10th March 2013. Fourth Sunday of Lent
All members of the ACP are most welcome to contribute Homily Resource material to this website. Two paragraphs are fine for weekdays; a little more for Sundays. If possible, send it to me at least a week in advance of the date on which it applies. Send it to: rogers AT mountargus.ie
Jos 5:9-12 2. The Israelites, free at last from slavery and humiliation in Egypt, enter the land of promise. Possession of the land becomes a reality when they eat the fruits of the new land..
2 Cor 5:17-21. Christ’s whole aim and mission was to bring about a reconciliation between God and humanity. It is a task of the Church to bring the benefits of grace to all people.
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32. In the immortal parable of the Prodigal Son, we learn the Father’s infinitely patient love.
Theme: We too have sinned against heaven and against our God, and reach out for his forgiveness.
See Tarsus.ie for detailed comment on this Sunday’s Gospel and introductions to all three readings.
First Reading: Book of Joshua 5:9-12
The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
Second Reading: Second Letter to the Corinthians 5:17-21
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Gospel: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”
A Ministry of Reconciliation
In light of the second reading, one might look forward to the impending papal election within these coming days and pray that whoever is chosen will be able to exercise a powerful ministry of renewal and reconciliation. For as St Paul says, “God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.” One can reflect on some of the issues in today’s church, where this message of reconciliation is urgently required. Members of the ACP may want to take a fresh look at some of the ideals expressed in the ACP constitution as desiderata in the practical goals of our next pope, such as:
Full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council, with special emphasis on:
- the primacy of the individual conscience.
- the status and active participation of all the baptised.
- the task of establishing a Church where all believers will be treated as equal.
- A redesigning of Ministry in the Church, in order to incorporate the gifts, wisdom and expertise of the entire faith community, male and female.
- A culture in which the local bishop and the priests relate to each other in a spirit of trust, support and generosity.
- A re-evaluation of Catholic sexual teaching and practice that recognizes the profound mystery of human sexuality and the experience and wisdom of God’s people.
- Liturgical celebrations that use rituals and language that are easily understood, inclusive and accessible to all.
- Strengthening relationships with our fellow Christians and other faiths.
- Full acceptance that the Spirit speaks through all people, including those of faiths other than Christian and those of no religious faith, so that the breath of the Spirit will flow more freely.
Is God Fair?
No matter how often I read this parable of the Prodigal Son I am left with a vague dissatisfaction. Rather than being delighted with the mercy of God as shown to the Prodigal, I’m somewhat irked by his partiality, which is suggested by his exchange with the elder son. Fathers do indeed have favourite sons. I’ve seen them listening to complaints about the apple of their eyes and shaking their heads in disbelief. “You don’t know him. He’s not like that at all. He couldn’t do a thing like that. It’s just not in him.” And you the teacher, the priest, the guard, the neighbour, are a nosey busybody, a crank. He might even feel sorry for you. And it is not so with all his sons. “I don’t know what to do with him, Father. He has my heart broken. I can’t understand him. He’s driving me crazy.” Could it be that the Prodigal was the favourite?
Is it that we know too many elder sons too well .. Lads who have stayed at home to care for ageing parents? And by the time they have buried their parents, they have buried with them the best years of their lives. Theirs was a hard life and if they had grudges it was hard to blame them. There is a photo on the mantlepiece in many a country home, which shows him standing outside the old place, surrounded by his brother and his family back on a trip from the States. It’s a telling picture. There he is in his peaked cap and collarless shirt, lean, lined, weather-beaten face, looking more like the father than the brother of the returned Yank.
Most of us probably identify with the elder son. The monotony of our lives make us resentful of the Prodigal’s wild escapade of freedom. We grudge the sinner his good times. It is probably why we accept the doctrine of retribution so unquestioningly. What makes our lives a little more tolerable is the thought that our good times are all before us and part of them, which we can savour now, is that the playboys of this world will pay in full for their pleasures. So in this story the elder son is carrying the standard of all the solid citizens, all the responsible members of the community, “the salt of the earth’, while behind the banner of the Prodigal huddle all that tattered mob of misfits, drop-outs, lame-ducks and the rest of the world’s rejects.
The really puzzling thing about this parable is, why did Christ bother with this epilogue on the elder son at all? Surely if the message of the parable is the boundless mercy of God towards the sinner, then by the time the festivities for the returned Prodigal are in full swing, we’ve got the message. The remainder adds nothing except to divert some of our sympathy towards the resentful elder son. Of one thing we can be sure, knowing the storyteller, it must have a point. He was a master of his craft. Look again at it, but this time if you can, through the eyes of one of the world’s rejects, a dropout, a misfit, or one of the many physically, mentally or socially handicapped. Perhaps this is Christ’s answer to their agonised cry: “Why me? Why was I singled out for a life of frustration? Why should I have been a faulty creation?” What the grudging elder son failed to see was that the world’s prodigals are victims more often than not and have more claims on God’s love and forgiveness.
The ideal short story
They say that’s the best short story that was ever written. Some of its phrases are so powerful that they have become proverbial. Prodigal Son, fatted calf. . . lost and found. A story that has enriched the vocabulary of the world. And not just the world’s vocabulary – the world’s mentality as well. Its way of looking at things. No story tells us more about God or makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s a short story with enormous scope, with the widest possible diameter, in that it embraces our sinfulness at one end and God’s forgiveness at the other. The best part of it, of course, is that it brings both extremities to the centre.
What provoked it? What led Our Lord to tell it? The fact that the Pharisees objected to the company he kept, to his eating with sinners. So he tells the story to give an insight into his own mind and the mind of God.
The story falls into three parts. The first is about the younger son, an impatient lad who wanted his inheritance now. Couldn’t wait for the father to die. Greedy fingers, itchy feet, a sensual nature; wanting to live it up, and to hell with the commandments. A life based on doing whatever he feel like doing – not an unfamiliar story in any generation, including our own. “Sure you might as well, life is that short. Anyway. as long as you’re enjoying yourself, as long as you’re happy.” But the happiness ran out, and he came to his senses. And that’s the big point about him. He came to his senses. He really was repentant. Repentance is to be sorry to be in one place, to want to be in another, and to have the will and determination to get there. To be sorry for our sins, to want a different kind of life, and to have the motivation and determination to change. Well, he had that. He was graced with that. “I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men” (Lk 17:19). As I say, the big thing about him is that he acknowledged his sins and wanted to be rid of them. He was really repentant.
The second part of the story is about the father. And when you think about it, it’s truly extraordinary. The Gospel says: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him” (Lk 15-20). Still a long way off, a dot on the horizon. Doesn’t that mean he was on the look.out for him, from the day he left, watching and waiting and praying, like many a father or mother? Doesn’t it illustrate how God the Father feels about each one of us, how much every one of us matters to him, how anxious he is that we’d come back? And he didn’t just wait for the son; he ran out to meet him – met him half-way. Some people feel we should call this story “the Prodigal Father.” To be prodigal is to be wasteful or lavish in your use of things. Well, the father threw his forgiveness around. Not in any grudging or reproving way, but in an explosion of sheer generosity and joy: Kill the calf, we’re having a feast, the son is alive again. The two big points about the father were the prodigality of his forgiveness and the intensity of his joy: “There will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15:7). Remember that?
The third part of the story concerns the older son. Boy was he angry. He couldn’t enter into the mood of the party at all. He wouldn’t even go in. His attitude is understandable and he’s treated with sympathy, but his attitude helps to illustrate, yet again, how much more forgiving God is than we are, and how inclusive, all-embracing, God’s love is. It includes the two of them – the rock and the rover. “My son you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right that we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found” (Lk 15:31, 32).
The story of the Prodigal Son needs no elaboration. That is its greatest strength as a narrative. Maybe it’s presumption to be commenting on it at all. The most respectful response to it is personal reflection. Just think about it; savour it; let it sink in. We’ll all take away different pieces of it, because that’s the way it is with everything we hear. I doubt if any of us will leave behind the central message, however; that there is no limit to God’s forgiveness and that our repentance is not just a condition of his forgiveness but a source of unconfined, indeed infinite, joy. You think God doesn’t want us to turn away from sin? You think God doesn’t love you? You haven’t been listening.