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Reflections for the IV Sunday of Lent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the fourth Sunday in Lent. He says that the readings invite us to rejoice by being reconciled with God through repentance.

Jos 5:9, 10-12; II Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

Introduction: Traditionally the forth Sunday of the Lent is called “Laetare Sunday” (Rejoice Sunday). Anticipating Easter joy, today’s readings invite us to rejoice by being reconciled with God through repentance and by the confession of our sins and by celebrating our coming home to be with God, our loving and forgiving Heavenly Father.

Homily starter anecdote: # 1: Gandhi’s confession: Mohandas K. Gandhi, "the Father of the Nation” in India, in his famous autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, writes about his own experience of theft, confession and forgiveness as a schoolboy.  “I was fifteen when I stole a bit of gold out of my brother's armlet to clear a debt of about twenty-five rupees, (U.S. $3 in those days), which he had incurred. He had on his arm an armlet (bracelet) of solid gold.  It was not difficult to clip a bit out of it.  Well, it was done, and the debt cleared.  But this became more than I could bear.  I resolved never to steal again.  I also made up my mind to confess it to my father.  But I did not dare to speak….  I decided at last to write out the confession, submit it to my father, and ask his forgiveness.  I wrote it on a slip of paper and handed it to him myself.  In this note not only did I confess my guilt, but also requested an adequate punishment for it, and closed with a request to him not to punish himself for my offence.  I also pledged myself never to steal in the future.  I was trembling as I handed the confession to my father.  He was then confined to bed.  I handed him the note and sat on his bed.  He sat up to read it. He read it through, and pearl-drops trickled down his cheeks, wetting the paper. For a moment he closed his eyes in thought and then tore up the note.  He again lay down.  I also cried.  I could see my father's agony.  Those pearl-drops of love cleansed my heart and washed my sin away.  Only he who has experienced such love can know what it is…  This sort of sublime forgiveness was not natural to my father.  I had thought that he would be angry, say hard things, and strike his forehead.  But he was so wonderfully peaceful, and I believe this was due to my clean confession.  A clean confession, combined with a promise never to commit the sin again, when offered before one who has the right to receive it, is the purest type of repentance.  I know that my confession made my father feel absolutely safe about me and increased his affection for me beyond measure."

Scripture readings summarized: Each of the three readings characterizes one of the many facets of Easter joy.  In the first reading, the Chosen People of God are portrayed as celebrating, for the first time in their own land, the feast of their freedom.  Their joy is one of promises fulfilled.  In today’s Responsorial Psalm the joyful Psalmist invites us, “Glorify the Lord with me; let us together extol His Name!” then gives us our reason for rejoicing, “I sought the Lord, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears!” The second reading joyfully proclaims the effect of Jesus’ saving act as the reconciliation of all peoples to the Father.  In the Gospel, the joy is that of a young son’s “coming home,” where he discovers and is healed by the reality his father’s forgiving and gratuitous love.  It is also the story of a loving and forgiving father who celebrates the return of his prodigal son by throwing a big party in his honor, a banquet celebrating the reconciliation of the son with his father, his family, his community and his God.  It is really the Parable of the Forgiving Father, the story of Divine love and mercy for us sinners, a love that is almost beyond belief.  The common theme of joy resulting from reconciliation with God and other human beings is announced to all of us present in this Church – an assembly of sinful people, ready to receive God's forgiveness and His Personal Presence as a forgiving God in the Holy Eucharist.

The first reading (Joshua 5:9, 10-12), explained: Today we hear the story of the reconciliation of God’s Chosen People with their God at Gilgal (within the eastern limits of Jericho), by means of a Passover meal, which made use of grain that had grown Promised Land.  This celebration of the Passover banquet by Joshua and the Israelites while encamped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho marks the “homecoming” of God's people to the Promised Land. Their paschal banquet at Jericho also marks the beginning of their new life as God’s liberated and covenant people. For forty years in the desert, they had rebelled again and again against God, and against the leadership of Moses.   Nevertheless, God had forgiven them every time they repented.  Finally, He had brought them to the Promised Land.  In thanksgiving, they celebrated the Passover, asking Yahweh’s forgiveness, just as they had begun their journey out of Egypt with the first Passover sacrifice and meal.  Joshua’s story is particularly pertinent to the Israelites who were taken to Babylon as slaves in 587 BC.  It reminded them that the same God who had brought their ancestors from Egypt to the Promised Land would be merciful to them and forgive their sins of infidelity, provided they repented and were reconciled with Him.  The people were to believe that, as God had responded positively to their repentant ancestors in the past, He would also hear their penitent cries, forgive them once again and keep all His ancient promises.  Lent is a time for us to "pass over," from the world of injustice we have created to a world of reconciliation.  It is our time to turn hatred to love, conflict to peace, death to eternal life.

The second reading (II Cor. 5: 17-21) explained: Here, St. Paul emphasizes the uniqueness of every individual in the Corinthian community – "Whoever is in Christ is a new creation!"  Then he explains “the ministry of reconciliation” he had received from Christ and exercised among them, as the continuation both of Yahweh’s ministry and of the reconciliation that occurred in Temple worship.  He tells the Corinthian converts that they are a new creation, made so through the blood of Christ.  It is the shedding of Christ’s blood that has reconciled them with God and made them righteous, so they have reason to rejoice.  Paul further reminds the faithful at Corinth that the apostles are ambassadors of Christ, announcing this reconciliation, which God offers to all humanity through Jesus Christ.   Hence, he appeals to the Corinthians to be reconciled to God and to one another, thus sharing in God’s plan of salvation.  The Apostle teaches us that God is constantly reconciling everyone to Himself.  Like the Corinthians, we have each been made a new creation, and each of us has been given many second chances.  Hence, it is also our ministry to proclaim that reconciliation by being reconciled with those around us, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

Gospel exegesis: The significance of the parable: The parable of the prodigal son is called "the greatest short story in the world" (Charles Dickens), "the gospel of the gospels", the gospel of the outcasts," and the "parable of the prodigal father" (because the father is generous, excessive and extravagant with his love and because the Father’s prodigal love finds its completion in Jesus Christ).  But the popular name, parable of the prodigal son, fails to indicate that the father has two lost sons, not one. The world-famous portrait of the “Return of the Prodigal Son” by the 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, July 15, 1606 – October 4, 1669; Wikipedia), now at the Hermitage museum in Russia, Balanchine’s famous choreography of this parable, the Russian composer Prokofiev’s suite based on the Prodigal Son, and numerous other artistic works around the world depicting this theme, demonstrate the lingering impact of this parable on human hearts down through the centuries.  Acknowledging the allegation that he mingled with the sinners, Jesus outlines the three aspects or dimensions of repentance, by presenting three characters in this parable: 1) the repentant younger son, 2) the forgiving father and 3) the self-justifying elder son. This is a double-edged parable. The lesson of Divine mercy to sinners is shown by the Father’s reception of the returned younger son. A stern warning is given to the self-righteous people by presenting the dialogue between the father and his older son.

The repenting son:  He began by wanting freedom from his father.  Hence, he forced his father to give him his right to one-third of his father’s property (as stipulated in Deuteronomy 21:17).  The son then sold his property and traveled to a far-off city where he realized all his wild dreams of a carefree life.  Finally, bankrupt, abandoned by his “friends,” and faced with a local famine, he was forced to take up the job of feeding pigs – a job forbidden to the Jews.  At last, awakened by his sufferings, he gathered enough courage to return to his father and confess his sin, thus becoming the model for repentant sinners.  He had resolved to become a "hired servant" of his family, thereby regaining a measure of honor and independence, but with a social status matching his guilt and failure.  Moreover, he would be able to take care of his father for as long as the father lived.

The prodigal father: The father in the story represents God the Father. According to the law and customs in ancient Palestine, a father could dispose of his property by making a will that would be executed when he died (Numbers 36:7-9) or he could give his possessions to his children while still alive. Usually the eldest son received a double share or twice the amount that each of the other sons would receive.  But in the parable, the father promptly gave a share of his property to his younger son, bid him a tearful farewell and waited daily for his return.  Finally, after squandering his money, his morals and even his Jewish religious heritage, the boy returned in rags. He confessed his sins, and his father promptly forgave him, kissed him on the cheeks, and healed the broken relationship between them.  He ordered a bath for his son, gave him new garments (a sign of honor) and a golden signet ring (sign of authority and trust).  By ordering sandals for the feet of his son, the father signaled his reacceptance of the returned penitent as his son.  The robe and ring and shoes were a sign that the son would not be received into the house as a servant (slaves did not wear shoes, robes or finger rings) but in his former status as son. The killing of the fatted calf, specially raised for the Passover feast, meant that the entire village was invited for the grand party given in the returned son’s honor.  When the elder brother refused to join in the party, the father went out to beg him to be reconciled with his younger brother and to share in the father’s joy.  The father assured the elder son of his continuing love and of the son’s secure inheritance and place in the family by saying, “All I have is yours.”  Thus, the father symbolizes the loving and unconditionally forgiving Heavenly Father who is excessive, extravagant and generous with His forgiveness and mercy.  Mirroring our Heavenly Father, Jesus, too, squanders his love on those who need it most.  Although the story of the prodigal son is often given as an example of repentance, it is actually the story of how God forgives and heals the repentant sinner.  Like God, the father in the parable was ready to forgive both of his "sinful" sons even before they repented. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that God already forgives us as soon as we repent, even before we go to confession or perform any penance.  The forgiveness the father offers in the parable parallels the forgiveness God offers in real life.  That is why Jesus in the Gospels frequently describes God more like a defense attorney than a prosecuting attorney.           

The self-justifying elder son: The unforgiving elder son represents the self-righteous Pharisees.  He had no feelings of sympathy for his brother.  He played the part of a dutiful son, but his heart was not in it.  He was resentful, bitter and angry.  He was so jealous of his younger brother that he never wanted to see him again.  He leveled a series of allegations against his prodigal brother, whom he viewed as a rival.  Instead of honoring his father by joining him in accepting his brother and playing an appropriate role at the meal, the elder son publicly insulted and humiliated his father (vv. 28-30).  Jesus includes this character in the story to represent the scribes and Pharisees who began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  We are not told how the elder son responded to his father’s plea, or to his father’s assurances of continued love, place and inheritance (“All I have is yours”).  Perhaps that is because Jesus meant the scribes and Pharisees to see that their own final response to the Father’s love in sending Jesus had yet to be made, and that they still had time to “return home” to their Father in welcoming Him.           

Life messages: 1) We need to accept the fact that we are all prodigal children who have squandered our Father’s inheritance.  There is a spiritual famine even in countries with a booming economy.  Because of this spiritual famine, we resemble the younger son who lived with pigs.  Examples of this spiritual famine can be seen in drug and alcohol abuse, fraud and theft in the workplace, murders, abortions and violence, premarital sex, marital infidelity and priestly infidelity, as well as in hostility between people.  Sometimes this "spiritual famine” exists in our own families.  That is why we condemn some of our family members to “survival-level” existence, and even contribute to the death of some of them, by refusing to associate with them.  Let us accept the fact that we have been squandering God’s abundant blessings not only in our country and in our families, but also in our personal lives.

2) Lent is a time to "pass over," from a world of sin to a world of reconciliation. The story of the prodigal son asks each of us an important question: Will you accept the Father's   forgiveness and partake of the banquet, or will you remain outside?  Lent is a time to transform hatred into love, conflict into peace, death into eternal life.  The message of Lent then, is, as St. Paul tells us, “We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God."  The first step, of course, is to do as the younger son did: "When he came to himself, he said: 'I will break away and return to my father, and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against you."'" At every Mass, we come to our loving Heavenly Father’s house as prodigal children.  We begin the Mass acknowledging that we have sinned and have closed our hearts to God’s perfect love: ("I no longer deserve to be called your child, so do with me as you will"). Next, we listen to the Word that heals our broken and imperfect relationships with God ("say the Word and I shall be healed").  In the Offertory, we give ourselves back to the Father, and this is the moment of our surrendering our sinful lives to God our Father.  At the consecration, we hear God’s invitation through Jesus: “… this is My Body, which will be given up for you... this is the chalice of My Blood … which will be poured out for you…” (=”All I have is yours”). In Holy Communion, we participate in God’s feast of reconciliation, the Holy Eucharist, the gift of unity with God and with His whole family. Here, we experience again the fully loving, give-and-take relationship with Him and His family, our restored brothers and sisters whom God gave us first in our Baptism.  Let us come to the house of God as often as we can to be reconciled with God, our forgiving Father, by asking His pardon and forgiveness, and to enjoy the Eucharistic banquet of reconciliation and acceptance He has prepared for us, His returned prodigal sons and daughters.

           3) We need to accept the loving offer of our Heavenly Father: “All I have is yours”.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

(Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods On A Snowy Evening)

            Faraway hills and forest look green; there are many attractions in life; there are many voices saying to us, "Follow me,” or "Follow your desires and you will find happiness."  But the best and the only real offer of lasting happiness is from God our Father, “All I have is yours."  God our Heavenly Father stands outside our door waiting for us to open it to Him.  For the remainder of Lent, let us try to make every effort to answer that invitation from our Heavenly Father, “All I have is yours." Each Lent offers us sinners a chance to return home with a confession of sins, where we will find His welcome and open-armed love.  Such a confession will enable us to hasten toward Easter with the eagerness of Faith and love, and it will make possible the rejoicing which today’s liturgy assures us in our Lord’s words: "There is more joy in Heaven over the one sinner who does penance than over the ninety-nine just who do not need penance." (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

28 March 2019, 14:35