The story of the prodigal son is a beautiful story about God's wondrous mercy. God, our Father, sees us while we are still far away from him, he runs to us to forgive us, to heal us, to dress us in the finest robes, and he prepares a banquet for us. This is a story of mercy and forgiveness to be sure. This story reminds us that no matter how far we may find ourselves from God, no matter how desperate the situation, hopeless our outlook, we but need to get up, approach the Lord, and he runs to meet us, to forgive us. This story gives hope to all human beings: no one is beyond the scope of God's mercy.
The story also seems to explain to us the incarnation. While humanity had taken the inheritance of God and squandered it through sin, God runs to meet us in the person of Jesus Christ. By taking to himself human nature, Christ clothes humanity in Divinity: truly the finest of clothes. Jesus Christ pours out for us his body and blood in this Holy Eucharist, a feast much more rich than any fattened calf. In Jesus Christ, the love of the Father is poured out for us sinners.
Yet, if we look to the beginning of the reading, we hear that the parable was addressed not to those who would resonate with the younger son. Nor is it specifically called an allegory for the incarnation: Jesus does not say that the kingdom of God is like… Rather, this parable is addressed to the Pharisees. Therefore, we should take a closer look at the Older Son. It begins with him in the field. Being in the field is an image of working for the Lord. Remember when Pope Benedict was elected, he said that he was a humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord. Being in the field is an image for being in God's service. Yet, when he comes near the house, near fellowship with God, he becomes angry because of the Father's mercy. The Father goes out even after this son. The image here is unmistakable: the Father goes out after both sinners: the profligate and the self-righteous. All these years I've served you, says the son. I have been doing this for years. Many of us, perhaps think the same thing: I've been coming here for years, that should count for something. Not once did I disobey your orders: I have kept all the commandments. I haven't done anything wrong… I'm basically a good person.
Where does the second son go wrong? Certainly he is upset about the joy the Father has for the return of his son. Certainly the older son suffers from jealousy. We too must be careful to avoid any kind of spiritual jealousy. But worse than that, the relationship between the Older Son and the Father is not one of love, but one of duty.
The fatal flaw in the older son is a sterility of faith. There is no life in the older son. Sure, he has not sinned like the younger son; sure, he keeps up his duty and follows the commandments: but there is no life there. He is missing one of the most important aspects of Christian discipleship: namely Joy. Jesus Christ did not come to us simply to inaugurate a new set of ethical principles. He is not simply some good teacher who has nice things to say. In Jesus Christ, Paul says, God made all things new. He brought us back to friendship with God. This ministry of reconciliation is cause for great rejoicing. Jesus does not spread out for us new commands and dictums; rather, Christ pours out for us his body and blood in this Eucharistic feast.
We often say that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic Faith. This is especially true for those of us whose faith becomes a bit sterile at times, those of us who see our relationship with God as one of duty. The Eucharist, a thanksgiving sacrifice, a feast, reminds us of the joyful nature of the Christian mystery. God became man to save us from sin and death. The Eucharist, therefore, is a foretaste of the kingdom to come. We notice in the first reading that the manna stops with the people get to the Promised Land. The same is true for us, in the Kingdom that is coming there will be no Eucharist, for we will have communion with God forever. This joyful celebration of the Eucharist now is meant to prepare us for the joy that awaits us. Today is Laetare Sunday: this rose vestment reminds us that though we are in Lent, the feast of Easter is close at hand. Laetare, rejoice, comes to us from the entrance antiphon of today's Mass: Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. (Psalm) I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: we shall go into the house of the Lord. The older son lives a faith without love, without joy. Let us rely on the power of the Holy Eucharist so that our hearts may be filled with love so as to live our faith with joy as we travel to the house of the Lord.