4th Sunday in 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 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, reminding us of the first rays of the sun as they creep 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, after facing hunger, even starvation and being tempted to forsake God. Sinai is bleak and unforgiving in its sterility and deadliness.
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. They had no need of it, because the Promised Land provided them with a steady, reliable source of food.
St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians furnishes the second reading. Midway in the reading is an urgent appeal from Paul to the Corinthian Christians, imploring them to be reconciled with God in Christ. It is not difficult to imagine his frustration as he watched the tendencies of the Corinthians to yield to old pagan ways unfold. Urgency and appeal literally flow from his words.
Urgency also underscores his insistence that nothing else matters but life truly with God. Following Jesus makes a person a “new creation.” None of the things of earth, including death, actually matters.
For its final reading on this weekend, the Church gives us, from Luke’s Gospel, the beautifully 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 ancient context. For example, the Prodigal was not the older son. As such, he was not his father’s heir, with no right to an inheritance. Then, of course, the Prodigal deserted his father. Jews at the time of Jesus, as always, prized loyalty to parents, expressed in loving care and attention.
Next, the Prodigal left the community of the people of God, abandoning the primary obligation of this community collectively to bear witness to God. Then, he consorted with prostitutes, scorning the sanctity of marriage and the family, and risking defilement of the pure stock of God’s people by begetting children of pagan and unbelieving, mothers.
Finally, the Prodigal stooped so low that he waited not just on animals, rather than humans, but on pigs, the lowest of the low, in Jewish eyes.
Nevertheless, the father forgave all and lavishly gave him an undeserved inheritance.
The Church is excited and joyful. Salvation is near. Lovingly, it calls us to salvation, to be with God in, and through, Jesus.
However, to be with God, to enter the Promised Land with its security and unending plenty, we all must be new creations in Christ. This is the hard part. We must turn from sin and selfishness.
Even to think of turning away from sin, or to God, may seem at times a tall order. We may be angry. We may have our doubts. We may be greatly ashamed. It is of no matter. God loves us and awaits us with the greatest mercy and forgiveness regardless.
Rejoice therefore! God waits for us with open arms! Lent still has a few weeks. There is time.
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