April 1, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) on March 31, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. In the old liturgical calendar, this day was filled with readings of promise and hope, while the other Sundays of Lent were noticeably darker. Back when the Church had stricter rules about certain things, this was the only day in Lent in which it was OK to celebrate a wedding.
However, in our contemporary celebrations of Lent, the contrast is not as noticeable. The rest of Lent is no longer dark and gloomy. The readings of the other two lectionary cycles for Laetare Sunday don’t feel especially joyful. This year, however, the readings have a hopeful, even joyous feel to them. All three readings are about restoral, renewal, and reconciliation.
The first step in reconciling with God and one another is to acknowledge that we have fallen short. Let us proclaim together, I confess…
Our readings today give us a sweeping sense of God’s plans for the universe coming to fruition. For 40 years in the desert, God had provided the Israelites with manna. But it was a drudgery to gather the manna, prepare it, and eat it day after day after day after day. The book of Joshua relates that on the very first day that the Israelites ate the fruits of their harvests in the promised land, the manna ceased. Part of God’s plan had reached fruition: the Israelites had reached the land flowing with milk and honey.
If you dust off a copy of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, you will find beautiful prose by bishop Ken Untener under the article “Ministry of Reconciliation.” Inspired by our passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians today, Untener explains that God always takes the initiative in reconciliation. We need to see our efforts at reconciliation as participating in what God has already begun. Whoever has been baptized into Christ is part of the “new creation,” God’s plan for the fulfillment of the universe. Paul exhorts us to be ambassadors of Christ, ambassadors of reconciliation.
After the end of apartheid in South Africa, the country bravely created its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For years, privileged whites voluntarily came before the Commission to confess heinous acts they had committed against disenfranchised blacks, and oppressed blacks voluntarily confessed their sins against innocent members of the ruling white minority. According to Anglican bishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, the most important work of the Commission was spotlighting both black and white people transcending their suffering and finding the ability to forgive their abusers. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu takes up Paul’s call to be ambassadors of Christ: “we are God’s representative, God’s viceroy, God’s stand-in, and a God-carrier.”
Which brings us at last to our Gospel passage, beloved by many. One friend of mine, who studied this parable at length, discovered that many people’s interpretations of this story are highly influenced by the relationships within their own families, and especially by their birth order within the family. Of the characters in the story, with whom do you relate the most?
Many of us, when we hear this story, identify with the younger son. In fact, we usually call this “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” making him the central character. We identify with his irresponsible squandering of the gifts that had been given to him. We think of the joyful, welcoming father in the story as a representation of our heavenly Father: slow to anger, quick to forgive, and full of love. If we identify primarily with the younger son, we hear this parable as a story of love, mercy, and redemption.
For those of us who identify with the younger son, we might not even remember the older son at the end of the story. But many of us eventually reach a point in our lives where we identify most closely with the older son. Instead of focusing on our own failings, we stew in resenting the people who have wronged us. We are prone to think of forgiveness as something that someone else has to do; we haven’t done anything wrong. If we identify primarily with the older son, we hear this parable as a story of bitterness, jealousy, an unwillingness to change, and a challenge to let go of our grudges.
But parables can be understood on many levels. The greatest invitation of Christian discipleship is to identify not with younger son or with the older son, but with the father. Even though he was hurt by the younger son’s actions, he sets those aside and rejoices in his son’s return.
The word “prodigal” has two meanings. The most common definition of prodigal is to be wasteful, irresponsible, self-indulgent, and reckless… like the younger son. But the second definition of prodigal is to be generous, lavish, and bountiful… like the father.
Reconciliation is beautiful, but it is hard work. It is an act of the heart, not of the mind. We are limited human beings. We cannot fully accomplish Christ’s goal of reconciling all of creation in the present age, but the Holy Spirit gives us the grace to strive towards that goal. And most of us would come to forgive others more lavishly, if we also worked to forgive ourselves as lavishly as our heavenly Father forgives us!
Brothers and sisters: Whoever is in Christ is a new creation. So we are ambassadors for Christ. We are God’s representative, God’s viceroy, God’s stand-in, and a God-carrier. Let us be generous, lavish, and bountiful in our forgiveness of anyone who has taken the first faltering steps towards us in an attempt at reconciliation.
One of the best ways for us to continue our pilgrimage to the land flowing with milk and honey is to come to church. As Bishop Untener writes: “The Christian community exercises its ministry of reconciliation most forcefully when its unity has no apparent reason other than Christ, when people worship together celebrating bonds of oneness that go deeper than the differences that normally keep people at odds.” At St. Austin Catholic Parish, the wealthy and the homeless, the young and the old, the conservative and the liberal, and people of different races and ethnicities from 60 different ZIP codes join hands and praise God together. If that’s not celebrating “bonds of oneness,” it’s at least a good start!
The popular prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says, “O Divine master, let me not seek as much to be loved as to love.” May this community of love inspire each of us to become more and more lavish with our love.
Photo credit for art accompanying this post: Eric Kilby under CC BY-SA 2.0 license