4th Sunday of Lent
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
This weekend the Church observes Laetare Sunday, the name being derived from the first word, in Latin, of the Entrance Antiphon. The word is “laetare” or “rejoice.” The Church rejoices not that Lent is approaching its close, but that salvation, finalized in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, is near.
To underscore this theme, priests may wear rose vestments. Rose is violet with a tinge of gold. It reminds us of the first rays of the sun as they sweep across the horizon after a dark night. Christ, the light of the world, is coming.
The Book of Joshua, the first reading, looks far back into the history of God’s people. At the point of this story, they are almost finished with the long and threatening trip across the Sinai Peninsula. They have faced hunger, even starvation.
Into this situation came God with the gift of manna from the sky. The manna sustained the people. They survived. As they neared the Promised Land, the supply of manna stopped since they had no need of it. The Promised Land would provide them with a steady, reliable source of food.
St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians furnishes the second reading. Paul implores the Corinthian Christians to be reconciled with God in Christ. Urgency and appeal literally flow from his words. Sensing the obvious feeling in his words, it is not difficult to imagine Paul’s frustration as he watched the tendencies of the Corinthians to yield to old pagan ways unfold.
He insists that nothing else matters but life with God. Following Jesus makes a person a “new creation.” The things of earth, including death, no longer matter.
For its final reading on this weekend, the Church gives us, from Luke’s Gospel, the beautiful and reassuring parable of the prodigal.
Much of the parable is self-evident, even to us in the 21st century. Certainly quite clear is the uncompromised, constant love of the father, who is a symbol of God.
However, some powerful messages may be lost until we consider the context. For example, the prodigal was not the older son. As such, he was not his father’s heir. The father owed him little if anything. Then, of course, there was the prodigal’s desertion of his father. Jews at the time of Jesus prized loyalty to parents, expressed in loving care and attention.
Next, the prodigal consorts with prostitutes. Such activity revolted pious Jews. It scorned the sanctity of marriage and the family but also meant that the pure stock of God’s people might be defiled by the birth of children to pagan women in such relationships.
Finally, the prodigal stooped so low that he waited on pigs, the lowest of low animals. Nevertheless, the father forgave all and gave a wonderful inheritance to the wayward son.
The Church is excited and joyful. Salvation is near. Few Gospel passages are more familiar, or treasured, among Christians than the story of the prodigal.
God’s love and mercy literally shine. No one can fail to see them. Yet, accustomed to American laws and customs of heredity and inheritance, we may not realize the full import of the story.
Under Jewish law and custom, primogeniture reigned supreme. (So did preference for male heirs.) The older son was entitled to everything. It was his by right. What he received in no way would be the father’s gift.
Vitally important to the story is the prodigal’s conversion and return to the father. Accepting this repentant son, the father sets aside every convention in his love and excitement.
If any sinner truly repents, God will forgive anything and everything. In this thrilling assurance, the Church calls us to return to God.
Lent still has a few weeks. There is time. God awaits!
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