4th Sunday of Lent
Reading 1. Joshua 5: 9a
Reading II. 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21
Gospel. Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 (The Prodigal Son).
Now that we are more than half way through the penitential season of Lent, the Church interjects a moment of joy into the season. Today is traditionally called "Laetare" Sunday from the Latin word for joy. Just as he does on the third Sunday in Advent the priest will put aside his purple vestments signifying sorrow and penance and put on the pink or rose vestments which symbolize joy. Today we get a glimpse of the joy that will be experienced when we reach our final goal.
The first reading from the book of Joshua indicates that the people of God after 40 years of wandering in the desert have finally reached the promised land. Slavery in Egypt, that land of shame and depravity, has been left behind. The Lord tells Joshua, "I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you."
The theme of reconciliation and joy is continued in today's gospel account of the Prodigal Son. Try to think of a story in all of human literature that is more famous or well-known than this one. Take a moment.... War and Peace? I don't think so. Little Red Riding Hood? No. Hamlet? Who? Harry Potter? I'm sorry but no one will remember or read it 20 years from now. The Good Samaritan? Close, but I still give the nod to the Prodigal Son. Here we are in the 4th Sunday of Lent, at the onset of another Springtime, and the Church pulls out of its seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove, the greatest parable of them all.
It is hard to mistake the meaning of this parable. The Scribes and Pharisees had been complaining that Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Before giving us the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two other short stories. Jesus asked which of them would not behave like a man who left his flock in search of one lost sheep out of a hundred. "When he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders rejoicing." He calls his friends to rejoice with him "because I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, He asks, "what woman, having ten drachmas, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The lesson is clear. "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."
Only after these stories does our Lord relate the story of the man and his two sons that we heard today. The story is so familiar that I would just like to make two points. First, the compassion of a father or mother toward a child is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us. Like God's love it never fails even after the child has grown and become independent. Secondly, the road home begins when the son who had squandered his inheritance accepts responsibility for his actions and places the blame squarely upon himself. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."
Many of us will find it difficult to accept the message of this parable. Is it possible to live in a family and not regard your siblings as rivals for your parents love and affection? How often are the parents' efforts directed toward the child who causes the most trouble? Who can't sympathize with the other son in today's story?
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,
to him you slaughter the fatted calf."
Our Lord knows what goes on in our own families. He even knows how when we are angry or hurt we will say "your son" and not "my brother." Notice the father's answer. He says, "we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life."
Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians is also about reconciliation. In fact, Paul says that God has "given us a ministry of reconciliation," and that He is "entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." Paul calls us "ambassadors for Christ." Now in days gone by communication and transportation were no where near as quick or easy as they are today. In those days ambassadors played a much more important role than they do today. They stood in the place of the King or ruler who sent them. When they pled the case of the King in a foreign land, it was understood that it was the king himself who was speaking. An embassy was regarded then as it still is today as a part of the home country. That is why in diplomacy an attack on an American embassy abroad is the same as a direct attack on America.
As ambassadors of God we have a really important role. We represent Christ to the world about us. The real sin of the Prodigal Son was that he squandered his inheritance in a foreign land. Rather than converting the foreigners, he was converted by them. Our inheritance is not money or wealth. It is the gifts or talents that have been given us by God. Lent is the time for us to be reconciled to the Father so that we can take our part in restoring all things to Christ.