THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – C


Joshua 5:9a, 10-12

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

I winced when the preacher opened his homily with the words: You all hang on now.  We’re getting there. But then I thought about it, and while I couldn’t imagine taking that tack, what he said grabbed the attention of the assembly and ultimately made sense.  This Fourth Sunday of Lent in ages passed, i.e., when mass was celebrated in Latin, was called Laetare Sunday.  Laetare was the opening word of the entrance antiphon and means rejoice. Coming at this point in Lent, the word can serve to encourage the faithful who may be growing weary of the Season and wondering if it will ever end.  Things have been somber for so long.  Ah, but today the priest’s vestments are rose colored, not the penitential purple.  The hymns ought to carry out the rejoicing theme.  Maybe the Church is encouraging all of us to hang on because we are getting closer to Easter.  We’re going to make it.

As we sit under the Word this Sunday with hearts and ears open, we will find the real reason for rejoicing.  In the end it is the reason we ought to rejoice every Sunday.  The readings remind us that our God is faithful, merciful, and loves us unconditionally and forever.  And, we are a redeemed people, reconciled to God and each other by the blood of Christ.

The first reading places us at the end of the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the desert following the exodus event.  Those who began the journey disobeyed God’s laws.  Even Moses had offended.  The disobedient ones, including Moses, all have died before Israel reaches the Promised Land.  It is Joshua, the new leader, who leads them into the land of Canaan where they celebrate Passover and eat the produce of the land.  No more manna that had been provided by God each day to keep them from starvation.  Israel is ready to till the rich new land that will yield crops for their sustenance.  God’s promise has been fulfilled.  And the people continue to rejoice in God’s bounty that will come to them in each harvest season.

How often do you remind yourself that it is all grace?  The fact that you are making this journey of faith in this Lenten season, the fact that you believe in Christ and strive to walk in his ways, is all grace, God’s gift working in your life.  You were seized by God and wrapped in God’s love.  Do you have the good fortune to remember your baptism?  Many are baptized in infancy.  The symbol isn’t lost there.  But some of us were baptized when we were old enough to be aware of what was happening to us.  Do you remember being plunged into the water, knowing that the bath symbolized your dying to sin and anything that separated you from the love of God?  Do you remember coming out of the water, to be clothed in your baptismal garment as a reminder that now you are a new creation in Christ?  God effected the change that has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us a new ministry of reconciliation. Isn’t that reason to rejoice?  No wonder the Eucharist, the word means thanksgiving, is at the heart of our worship each Sunday.  We give thanks to God for who and what we are in Christ by renewing Christ’s dying and rising in Bread and Wine.

Did you notice that your baptism also gives you a new ministry of reconciliation?  You are called to serve those who feel estranged and alienated, to reach out to those whom others shun and deem unworthy, and through your loving service help remind them of God’s undying love for them.  Sister Helen Prejean’s ministry to those on death row and her working to end our country’s practice of capital punishment is a case in point.

And so we come to what some have called the greatest parable in all the gospels, the Prodigal Son.  Place yourself in the parable.  It could change your life.  First, though, notice what occasions the parable, who they are making up the audience to whom Jesus tells this tale.  Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. This has become the great scandal in Jesus’ ministry, the company he keeps, and those with whom he practices table fellowship.  The tax collectors were among the most hated people in Israel.  They were collaborators with the Roman oppressors and added to the tax bills to make their living.  Then there were the generic sinners, those the establishment looked down upon and deemed beyond the pale of salvation.  Jesus seemed comfortable with these people, welcoming them to his table, waiting on them, and breaking bread and sharing a cup with them.  The parable is addressed to the ones who were outraged by his table companions.

Let’s look at the word prodigal for a moment.  It actually has two nearly opposite meanings.  First, prodigal means wasteful.  Second, the word means recklessly extravagant.  We’ll see that both definitions apply.  Then you decide which character the parable of the Prodigal is about.

You probably know the main outline of the story.  A man had two sons… So it begins with the younger son demanding his share of the inheritance now, not wanting to wait for his father’s death for that transition to happen.  The father does as the son requests only to watch the rash one leave the household and head off for a foreign land.  The son is giving up his religious heritage and will take up residence among Gentiles and seem to follow their ways.  How else could you explain the fact that after the son has squandered his fortune and fallen on desperate times, he finds himself tending pigs and longing to stave off starvation by eating some of the pigs’ slop?  That is the epitome of desperation.  And it is only then, as a last resort, that the son remembers his father and how well the hired hands that work for his father are treated.   He decides to go home again.

Repentance.  The son rehearses what he will say when he comes back into his fathers presence.  Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers. When he has the speech down, he sets off on his journey.

The scene shifts to the father’s perspective.  It would seem that every evening the father goes to the brow of the hill and looks down the winding road with the hope of catching sight of his son returning in the light of sunset.  This evening, wonder of wonders, he glimpses a figure heading in his direction.  How long did he have to stare at the approaching one before he knew it was his son?  Regardless, what is clear is that he did not cross his arms and stomp his foot in the dirt of the road to wait until he got his hands on the boy to throttle him as he may well have deserved.  No, in a gesture that may well have looked foolish to his neighbors, the father ran down the road to meet his son to embrace him, kiss him, and welcome him home.

The son starts his rehearsed lines, but before he can get to the part where he would ask to be treated like a hired hand, the father, who doesn’t seem to care where the son has been or what he has done that resulted in his present sorry state, calls those hired hands to prepare a bath for the boy, dress him like a prince, and kill the fatted calf for a feast for him and his friends because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again, was lost and is found. And the feast began.

Now the elder son, coming in from a day’s labor, balks when he is told that the music and laughter he hears are from a lavish party his father is giving for his long lost brother.  He doesn’t in the least seem happy that his brother has returned alive from his foray into foreign lands and refuses to go to the table.

The father comes out to plead with his son to come in and join the celebration.  The older son will have nothing to do with it.  It is clear that this man has been laboring for his father begrudgingly.  He wonders why he has never been able to have a party with his friends.  Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. Then the most telling lines of all are spoken: But when this son of yours returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf. He does not say, my brother, but this son of yours.  He doesn’t seem interested in effecting reconciliation, does he?

Is the older son a stand-in for the Pharisees and scribes?  Does he represent those who think that it is too easy for sinners to return to the life of the church?  Is he of one mind with those who find it easy to enumerate those who will be going to hell when their life is over because of their deplorable actions?  Is he akin to those who think that surely, since they have done everything right, surely they will have a higher place in the Kingdom?  You may not remember that there was considerable voiced resentment when the news of the late Frank Sinatra’s reconciliation with, and marriage in the church made it into the press.  What do you think of deathbed conversions?

The point of the parable is not that sin doesn’t matter.  Right and wrong remain.  The Commandments still apply.  But the parable is warning against judging another, deeming anyone beyond grace’s reach.  No one can comprehend the breadth and depth, the all-embracing love that is realized in God’s desire to forgive and reconcile.  Our resenting the prodigality of God’s love may exclude us from the table.  Unless we desire to gather with all we oughtn’t to gather at all.

The Gospel for this Laetare Sunday challenges us to keep a proper perspective.  Jesus wants us to recognize ourselves in each of the three characters in the parable of the Prodigal.  We have to know what it means to be a sinner, to have erred in our ways, to rejoice with what it means to be forgiven.  If we do go to the Table, we must rejoice when we see new members added to the number, and rejoice when those who have been away for a time repent and return.  And we must be willing to do our part to be God’s reconcilers in Christ, embracing all who enter, welcoming all who wish to come to the table.  We must be prodigal with the love we have received until all are embraced and welcomed home.

How do you think the story ends?  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  We have to decide for ourselves whether the older son joins his younger brother at the table.  What do you think?  How does the story end for you?

Laetare Sunday.  Rejoice.  You all hang on now.  We’re getting there.  It won’t be long now until we hear Alleluia again and know what redemption means.

Sincerely,

Didymus

1 comment so far

  1. Melissa Larson on

    Wonderful and insightful as usual.

    Once, using this scripture for Lectio Divina, I found myself in the role of the Father’s servant, (I would like to be considered God’s servant)… ‘Hurry, Quickly, Go… bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost and now he has been found.’

    Just so, Just so God calls out to me His unworthy servant… Melissa, Melissa, Quick! Go…call them invite them to a potluck, scripture study, RCIA, do they have children???… there is so much I can I do to show the Father’s Love.

    Interesting, I learned this from You. As you you welcomed me home to Saint Alphonsus and celebrated my return to the Faith after a along abscence.

    “We Done Good and Faithful Servant” and Happy Birthday!

    Blessings, and THANK YOU,
    Melissa Larson


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