Mar 6, 2016: 4th Sunday of Lent (C)

moon (1)

Introduction

In the midst of Lent we are given a moment for rejoicing: Laetare Sunday (so called from the opening line of the entrance antiphon at Mass: Laetare, Jerusalem… (“O be joyful, Jerusalem…”), from Isaiah 66:10).  The word translates from the Latin laetare, singular imperative of laetari, “to rejoice.

All the readings provide us with reasons for rejoicing, namely, the prodigal goodness of God.

1st Reading – Joshua 5:9a, 10-12

The LORD said to Joshua, 
“Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”

While the Israelites were encamped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, 
they celebrated the Passover
on the evening of the fourteenth of the month.
On the day after the Passover,
they ate of the produce of the land 
in the form of unleavened cakes and parched grain.
On that same day after the Passover, 
on which they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased.
No longer was there manna for the Israelites, 
who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.

The book of Joshua immediately follows the Torah and is the first of the historical books of the Old Testament. Moses has died; Joshua is the new leader. The people have crossed the Jordan River on dry land (Joshua 3:15-17), reminiscent of their escape from Egypt through the Red Sea.

Circumcisions were then performed as none had been done on those who had been born
during the 40 year sojourn in the desert (Joshua 5:4-5). This now brings us to today’s
reading and the celebration of the Passover in the Promised Land.

The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”

The word for removed is gll, literally “to roll away.

The Israelites have passed through two important transitions, the first being a social one.  The people would no longer have to endure the degradation that was their lot in Egypt.  No longer were they a captive people.  They had been transported into a land where they could worship their God freely and openly, and they could feed off the produce of that land without being captive to any other people.

They would still have to work hard, but they would be the beneficiaries of their own labor.  The reproach of Egypt has been removed.

While the Israelites were encamped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho,

There is a play on words and ideas in the name of the place.  Gilgal means “circle of stones,” which is similar to the mention of God “rolling back (gll) the reproach of Egypt as if it were a stone.

It was at Gilgal that, at God’s command, Joshua appointed twelve men, one from each tribe of Israel, to each take up a stone from the middle of the (momentarily dry) Jordan and set them up in a circle as a memorial of their crossing on dry ground (Joshua Chapter 4).  Because of its name, the city itself became a permanent reminder that God had “rolled back” the reproach of Egypt.

they celebrated the Passover on the evening of the fourteenth of the month. On the day after the Passover, they ate of the produce of the land in the form of unleavened cakes and parched grain.

There are several discrepancies worth mentioning here.  The story suggests that they have just crossed the Jordan and arrived in the Promised Land, but here, they celebrate with cakes and parched grain, which indicates that they have been there long enough to have produced a harvest.

In addition, the text specifies a strict calendrical dating of the Passover celebration — it is unlikely that the timing of their arrival would have coincided with such a date.

Finally, there is no mention of the lamb required of the Passover celebration.  The mentioned of unleavened bread suggests instead the feast of Unleavened Bread.  (Israel did not combine the commemoration of these two feasts until much later in history.)

In this light, it seems that this account probably grew out of a liturgical celebration of Passover/Unleavened Bread, a celebration that included some form of historical recital.

On that same day after the Passover on which they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. No longer was there manna for the Israelites, who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.

The second transition.  The Israelites no longer depend on bread from heaven — they now depend on the produce of the fertile Promised Land.  This change signaled the end of their desert experience; the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey had been fulfilled.

The importance of this account is less its historical accuracy than its theological meaning — it is clear that Passover, whenever it was celebrated, commemorated God’s having rolled away the reproach of Egypt and having fulfilled the promise of land made to the ancestors.

2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Brothers and sisters:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
And all this is from God,
who has reconciled us to himself through Christ
and given us the ministry of reconciliation,
namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting their trespasses against them
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

In today’s second reading, Paul develops an unusual argument to show how God goes about reconciling sinners to God’s own self through the death of the innocent Christ.

Brothers and sisters: whoever is in Christ is a new creation:

Paul begins with one of his favorite phrases: “in Christ.”  While this phrase suggests some kind of mystical union with Christ, it is clear that Paul is using it here in connection with an eschatological way of reckoning the ages.

the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.

Paul’s primary focus is the contrast between this age, the age of sin and alienation from God, and the age to come, the age of fulfillment and union with God.

Those who have been transformed in Christ are already living in this new age.  To describe their transformation, Paul uses imagery reminiscent of the prophets: a new creation (Isaiah 65:17, Isaiah 66:22, Jeremiah 31:31, Ezekiel 36:26) and former things giving way to new things (Isaiah 43:18-19).

And all this is from God,

God alone accomplishes these marvels.

who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation,

The new things of which Paul speaks are the reconciling action of God and the message of reconciliation that Paul is to preach.  The second flows from the first.

Paul’s use of pronouns can be confusing.  Although he uses the plural forms (“us”), he is clearly speaking of himself.  Paul frequently offers himself as a prototype for other Christians — that is probably his intent here.

namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them

Paul uses the notion of substitutionary sacrifice in his explanation of how God’s reconciliation is accomplished.  The notion is reminiscent of the role played by the Suffering Servant found in the prophet Isaiah: the servant of God not only suffered at the hands of the wicked, but for their sake as well.  Though innocent, he carried the guilt of their transgressions, and thus he justified many (Isaiah 53:5-11).

So it is with Christ.  Though he was innocent, he became the sin-offering for the guilty.

Note the universal dimension of the reconciliation: it is offered to the whole world (the kósmos).

“God was in Christ, that is to say, the Father was in the Son, reconciling the world to
Himself, not counting their sins against them. Creation sinned against God and did not repent, so God, who did not want His work to perish, sent His Son in order to preach through Him the forgiveness of sins and thus reconcile them to Himself.” [The
Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

Paul’s ministry (diakonía, “service”) of reconciliation is his proclamation of the message (lógon, “word”) of reconciliation accomplished by God.  Having himself been reconciled with God, Paul now becomes the agent through whom God works in the lives of others.

So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.

Using imperial language, Paul describes himself as an ambassador, one who acts with the legitimate authority of the absent ruler.  As he announces the reconciling action of God, he is also asserting his own apostolic authority — not something he claims for himself, but a responsibility bestowed on him by God.

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Joined to Christ, the very ones who have been expiated through Christ now share in the righteousness of Christ and, through Christ, in the righteousness of God.

All of this God has graciously accomplished for sinners through the magnanimous sacrifice of Christ. This is the good news Paul preaches.

Gospel – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
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.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly 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 has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘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.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”

Our gospel reading today is the familiar parable of the prodigal son, a story found only in Luke’s gospel.

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, 

Tax collectors were hated because they worked for the despised Roman occupiers; their wages came out of the money they exacted from their compatriots.  To this end, many of them extorted unreasonable sums, which added to the disdain in which the citizenry held them.

People whose occupations prevented them from regular observance of the law were considered sinners.  Such occupations included anything that made contact with death, blood, or unclean animals.

but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

To eat with such people was to somehow share life with them. Those who dealt with the law and the things of God criticized Jesus for the company he was keeping, maintaining that his association with such unclean outcasts contaminated him.

Jesus, of course, saw this association as opening the reign of God to all.

So to them he addressed this parable:

The parable has a double focus: it is clearly about the mercy God shows to repentant sinners, and it also contrasts God’s openness to sinners with the close-mindedness of those who consider themselves faithful (i.e., the Pharisees and the scribes).  It is to them he addresses this parable.

“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.

The estate was not necessarily divided only upon the death of the father. The inheritance
was usually given when the son married, when he needed it the most. The eldest son received a double portion, so the younger brother would have received a third.

After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.

There is no question about the depraved nature of the younger son’s behavior.  He not only abandons his father’s home, but his entire country, and embarks on a life of dissipation.

When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.

Not only does he attach himself to a Gentile (a disgrace for a Jew), he is reduced to tending swine, an occupation forbidden by the law.  Adding to this, he longs to eat what the pigs eat.  His defilement is complete.

Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. 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.’”

The younger son’s repentance is as sweeping as was his disgrace.  He recognizes his sinfulness with full contrition and is willing to relinquish any filial claims if he can only be treated as one of his father’s hired workers.

So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

This is very undignified behavior for an elderly Oriental gentleman — he disregards convention and runs out to welcome his son home. The picture is of the father constantly checking the road for some sign of his son and immediately recognizing him even at a great distance.

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

The younger son makes it clear that he is willing to spend the rest of his life in penance.

But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly 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 has been found.’ Then the celebration began.

The father does not welcome him back as a barefooted servant, but as a son, hosting a lavish feast in his honor (the fattened calf was reserved for very special occasions).

Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.

The father is no less attentive to the older brother, coming out to plead with him.  This is quite contrary to the traditional patriarchal image of fatherhood — he is neither domineering nor disinterested.

He said to his father in reply, ‘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. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’

The elder son strikes an interesting pose: he resents his father’s unrestrained joyous treatment of the errant one.  Just as the younger son had formerly repudiated his family, so this son refuses to participate in a family affair — his jealousy prevents him from
understanding how his father can do so much to celebrate the return of the sinful child, which separates him from the joy his family feels.

This scene with the older brother is not an afterthought — it returns us to the opening verses, which describe the Pharisees and the scribes.  Like the elder brother, they lack compassion, and they seem to resent the fact that God is merciful toward sinners who repent.

Note that the elder brother refers to the younger as “your son,” and not “my brother.”

Also, the verb used here for “I served you” is douleúō, indicating that he has served his father like a slave.

He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

Even after the elder brother’s angry outburst, the father still addresses him affectionately, assuring him of his inheritance. Note that he respects the decisions of both of his sons, even when he disagrees with them.  When it becomes clear that they have been mistaken, he forgives them.

This startling new picture of fatherhood becomes a metaphor for understanding God.  God’s mercy is so great that man cannot grasp it.

Connections and Themes

The bountiful land.  Our gracious God has given us a world that freely nourishes our every need. Never asking for payment, it quenches our thirst and satisfies our hunger.  By the goodness of God we live in a land of milk and honey, and we live there as a people redeemed from bondage — from the bondage of sin, but also from the bondage of one another.  God has removed from each and all of us the reproach of servitude, fashioning us into a new people in a new land of promise, fed by the yield of that land.  For this, we rejoice.

However, we know that this picture of abundance is idyllic.  We know that we fail even in the face of such a blessing.  We do not always live as a freed people, and we do not always allow others to live freely — we bring back upon ourselves the reproach that was lifted from us by God.  This Sunday is a time to rejoice in the goodness of God and recommit ourselves to fidelity to that goodness.

The prodigal father.  The goodness of God is strikingly portrayed in the radically new image of a father that enables us to understand God in remarkably new ways.  This is a God who allows us to follow our own dreams, who is partial to no one, who faithfully and patiently waits for us to return, who gently corrects our misperceptions.  God longs to be reconciled with us even more than we long to be reconciled with him — and it is God’s desire that we be reconciled with one another as well.  God’s prodigality is incredible.  No limit is set on the one who has been brought to life, and the other one is told, “Everything I have is yours.”

This parable reveals what is required of us if we are to rejoice.  First, we must realize that the reason for rejoicing is the goodness of God.  The wild son had to acknowledge his failure and humbly return to the father.  It’s only when we embrace such sentiments that we will be able to rejoice.  The elder son would have to overcome his resentment of his brother’s newly acquired good fortune and his disappointment in his father’s willingness to forgive.  It is only when we can also embrace those sentiments that we will be able to rejoice.

Rejoicing for God’s reasons isn’t always easy.

A new creation.  The challenges placed before us in the other readings set out some of the conditions required of us if we are to be a new creation. We are called to a profound and total reconciliation, first with God and then with one another.  The actual reconciling act is God’s, but as is always the case, we must freely respond to God’s initiative.  The extent to which God has gone to be reconciled with us is astounding.  Christ was identified with sin so we might be identified with God’s righteousness.  Who would have ever imagined such a marvel?  This is certainly reason for rejoicing.  But once again, we must be open to God’s graciousness in Christ; we must be willing to be reconciled.

Reconciliation requires that we be open to giving and receiving forgiveness.  It requires that we both remember and forget.  We must always remember the causes of alienation so we do not succumb to them again.  However, we must forget the resentment we felt so that we disallow it to influence our lives.

The reconciliation that comes from God comes with a commission.  Having ourselves been reconciled, we are giving the ministry of reconciliation.  We now become the instruments through whom the world is reconciled to God in Christ.  We become ambassadors of salvation.  The gospel story of the brothers is unfinished — were they ever reunited?  Perhaps their reconciliation is our story.

One thought on “Mar 6, 2016: 4th Sunday of Lent (C)

  1. This really opened my eyes and heart today to a lot of things and to what it really means to be reconciled to God the Father thru Jesus Christ His Son. Thank you; Praise the LORD for this devotion today. AMEN!

    Like

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