Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent Year C
Theme: What Prompted Jesus to Tell the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
By: Fr. Anthony O. Ezeaputa, MA.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Pena Blanca, NM, USA
Homily for Sunday March 27 2022
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and tax season, it appears to me, are two things that most of us in the United States dread the most. Regardless, we must pay Uncle Sam our taxes, even if it is with reluctance, or the IRS will pursue us. Aside from the ancient Jewish nation’s outrage at Roman subjugation and forced taxation, there was another reason for their anti-taxation and tax collector sentiments. This becomes clear when you consider how taxes were collected and the abuses that ensued.
Our gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11–32). Because this parable is so well-known, it’s easy to lose sight of what prompted Jesus to tell it. Before we can unpack the message of this parable, we must first understand what prompted it: the tax collectors, who represented the worst sinners during the earthly mission of Jesus Christ, are not excluded from the mercy and forgiveness of God.
Under the Roman Imperial rule of the Jewish nation, imperial officers only collected land taxes and poll taxes. On the other hand, the right to collect taxes on exports, imports, and merchant-transported products across a country was purchased through a public auction and awarded to the highest bidder, known as the publicani. In fact, they realized a profit that exceeded the amount of their bid when they collected taxes. They also gave subcontractors the authority to collect taxes in some parts of their jurisdiction. The subcontractors, in turn, were in control of other men who were responsible for collecting the taxes on their own.
For example, Zacchaeus appears to have served as the chief tax collector in and around Jericho (Luke 19:1-2). And it was Matthew, one of the apostles of Jesus, who oversaw tax collection. Matthew, who was also known as Levi, had a tax office in or near Capernaum (Matthew 10:3; Mark 2:1, 14).
Indeed, tax collectors were men of questionable moral character. Many of them were extortionists, putting fictitious tax values on goods and then offering to lend the money to those who couldn’t pay at high interest rates. They would pull over caravans and order that everything be unloaded onto the ground for inspection. They would then take anything they wanted, often leading well-fed beasts of burden away and replacing them with starving ones.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Jewish tax collectors were despised. Their very presence was resented because they were serving a foreign power, Rome, and were in close contact with “unclean” Gentiles. The other Jews tended to avoid them on their own volition. “If he refuses to listen to them, report it to the Church. And if he refuses to listen to the Church, treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
According to our gospel text today, the tax collectors, men of dubious moral character, despised people, traitors (whose profession was regarded as a curse), and the worst of sinners were so fascinated by the teachings of Jesus that they drew closer to him and began to listen to him. I can’t help but wonder what it was that Jesus said that drew them closer to him.
Let us ponder this for a moment. No one becomes a hardened criminal by waking up one day. It takes a lot of work in the wrong direction, as well as a penchant for evil. He must continue to kill his conscience by feeding it lies and falsehoods until he reaches the point of no return, at which time he will be spiritually dead. This is my visual image of the tax collector during the earthly mission of Jesus Christ. Hence, the Pharisees and scribes were not pleased, and said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-3).
As a devout Jew, Jesus understood that by welcoming and dining with tax collectors and sinners, he was defying conventional Israelite stereotypes about tax collectors. Indeed, it casts doubt on his credibility as a prophet of God among the Jews, particularly among the outspoken Jews represented by the Pharisees and scribes. “If this man were a prophet, he would recognize who is touching him and the type of woman she is—a sinner” (Luke 7:39).
The parable of the prodigal son is then used by Jesus to correct these Israelite preconceived notions about his mission, particularly among sinners, represented by the tax collectors. As a result, this parable teaches that the mission of Jesus Christ is precisely this: to offer the mercy of God to sinners and people of questionable moral character.
Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Again, he says, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). So, welcoming and dining with the tax collectors is a fulfillment of the mission of Jesus. “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Let us give him a chance to liberate us.
We can also learn from the actions of the prodigal son that simply feeling guilty for our sins and mistakes is not enough. “I shall get up and go to my father, and I shall say to him, “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.” ‘So, he got up and went back to his father’” (Luke 15:21).
We must also return to the Father’s love, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to receive absolution from our sins; the remission of sin, or of the punishment due to sin, granted by the Church. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). May Our Lady, Mother of the Church, intercede for us.
Fr. Anthony O. Ezeaputa, MA.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Pena Blanca, NM, USA
Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C
27th of March 2022.