Mar 19, 2022: Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

1st Reading – Micah 7:14-15, 18-20

Shepherd your people with your staff,
the flock of your inheritance,
that dwells apart in a woodland,
in the midst of Carmel.
Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead,
as in the days of old;
as in the days when you came from the land of Egypt,
show us wonderful signs.

Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
and will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?
You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins;
you will show faithfulness to Jacob,
and grace to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
from days of old.

Micah was the last of the four prophets of the 8th century BC. (The other three were Isaiah, Hosea, and Jonah). The name means “who is like God”; the English equivalent is Michael. Micah’s preaching is primarily concerned with sin and punishment, not with political or cultic matters. He was preoccupied with social justice.

Today’s first reading is a beautiful expression of trust in God’s pardoning mercy.

Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, that dwells apart in a woodland, in the midst of Carmel.

Micah prays to God, asking him to care for his own people as a shepherd. They were set aside as God’s chosen people, therefore they dwell apart from other peoples.

At the time of this prophecy, the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon, which Micah refers to here as being like sheep in a forest, in danger of being scattered, lost, and made prey to various beasts.

Carmel is a coastal mountain range in northern Israel stretching from the Mediterranean Sea towards the southeast.

Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old;

Micah prays that God would bring the Israelites back to their own land, symbolized here by the plains of Bashan and Gilead, and return them to the way things were in the early days of the chosen people.

as in the days when you came from the land of Egypt, show us wonderful signs.

Micah’s plea continues by recalling the Exodus, when God miraculously redeemed the Israelites from slavery and saved them from the Egyptians. He trusts that God will use his mighty power once again on behalf of the people to deliver them from their current captivity.

Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency, and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt?

The remaining verses of this passage are the closing lines of the book of Micah. They are a hymn of praise for the incomparable God, who pardons sin and delights in mercy.

God is faithful to his covenant, even when the people are not. There is no one like God in his boundless mercy; no man or being forgives this way, as God does.

The “remnant of his inheritance” refers to the Israelites who remain — many were killed during the fall of the kingdom and the ensuing deportation into exile.

You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins;

A poetic description of God’s forgiveness.

Note how the prophet specifically references the depths of the sea; the connotation is that when God forgives sin, it is gone forever and forgotten. Their sins will not be simply tossed in the shallow water, where they might wash up again or appear at the next low tide.

you will show faithfulness to Jacob, and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.

Micah is confident in God’s compassion and in the ancient promises sworn to the ancestors.

This passage from Micah is echoed in the Benedictus of Zechariah in the New Testament, a hymn that sums up very well the hope in the Messiah harbored by generation upon generation of the people of God:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Luke 1:68-70).

Psalm 103: 1-4, 9-12

R. The Lord is kind and merciful.

Today’s responsorial psalm is from Psalm 103, a praise of divine goodness. The psalmist begins with a summons to bless the LORD, praising God for his personal blessings; he then extols God’s mercy toward all the people.

Bless the LORD, O my soul;

Although the word “bless” is often used as a prayer for God’s presence or a grace for the future, in this case, it’s a call to praise or thank God for blessings already received. The call to “bless the LORD” is normally addressed to someone other than the psalmist; here, it is a self-address.

The Hebrew word translated “soul” (nepesh) comes from the word for breath. It yields over twenty meanings, chief among which are life-breath (or soul), life, and living person. The reference here is probably to that center within the person from which all one’s life forces flow. This is not merely a spiritual or immaterial reality; it encompasses every aspect of the person. This understanding is corroborated by the phrase “all my being,” which immediately follows.

and all my being, bless his holy name.

In the biblical world, a person’s name was an expression of that person’s unique identity. In many ways, names held more significance for people than they do today. It was believed that one could exercise power over another simply by somehow controlling the name of that person. There were times during Israel’s history when, in their attempt to show great reverence for God, the people paid homage to God’s name rather than directly to God (Deuteronomy 12:11, 21; 14:23f; 16:2, 6, 11). Even when they did this they were careful to avoid using the divine name itself.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

The psalmist wants to bless God for all the good things he has received from him, without forgetting a single one.

He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion. He will not always chide, nor does he keep his wrath forever. Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.

The psalmist begins to enumerate the reasons for his call to praise God. God’s deeds all flow from his lovingkindness (hesed) and compassion (răhamîm). It is out of this mercy God acts, not requiring the harsh punishment the sins of the people would warrant.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.

The passage ends with the use of two images to describe the breadth of God’s devotion, both denoting immeasurable distance. First is the expanse between the heavens and the earth. The heavens could refer either to the sky, the height of which is incalculable, or the dwelling place of God, which is an entirely different realm than the home of human beings.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.

The extent of God’s covenant commitment is further sketched in the figure of speech “east to west.” Human eyes can only envision a fraction of the stretch that lies between the horizons. What is perceived is only infinitesimal; the reality is beyond comprehension.

Using these images, the psalmist is claiming the same limitlessness for God’s lovingkindness. Out of covenant love, God puts our transgression so far from us that the distance cannot even be imagined.

This is ample reason to praise and bless the LORD!

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, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain,

In the opening lines of the chapter, lines are drawn between the scribes and Pharisees, who were considered righteous religious leaders, and tax collectors and sinners, who were social outcasts.

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.

In addition to the tax collectors, other 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.

saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Whereas to us it may seem that Jesus was simply being friendly, in the culture of Jesus’ time, sharing food together was a way of showing acceptance of one another. The scribes and Pharisees are implying that Jesus’ association with unclean outcasts contaminated him.

Jesus, however, knew that the opposite is true: his proximity to sinners not only doesn’t contaminate him, it changes sinners into saints.

Jesus uses the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees as a teaching opportunity.

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 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.

In Jesus’ time, an 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 of two brothers 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 lifestyle spent squandering his many blessings.

This behavior symbolizes the person who cuts themselves off from God through sin.

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.

Here we see the unhappy effects of sin. The young man’s hunger evokes the anxiety and emptiness a person feels when he is far from God.

Not only does the son 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. Here is a kosher boy, in a pig sty, envying the food of an animal that was itself not fit to be good.

His defilement is complete; he has hit rock bottom.

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. He feels superior to no one.

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. 

This is very undignified behavior for an self-respecting man of the time: he disregards convention and runs out to welcome his son home.

The fact that the father caught sight of him while he was still at a great distance suggests that he was constantly checking the road for some sign of his son.

He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

The father does not greet him with reproaches but with immense compassion, which causes him to embrace his son and cover him with kisses.

God always hopes for the return of the sinner; he wants him to repent.

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. 

The father outfitting the son in this way communicates several things:

  • Finest robe: a manner of dressing that befits his status as son;
  • Ring: a token of honor and authority;
  • Sandals: the mark of a freeman, since only slaves went barefoot.

Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.

The fattened calf was reserved only for very special occasions.

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 had many options for how to respond to his son: he could scold him, demand an apology, be condescendingly accepting, disown him, or demand that he make restitution by working as a hired hand. This last option is what both the son and Jesus’ audience expected.

But the father chose forgiveness.

The father does not welcome him back as a barefooted servant, but as a son, hosting a lavish feast in his honor. The forgiveness is total, with the father offering to treat the son’s sins as though they had never happened.

Nothing speaks of the radical nature of Jesus’ message more than his teachings on forgiveness. Forgiveness is the final form of love, and wholehearted forgiveness is so loving that it’s God-like.

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 father’s merrymaking is so generous that it provokes the opposition and hatred of the elder brother, who had never gone far away from his father and had never abandoned the home.

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.

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.

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.

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.

However, Jesus is not only teaching a new perspective on God’s love. He is teaching the Pharisees and scribes that they too are sinners. Their inability to love their brothers is a sin. The effect of their attitude will not be to exclude other sinners from the banquet, but to exclude themselves.

Note that the father invites both sons, both sinners, to the banquet. Note also that the story actually has no ending: We do not know if the older brother accepts this invitation, repents, and joins the party…. or if he nurses his self-righteousness outside. It’s left open as a challenge, to both Jesus’ audience and to us: will we go in or stay outside?

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