Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Reflection:
Joshua 5:9a, 10–12
2 Corinthians 5:17–21
Luke 15:1-3, 11–32
Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called "Laetare Sunday"—Rejoice Sunday. And our readings for this Sunday are appropriate, for they help us understand what it is that should cause us to rejoice.
The reading from the book of Joshua portrays a scene of the arrival of the Hebrew people in Canaan, the promised land that they had journeyed so long to reach.
The author of the book uses Egypt, the place of captivity, and Canaan, the place of settlement, as symbols for the Jewish people's relationship with Yahweh, their God. Egypt served to portray a state of alienation from God, and that place of reproach ended with the very first Passover and the departure of the people led by Moses. The exodus event illustrated the restoration of the covenant; God had heard the Israelites' cry and relented, calling them forth from their slavery under Pharoah.
With the arrival in the land of Canaan, the process is complete, the crossing over the Jordan parallels the crossing of the Red Sea. The arrival in the Promised Land and the celebration of the Passover feast there is the sign of God's restoration of his people and the Jewish people's new future. No more will their diet be the manna in the desert, but the food they grow and produce on the land that has been given to them.
In the gospel today we read the familiar and beloved story of the prodigal son.
Despite the title given it, it is the father, of course, who is the real center of the story, not the son. To understand why, we need to pay attention to the opening verses of the reading, where Luke writes that prostitutes and tax collectors were drawn to Jesus. In other words, public sinners were coming to Jesus, and he was talking and even eating with them. This, Luke points out, was a cause for complaint among the Jewish religious leaders, for no righteous person would break bread with a public sinner. Such behavior was an occasion of scandal. In response, Jesus tells the parable as a defense of his behavior and, indeed, of his ministry to these social outcasts.
There are a couple of items to note about the parable.
First, in the final verse of the previous chapter in Luke, Jesus says, "Let the one with ears to hear, listen!" Then in the first verse of the next chapter, Luke says the prostitutes and tax collectors drew near to Jesus to listen to him. It is the belittled and despised who are responding to Jesus' challenge to listen, and it is the religious leaders who are off to the side complaining. It is this somewhat ragtag company of disciples, poor and sinful, who are being restored and made into the new people of God, the disciples of Jesus.
Second, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance. The younger son shows no deference to his older brother, the one entitled to the inheritance, and also shows no respect for his father. Not willing to wait for the death of his father, the younger son wants a portion of the inheritance now with no regard as to how that affects the family by taking money from the household's wealth and going off to a distant country.
Third, not only does the younger son squander his money, but he forgets his family heritage and religious tradition. He takes care of pigs; remember, this is a Jewish man who does not eat pork. He is living like a Gentile.
Fourth, with all that as background, we are then told the father welcomes him back warmly. Not only is the prodigal given new clothing and sandals but also a signet ring. In sum, he returns not as a hired hand but as a son, restored to the family.
Fifth, the older son, with a sense of duty and obedience that clouds his vision, cannot be so generous. Notice he says to his father, "your son," not "my brother," has returned. In fact, the elder son is so put out that he initially refuses to enter the house. This is a great insult in the ancient Semitic world, to be invited into a house and refuse to enter is to slur the person whose invitation is spurned. The father would have had every right in that culture to banish his older son on the spot. Instead, the father comes back out of the house to cajole and try to persuade his older son.
It is important to grasp just what Jesus was doing by telling the parable; he was defending himself from the complainers and critics who thought his ministry to the lost was mistaken and scandalous. What Jesus suggests by his parable is that he does what he does—restore the lost—because that is what God does. Like the generous and merciful father of the two sons, God embraces all and loves us all despite our failings. The ministry of Jesus is simply one more demonstration of the Father's merciful way with errant humanity.
The reading from Paul's letter today reminds us that such forgiveness and reconciliation is all God's doing. The love is God's initiative. God comes to us; remember, the father is portrayed as seeing the prodigal son still a long way off and does not passively wait for his arrival but runs out to him and embraces him. It is not our laboring to reach God that brings about reconciliation; it is our acceptance of what God is doing for us, restoring and reconciling us.
I am reminded of a scene from a play by the French writer Jean Anouilh. It is his retelling of another parable, the final judgment scene in Matthew 25, where God separates the sheep and the goats. Those who gave food, drink, and clothing to those in need, those who visited the sick and imprisoned, are told that when they did it to the least, they did to the Lord. And those who did none of those things for the least among them are told they ignored the Lord who was in their midst.
Anouilh then portrays the saved as waiting outside the pearly gates ready to enter when suddenly a rumor is whispered. "God is going to save the others, too." The whispers grow into louder speech and then shouts: "It's not fair! Why should they be saved? I've tried all my life to be good and now those others are getting into heaven as well. No, that's wrong, it isn't fair." And then the final judgment is revealed: to see divine mercy and to not recognize it. To see how forgiving and gracious is the Father and to resent it. That is the final judgment.
Perhaps the reaction of the older son is far too common; perhaps it is closer to how we, in fact, respond than we'd like to admit. Maybe we would be standing aside with the Pharisees and scribes complaining, rather than drawing near to Jesus with our fellow sinners to listen. Maybe we'd be among those upset that "those others" are going to be received into heaven as well.
In the readings from Joshua and Luke we are told something of the wonder of God's love and care for humanity down through the ages. St. Paul reminds us that religion is not what we do for God, but our learning to accept what God does for us. Today, our calling is to be a church, a people, who will witness to the message that is cause for rejoicing: we are loved, forgiven, and restored to God's gracious presence. So, what church do we want, or, put more directly, what church will you and I be? A church, a gathering of people, that excludes, condemns, and writes off others? Or, will we be a church that puts on feasts to remind people how much God loves them?