Mar 27, 2022: 4th Sunday of Lent (C)

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Introduction

In the midst of Lent, we are given a moment for rejoicing: Laetare Sunday (the name is derived 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 miraculously 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 because none had been done on those who had been born during the forty-year sojourn in the desert (Joshua 5:4-5) and Exodus 12:43-49 specifically states that a person had to be circumcised to be able to celebrate the Passover.

This now brings us to today’s reading and the first celebration of the Passover in the Promised Land.

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

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

The “reproach of Egypt,” their time of slavery and wandering in the desert, is completely over.

The Israelites have been transported into a land where they can worship their God freely and openly, and they can feed off the produce of that land without being captive to any other people.

They will still have to work hard, but they will be the beneficiaries of their own labor.

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.

After arriving in Gilgal, the Israelites celebrate Passover, that is, they celebrate God’s mighty acts on their behalf in freeing them from slavery in Egypt.

The word Passover is a reminder that before they left Egypt, the angel of death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites so that their children did not die during the last plague.

It is indeed a poignant moment when the Israelites celebrate Passover in the Promised Land for the first time, using grain from that region to make the unleavened bread.

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.

While they were in the desert, God fed them with manna. Now they no longer have need of manna because they are in the land that God promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. They can eat from the produce of the land.

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.

God is faithful to his promises even when the people sin, as they did in the desert during the exodus. They need have no fear about their future, because God will continue to be with them.

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.

As with our first reading, Paul also assures us that God does not count our trespasses against us but calls us to reconciliation.

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

Paul begins with one of his favorite phrases: “in Christ.”

While this 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 366-384 AD), 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.

This message of reconciliation in the New Covenant contrasts with the Old Covenant, which condemned (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

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.’”

Continuing the theme of reconciliation, 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 physical hunger represents 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.

As Jesus describes this younger son, the Pharisees could only have felt superior. They are nothing at all like this irresponsible and disobedient younger son, who is the epitome of a sinner.

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 a 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. 

Note that the father doesn’t even allow the son to finish his prepared speech before lavishing him with gifts to welcome him home.

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.

Just before this passage, Jesus told the same audience the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin, to teach the hypercritical Pharisees and scribes that God loves even sinners, and rejoices when they return to him.

If Jesus had simply wanted to reinforce that message, he would have ended the parable with the son’s return and the father’s rejoicing. But Jesus wants to do more than that; out of his love for the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus wants to take them deeper. He wants them to see that they, too, are sinners, so that they can return to God.

Enter the older brother who, unlike the wayward son, has been completely responsible.

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. They have much in common with this elder brother:

  • they never disobey orders, they are very careful about obeying the law,
  • they feel superior to those who have not been as obedient as they,
  • they lack compassion; just as the elder brother resents his father’s welcoming back his brother, so do the Pharisees resent Jesus’ welcoming sinners and eating with them.

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 don’t know if the older brother accepts the invitation and joins the party…. or if he nurses his self-righteousness outside. If the elder brother is excluded from the party, it will be because he is incapable of loving his brother, his fellow sinner, and so he will exclude himself.

It’s left open as a challenge, to both Jesus’ audience and to us: Will we go in or stay outside?

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.

Further, 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.

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