminder for ourselves, as individuals and as a Church, that there can be a new beginning. Such a new beginning, while it demands our humility, comes not from ourselves, but from God’s graciousness.
The Exodus was not the work of a sinful people. It was the gracious action of a compassionate Father who looked upon his people in their distress, whose forgiveness set them free from
the bondage of sin, whose love enabled them to live as God’s people. Lent summons us to the same humility, the same repentance.
The parable of the prodigal confronts us with the selfishness that alienates us from a generous God and promises God’s forgiveness to create us anew.
The context in which the Evangelist Luke set the parable is important. The Pharisees and scribes had complained of Jesus as a man who “welcomes sinners and eats with them”. To the conventional piety at the time it was deeply shocking that Jesus not only spoke of forgiveness, but chose to associate himself with public sinners. The uncomfortable truth underlying the parable is that we, who condemn so readily, are the sinners welcomed by Jesus and invited to share at his table.
The parable begins with the selfishness of the younger son. This younger son was not accused of any single dramatic sin. Quite simply, he could not see beyond himself, thinking only of himself and the share of the estate that would ultimately come his way. Such selfishness was unable to see beyond itself and rejoice in the Father’s love. Instead, it placed itself at the centre of the world and began to make demands: “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.”
It was this unthinking self-indulgence that opened the door to everything that was to follow. “A few days later the younger son gathered together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.” Through his unthinking selfishness the younger son had grown insensitive to the Father’s love. Only when he had been finally overwhelmed with the consequences of his alienation was he able to appreciate the Father’s love and the truth about himself. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.”
At times we shall feel the consequences of our own sinful selfishness and, like the Prodigal Son, long for what has been so easily squandered. Humble repentance brings us to the realisation that while we have become strangers in the Father’s presence, his love longs to welcome us back: “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.”
St Paul perfectly describes God’s forgiveness as a new creation. “For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here.”
During Lent we go beyond regret for the past: we allow ourselves, through repentance, to become a new creation. “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”