Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 31, 2019
Reading 1: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
Reading 2: 2 Corinthians 5:17-24
Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Let’s first set the context of today’s gospel reading.
Liturgically, today’s readings find us in cycle C of the Lenten lectionary. The Lenten gospels of Sundays three, four, and five form a triptych. In the center panel, the gospels of cycle B tell the story of Christ’s last journey to Jerusalem, to his death and resurrection. The gospels of cycle A, recommended for parishes where the elect will be initiated, tell that same story. But these gospels, used in ancient times for the scrutinies, now tell the story of the baptismal journey of today’s elect with Jesus to death and rebirth. This year’s gospels of cycle C also tell the same story, but now it tells it as the story of our penitential journey, to renew and deepen our own baptismal journey with Jesus.
Biblically, today’s gospel from Luke is introduced by the first verses of chapter fifteen which we have just heard. The Pharisees and scribes are angrily complaining that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” How could someone who claims to be from God, acting in God’s name, dare to do such a scandalous thing! Today’s passage is the third of three parables Jesus tells those complainers in response (the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son).
What does today’s parable tell us about our penitential journey in a time of widespread news accounts of wrongdoers, full of unrelenting accusations and attention to their guilt? The opening verses of Luke 15 invite us to see in these parables an image of the God who has sent Jesus. A God who is fully intent on recovering what was lost. God’s response is not anger over offenses, but feasting and joy. The three parables all end in that way. The shepherd, woman, and father each throw a feast amid great rejoicing that the lost has been found.
Today’s parable, about a journey to forgiveness and acceptance, has even more to say about God’s attitude. The father runs out to meet and embrace the profligate younger son. He does not wait to hear the son’s well-rehearsed plea to be taken back as a menial servant. Instead, his father gives him everything a true son has – the finest robe, sandals, ring, and feasting on the fatted calf. And when the older son refuses to come in for the feast, his father goes out to plead with him. Despite the older son’s angry refusal to share in his father’s joy over the return of the one he had lost, the father does not cancel the feast.
The story stops there. The feast will go on, but we never learn whether the breach in the family circle is ever healed, whether both sons ever became real sons to their father or brothers to each other. When the younger one went away, his father was just a source of money, and he was still only that when the boy decided to return, motivated by his need for food to eat and a place to stay, instead of tending pigs and envying their fodder (ironic for a Jew). To the older son, his father was only someone whom he dutifully obeyed as his slave-master. But all that mattered to their father was this: the one who had been dead has come to life again, has come back home. That tells us that God is amazingly eager to accept even a first step back, no matter how long the inner journey home will finally take.
To prepare for the gospel proclamation on Sunday, I invite you to search on the web for Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Years ago Henri Nouwen, theologian and author, wrote a book with that same title. In it he recounts how the many hours he spent absorbing Rembrandt’s image of the father had provided him with a framework to understand his own spiritual journey. Nouwen recounts how he has learned to see himself first as the younger son, then as the older one, and finally as the father.
As we prepare for Sunday’s proclamation of the gospel, it would be beneficial to follow that same path, however briefly. Let’s spend time with that painting and imagine ourselves as the younger son, hungry and desperate to return, even as a hired hand; or as the sullen older brother quietly seething with resentment of both father and profligate brother; or especially as the father overjoyed over the return of the wayward son, eager to draw the other son into the family circle. Nouwen had reflected long on the father’s hands. A strong masculine left hand that holds and confirms, a gentle feminine right hand that caresses and consoles. God is mother as well as father, motherhood and fatherhood both fully present (p. 99).
What lessons ─ of forgiveness even before the journey of repentance is complete, of overcoming festering resentments and hurts, and especially of forgiving love and acceptance of those who have wounded us by wayward abandonment or soul-less compliance ─ can we learn for our Lenten journey with the Lord? No matter where we are on the journey, the Lord always invites us, week after week, to feast at his table of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.
Gilbert Ostdiek, OFM
Professor of Liturgy