FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
Jos 5:9, 10-12 2 Cor 5:17-21 Lk 15:1-3, 11-32. Reconciliation. Against Self-Righteousness; Throw Yourself on God: Forgiveness; God’s mercy.
When history of our times is written, it will say that our popular art form is the motion picture film. Yet an aid to rapid – almost magical – learning has made its appearance. Indications are that, if it catches on, all the electronic gadget will be just so much junk. The new device is known as Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge. It has no wires, no electric circuitry to break down. Anyone can use it, even children. It fits comfortably in the hands or promptly go forward or reverse itself, requires no batteries, and will provide full information on an entire civilization. The makers generally call this Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge device by its initials, BOOK. The book in turn presents one of the most popular art forms of all time – the short story.
Among the most popular short stories of all time is the one in today’s Gospel. Because it comes after the stories if the lost sheep and the lost coin, it gives the facetious name to this section of St Luke’s Gospel as “The Lost and Found Department”. It is usually mis-called the story of “The prodigal Son”. It might better be called the story of “The Loving Father”. He is the main character and real hero. He is also the same Father who listens to us as we pray. The story is realistic and reflects keen psychological insight.
The younger of two sons going to his father and asking for his inheritance was within his rights under the Law (Dt 21:15-17). But the son’s coming to him like this was tantamount to saying that he wished his father dead. Nevertheless, under the law the father could choose to give his sons his property either while he was living or when he died. In either case, the division of the property would be the same. In a case like the present one, the elder son would get two-thirds and the younger son one-third.
In our story the younger son – because of immaturity, or selfishness, or irresponsibility, or a spirit of adventure, or whatever motivated the youth – chose to go his own way independent of his father. Opting for the pleasure of self-satisfaction, he came to one of the consequences of sin – isolation from community. When he was reduced to the degradation of taking care of pigs, the lowest of the low for a Jew, like an alcoholic who has hit rock-bottom he finally came to see himself as he really was. The young man resolved to return to his father’s house.
All the long way home he rehearsed a manipulative speech that he hoped would persuade his father to take him back – not as a son any more, but a hired hand. It is a tacky speech that plays on what he himself undoubtedly doesn’t put much stock in – his father’s reverence for God: “Father, I have sinned against God and against you.” If his behavior were from someone we knew today, it would elicit our contempt. The average human father might welcome him back, but with a stiff contract: Tow the line or else! He would love him, yes. But such a son would have to prove himself before the father could really forgive or forget.
What did this father do? Even as his son was far off, he saw him; he must have been waiting and watching all that time. He threw open his arms in welcome, and never let his son finish his rehearsed speech. The scene is well depicted in Rembrandt’s painting, Return of the Prodigal Son.The father is embracing the young son, his left hand the large strong hand of a man, his thumb giving obvious pressure through the threadbare garment on the boy’s shoulder. His embracing right hand, though, is the delicate hand of a woman, showing mercy and kindness.
The father’s forgiveness was total. He ordered his workers to put on his son the finest robe as a sign of honour, a ring as a sign of authority, and shores as a sign that he continued to be a son. His son wasn’t to be reduced to the status of slaves. In that culture, it was they who had no shoes. (Because slaves had no shoes even to recent times, poor African-American slaves sang the spiritual, “All God’s Chillun Got Shoes.” For them this meant heaven, when at last all people, even defenseless slaves, would receive their true dignity as persons.)
Again translated into modern terms, the father’s behavior would receive comments something like, “The old fool! No wonder his son is such a spoiled brat! The old man will be dead of a heart attack in a year!” But if we were put in the place of having to deal with our own best beloved, it might be a different story.
During the father’s celebration of his son’s return, the elder son makes his entrance for the climax of the story. He is smug in having done his duty to the father all the time his brother was away. His judgement, coming from a mentality of law rather than grace, of a hireling rather than a loving son, are rash, his speech mean. Just as the father had graciously cut off the humiliating speech of his younger son to show forgiveness, the elder brother cuts off the loving speech of his father to object. He refers to his younger brother as “your son” (v. 30), and the father gently rebukes him by referring to “your brother” (V. 32).
Perhaps we should give thought to the ways – many of them self-righteous – in which we can offend. In early – nineteenth-century Vienna, a famous preacher delivered a fiery sermon to huge congregation. He spoke of “that tiny pierce of flesh, the most dangerous appurtenance of anyone’s body”. Gentlemen blanched and ladies blushed as he elaborated on all the horrendous consequences of its misuse. Finally, he leaned over the pulpit to scream at his listeners; “Shall I name you that tiny pierce of flesh?” There was paralyzed silence. Ladies extracted smelling salts from their handbags. He leaned out father, and his voice rose to a hoarse shout. “Shall I show you that tiny pierce of flesh?” Horrified silence. Not a whisper or a rustle of a prayer book could be heard. The preacher’s voice dropped, and a sly smile slid over his face. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he concluded, “Behold the source of our sins!” and he stuck out his tongue. That’s a major way in which both the elder brother of Jesus’ story and we offend.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians jump out at us to let us know that we aren’t God’s slaves or hired help, but His children. Humankind hasn’t been the same since Jesus. All people have been invited to be God’s children. This means we are not creatures like the pew you’re sitting on, or the clothes you’re wearing, or your pet dog at home, but a creation – a new creation, like of which no mere human could have come up with – “brand new”, as a child might say. And because our heavenly Father is not self-righteous but the best possible, we are offered reconciliation with him. And reconciliation is the essence if the Church’s ministry.
Those of us who have ben profligate children can take consolation not only in the Gospel story, but also in today’s reading from the Book of Joshua. This book tells not scientific history in the current sense of the word, but the salvation history of God’s people. The Jews on the way to the Promised Land had undergone great battles with opposing tribes, as well as other hardships, which lasted a long time. Moses had led the people out of Egypt; Joshua would lead them into the Promised Land. The Israelites had crossed the Jordan and were about to become engaged in the conquest of Jericho. Because they preserved, they made it.
Today’s passage from the Book of Joshua reminds us that, no matter what our difficulties, we can make it, too. The only thing we need is persistence. Nothing in the world can take its place – not talent, nor genius, nor education. No matter what our difficulties, if we are determined enough to come to our heavenly Father during the remainder of this Lent, we can rejoice at the coming of Easter.
What lessons are in this for us? The first word of today’s liturgy speak of joy, the First reading and the Gospel of homecoming, and the Second Reading of newness. These are good themes for where we are right now on this “Rejoice” Sunday at this midpoint of Lent. We who go to church are in danger of considering ourselves to be the “saved” – the elder son in today’s Gospel story. We sometimes have the elder son’s smugness, coldness, and lack of compassion for those who are weak. The truth is that we are sometimes also like the younger son, profligately spending our inheritance of God’s grace as though there will be no tomorrow.
Some have confused God with Santa Claus. Others believe in a pussycat God who forgives anything, even when one has neither the time not the urge to apologize. Surely, the father of the Gospel story forgave even before the prodigal left home. There were no conditions on his love. But the forgiveness can’t activate until the son comes home and asks for it. Sin is not a debt to a banker but an insult to a friend. But if we have no adult personal relationship with God, a sense of that insult is not likely. Some people have no sense of violating a friendship; for them God is as easy to hoax as the phone company.
No matter where we see ourselves – as the immature younger son or as the smug elder son or somewhere in between, let us accept our heavenly Father’s offer of reconciliation. Our Father’s pronouncement is, “You’re mine, and I treasure you not for what you do but because you are.” Perhaps we have to accept the hardest penance of all – to accept being loved.
Reconciliation with God – and with one another – is especially needed in our world with its many divisions. On an immediate level, the need can show itself in family rows, neighbours not communicating because of some incident that is long forgotten, words that have caused hurt. And there can be no peace without repentance and reconciliation. Sometimes it is necessary for the one offended to reach out to the offender, whose pride gets in the way of seeking forgiveness.
Overcoming those manifestations and fulfilling the proclamation of joy in the opening word of today’s liturgy can be accomplished especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In an address to the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI defined a sacrament as “a really imbued with the hidden presence of God.”
To participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation is especially fitting for Lent, but its frequent use at all times has many values. Every time we go to the Sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation, or Confession – whatever we are in the habit of calling it – we acknowledge that we have culpable sins; we affirm that through the mercy of God no sin is unforgivable; we implicitly testify that God’s mercy comes through the priest from Jesus, who forgives sins; we attest that the Church is a mother who loves us, even when we can’t love ourselves; we implicitly confirm that God wants us to reject a part of our past life, so that the days ahead can be better than those behind; we experience God reaching out to welcome sinners home to renewed relationships with community and with ourselves; and we implicitly reaffirm that we can do things with God’s grace that we might not succeed in doing on our own.
Thus cleanse, we can spread our reconciliation to our other brothers and sisters. Only in that way can we go down in the Book of Lie as people who through Baptism have entered a new life whose story may not be short, but has significance into eternity.