Fourth Sunday of Lent First Reading: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12 Responsorial: Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6 Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 Gospel Passage: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
In our first reading, taken from the Book of Joshua, we hear about the first Passover celebrated by the Israelites in the Promised Land. The text relates an interesting detail: at their first Passover, the people eat food that they have grown in the land. The next day the gift of the manna, which has sustained them through their wanderings, ceases. In the desert, the people could not provide for themselves and they had to rely upon the Lord for water and food to sustain life. That dependence upon the Lord does not cease with their arrival in the land, but it does mature. They are still dependent upon the Lord for the gift of a bountiful land and the protection of the people. However, they now have the ability to take part in the cultivation of the land. They can respond to the Lord’s care by taking responsibility for the gift they have received. They can now participate in the Lord’s gift with their labor and investment. They may be the children of Israel, but they are growing up at last.
In a number of places, Paul urges his Christian converts to mature in the faith. In fact, he saw the embrace of Christian faith as a form of maturing. In Galatians, he speaks of the law as a guardian or custodian of God’s people in their spiritual childhood. For those who know Christ, this protected childhood can mature into the freedom that God intended. Here in Corinthians, Paul addresses the nature of that freedom. It is the opportunity to be transformed by the knowledge and love of Christ. The Christian believer is empowered by the gift of reconciliation to relate to others and to God in new ways. Above all, the believer now participates in the work of Christ, that of reconciliation.
The Gospel passage is the famous Lukan parable of the Prodigal Son (Although many point out that the story is really about a loving, forgiving father). The context for the parable is an objection to Jesus’ penchant for associating with sinners. Those who object are represented by the older son. He is reliable and loyal, working for his father. When his brother sins and returns, this brother cannot find the capacity to rejoice in his father’s generosity. The father, of course, is the main character. He demonstrates an overflowing, even irrational generosity of spirit. When his young son makes insulting and unjust demands, he gives freely. When that same son returns in an attempt to manipulate him for more help, this father is the one to run forth and embrace his son before the first excuse can be offered.
I hesitate to suggest one meaning for this parable because it is so rich with meaning. We would do well to mediate upon this passage and imagine ourselves as each of the characters, trying to discern their perspective and experience. But if I will not offer you the single meaning of the passage, I will offer you an aspect of the story.
We see here a young son who is clearly self-centered and immature. He lives at the center of his own universe and indulges himself with little wisdom about the world or the future. Even the fall into poverty and disgrace does not change his ways. He returns home plotting ways to get more help from his father. It never occurs to him that he might simply repent and fall upon the mercy of the father who has given him so much.
The older son, while he may be more responsible, is not much more mature. He also manipulates his father: sure he works loyally, but he sees that loyalty as entitling him to superior treatment. This is not service in love to his father, but a better plan than his younger brother to use and gain his father’s wealth.
repentance begins with grace. There is no better proof of this than this parable. God the Father offers us grace and mercy out of love for us – not because of our loyal service or our attempts to change our profligate ways. And with the outpouring of grace comes the invitation to share in the riches of this banquet.
That invitation is the secret to spiritual maturity. It is a moment for seeing the astounding grace of God and accepting the invitation to participate in the Lord’s work of reconciliation. If we wish to share in the riches of Our Father, we must cease living as spiritual children at the center of our own universe. Lent is the time to grow up.