THE SINNER’S CALL TO REPENTANCE AND TRUE OBEDIENCE
BY FR VALENTINE NNAMDI EGBUONU, MSP
1st Reading: Jo 5:9a. 10-12; Psalm: 34. R.v. 9a; 2nd Reading: 2Cor5:17-21; Gospel: Lk 15:1-3. 11-32.
In a bird’s-eye view, “Who among the two sons was truly obedient to their father in the parable of the prodigal son?” Who should win the pick? The younger or the elder son? We shall see as we journey together on this scriptural passage.
If you were to be in the position of the younger son who returned to his father after splurging on loose living, I guess you would experience similar tension as do I. The tension of “What is my father up to?” This young man was ostensibly not sure he would be welcomed back when he chose to retrace his steps. But the reception he got instead was the opposite of his fears. And we know what happens when we begin to experience the unexpected. It can arouse some feelings of suspicion. The embrace, robe, ring, shoes, fatted calf, and the lavish banquet were a special treat he had probably not received from his father before until now. So why now? Why is he suddenly overly nice in the face of a wasteful son who returned impoverished after being given so much? If we are having this similar tension, then it’s pretty obvious how very little we know our God who looks at new beginnings and not ugly pasts.
There is a sharp contrast between the words of these two brothers to their father upon their return. Although the younger son was returning from a strayed path, but he came and pledged an unconditional obedience to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” (Lk 15:19). Put differently, he was saying: “I am not here to claim anything. I am only here to serve you needing nothing in return.” This pledge of obedience is unconditional. It is pure because there are no incentives attached. It is service for the sake of service. Conversely, the return of the elder son from the field and his reaction towards his father uncovered something about him. He complained to his father of not being rewarded despite his long years of commitment. It was as though he stayed put serving his father because of what he would get in return and was becoming increasingly frustrated as his father wasn’t yielding. This conditional obedience of the elder son is flawed and doesn’t appeal to God.
Conditional obedience is when we lay claim to God’s mercy and favour on the ground of good actions. When we begin to think that with our good actions, we can bend God to our will. Are we not often culpable of this? When we soil our hands and then build a church to compensate or curry favour with God. When we take advantage of restitution as a means of wiping our slates clean. When we become church goers and do charity expecting blessings and favour as a debt God must pay. When we fast and pray not really to boost our spiritual lives but just to impress God. Conditional obedience is analogous to transactional spirituality. It is a futile exercise.
Conditional versus unconditional obedience calls to mind the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector who went to pray in the temple in Luke 18:9-14. The Tax collector and not the Pharisee went home blessed just as in today’s parable, the younger son was celebrated and not the elder son.
Beware of conditional obedience; trying to curry God’s favour by good actions. It is a pointless effort. This is the reason why. Humanly, we are utterly incapable of doing good. Our ability to do good is dependent on the touch of God’s actual grace. It is this divine grace that enables us to do good. So, it is futile to use the good nibbled out of God’s goodness to please the initiator of all our good actions. Doing good for the sake of doing good is an outright avowal of God’s ownership of that very action. But trying to use our good actions to appeal to God is a false claim to God’s property which if used as a tool to ingratiate ourselves with God, becomes a fruitless venture. This is why we truly begin to live fully as Christians when our actions are engendered by love and not gain.
Again, the return of the prodigal son becomes handy at this point. It was a return to a new beginning. A departure from his self-seeking old self to an altruistic new self. This is why he is better off than his elder brother who was still stuck in the life of pretension. This new identity of the younger son signifies the effect of God’s grace upon repentant sinners; that enabling grace that purges off our old self and predisposes us to a better life. This also resonates God’s ability to bring good out of evil.
This unalloyed obedience pledged by the prodigal son upon his return mirrors the rightful disposition that should trail the return of a sinner. A kind of remorse coupled with total submission to God’s will. A life lived for God and not for ourselves. In this period of Lent, we are called to return to God in this manner; committing ourselves to him unconditionally without any delusive intent. This kind of repentance supersedes deceptive holiness. A truly repentant sinner is always better than a spiritual gold-digger.
PRAYER FOR THE DAY
Lord Jesus, grant us the grace of true repentance and help us to practice true obedience and lasting commitment. Amen.
Happy Fourth Sunday of Lent