Fourth Sunday in Lent – Year C
March 27, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Joshua 5:9A;10-12 | Psalm 34:2-7
II Corinthians 5:17-21 | Luke 15:1-3;11-32
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
In my homily five weeks ago, I talked about mercy. I said, “Mercy is not a mere abstraction. Our mercy is manifested in our attitudes and behavior towards one another.” Today’s Gospel is yet another example of how and why mercy should infuse all we do in the church and outside it.
Jesus invites us to show mercy towards all those who harm or offend us, as difficult as that may be at times. I can fully understand how the Ukrainians at this moment in time do not feel merciful towards the Russians, who at this moment in time are behaving most unmercifully towards Ukraine by bombing hospitals, churches, and places where people reside. All of that begs the question of why the Russians, to assuage their security concerns, did not first try mercy towards Ukraine before marching to war against it.
Without mercy, sin flourishes. Lent is a time we explore the relationship between sin and mercy. All our Lenten Masses open with a Confession of Sin where we express sorrow for having sinned, vow to repent, ask God’s forgiveness, and receive absolution from the Presider who acts in God’s name. That program, that routine, arises from God’s mercy.
The Eastern Orthodox have an Ash Wednesday custom of each person approaching every other person in the congregation and asking something like, “If I have wronged you in any, please forgive me,” to which the response is expected to be, “I forgive you.” It is a plea for mercy and a show of mercy. I am thinking seriously of having us do that here next Ash Wednesday. In church, mercy should be the name of our game. Mercy is the remedy for sin.
What is sin? The Old Testament understanding of sin arises out of the covenantal relationship between God and the people of Israel. Sin is a breach of that covenant, an action that does not conform to the requirements of the covenant, which puts the sinner in a wrong relationship with God.
In interpreting exactly what actions breach the covenant, some churches defer to a literal interpretation of scripture; others follow tradition, and still others include reason and experience in the mix. But if you look at the overall picture, the major sin in the Old Testament is idolatry, that is, putting other people and things in God’s place. It’s not hard to apply that definition to the Gospel for today: for the younger son, money and pleasure were his gods.
The New Testament is in accord as to idolatry but adds its own gloss on the topic of sin. The New Testament term for sin is the Greek word hamarton, which means, “to miss the mark” in realizing God’s expectations of us. Deacon Sharon’s homily last week gave us a pretty good list of exactly what those expectations are. Among them are to bear one another’s burdens and to comfort those who need comfort. In today’s parable, the younger son “missed the mark” on both. By leaving his father’s farm, he relieved himself of the burden of farm work for the benefit of his family and he no longer provided the comfort his family expected from his companionship. He clearly “missed the mark.”
The subject matter of this parable was not whether or not the younger son sinned. No one disputes that he did, in fact, sin. What churches debate, however, is what the consequences of sin should be. Some say people have a right to punish other people for sins in this world, whereas others like myself think punishment should be up to God. This parable, however, does not see sin as an action leading to consequences in this world or the next. What it does do is examine sin in the context of our relationship to God and to each other. Thus, this parable has poignant pragmatic value to which we would be well-advised to pay attention.
Why? Sin is part of life. No matter how perfect we think we are, we all sin. That includes every Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. We clergy are as human as you are. Sin is a problem with which all of us must deal. No one can escape sin. It is all around us. We must accept that we cannot change the fact that sin exists everywhere and in everyone. What we can, however, change, is how we react to, and handle sin, as to both the sins we commit and those who sin against us.
Like all parables, this one is not a news report of actual events, but a story to illustrate spiritual concepts. It is an example of the value of allegorical interpretation of scripture, where the characters and their actions call attention to themselves by what they represent.
In this parable, the father of the two sons is God, our Heavenly Father. We worship a God who is just like the father in this story. The forgiving and merciful nature of God is found throughout scripture. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” In the Epistle to the Ephesians, we read, “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” In the Epistle to the Colossians, we see, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” And as we pray every Sunday in the Our Father, we petition God to forgive our sins as we forgive others.
The concept illustrated here is pretty simple. God invites us to be towards other people the same way God treats us, that is, with mercy. God wants us to be like God himself. Becoming more like God is known as theosis. Our inmost desire should be to unite our wills, thoughts, and action to God’s will, thoughts, and actions. We are called to fashion our lives to mirror God’s true likeness. We get there by following God’s behavior pattern towards us, a behavior pattern characterized by mercy.
Each of the two sons illustrates two different human attitudes. That God likes the attitude of the younger son more than that of the older son is pretty obvious.
The younger son represents sinners who are blinded by the sins and pleasures of the world. They represent humility in the face of self-caused hardship. When they have to deal with the consequences of their actions, they return to the only place where they can find restoration and peace. The Father’s house is their only hope.
The self-righteous, judgmental older son symbolizes the Pharisees and teachers of the law. These particular Pharisees are so blinded by the law that they totally miss the will of God and God’s mercy. What God wants for us is to give others forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and to accept those who are open to receiving God’s grace. God wants us to be merciful.
The younger son, after having spent his advance inheritance on decadent living, comes to his senses when hardship overtakes him and realizes that even his father’s servants have a house and not a barn in which to sleep and food to eat. His circumstances compelled him to change the direction of his life so he would not starve to death. He heads back towards his father’s house. His turning around and going home illustrates what repentance is: a change in direction, that is a turning away from sin.
When he returned to his father’s home, the younger son, declared, in the first instance, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” He expressed contrition and sought forgiveness.
We worship a forgiving God. Although the story does not tell us, point blank, that the father forgave the younger son, the father’s actions tell us exactly that. He did not reject the returning younger son. He embraced him. When we put that together with the nature of God as described in scripture, we can easily conclude that the father forgave the younger son.
The actions and attitude of the younger son mirror the classic pattern for prayers of confession, where we express sorrow for our sins, vow to change the direction of our lives, and ask for God’s forgiveness, which is followed by a prayer of absolution assuring us of God’s pardon.
Having heard about sorrow for sin, repentance, and forgiveness, we have considered three of the four steps for everyone to deal with sin. This week’s Gospel reviews those first three steps and adds reconciliation as an essential fourth part of the process. Given that God wants us to become like God himself, this Parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates how all four steps work together to achieve the result God wants from all of us in our dealings with other people.
In this parable, the father went beyond mere forgiveness. The father reconciled with the younger son by throwing a big party. The father did not do so expecting anything in return from the younger son, whose mere presence was the most important thing to the father. Just like in the parable, our Heavenly Father wouldn’t force a person into His Kingdom. While the Father in the story welcomed his son with open arms, he didn’t compel him to stay.
Like the Father in the parable, God is hurt when any of his children walk away from Him. However, he still waits for our return. God is never resentful. God never tries to get even with us. Our Father in heaven is caring and loving. He will welcome and save every one of his children who turn to Him. He expects the same from us in our relationships with others. God expects us to reconcile with our sisters and brothers.
What does reconciliation look like? It is a changed relationship for the better between persons or groups who formerly were at odds with each other. When we sin, we become at odds with God as we miss the mark for God’s expectations for us. For that situation, the Church has the Sacrament of Reconciliation, formerly known as the Sacrament of Penance, or confession, in which we express sorrow for our sins, receive absolution, and make recompense to undo the harm our sins have caused.
The Greek word used in today’s Gospel for reconciliation is “katalasso” which means “mutual change.” In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God heals our alienation from him and takes us back into his fold. In other words, true reconciliation can’t be one-sided. In today’s Gospel, when the father saw his younger son, the father “ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” That’s what God does to us when we change direction in our lives and head towards God. When we do that, God comes to us, embraces us, and kisses us with the grace of his love.
For reconciliation to occur, all parties to the situation must change. All parties have to come to an agreement to establish a new norm in their dealings with one another. You will never have a reconciliation between people estranged from one another unless all involved realize that, being human persons, no one is perfect, and all parties are willing to change to chart a path forward. If one or both parties say, “I did nothing wrong,” a true reconciliation will not occur.
Now, I understand and appreciate that for many people, reconciling with those from whom you are estranged is a challenge. Perhaps the person who wronged you did so in a particularly hurtful way, perhaps involving physical violence, and your feelings of fear of additional harm trap you and prevent you from seeking reconciliation. I don’t downplay at all the legitimacy of these concerns. There are, indeed, dangerous people out there, people who, if they were in a position to do so, would harm you physically, emotionally, or financially. This is particularly true when mental illness is involved. Some people are the victims of a chemical imbalance in their bodies that is beyond their control.
Sometimes we have to accept that some people will never want to reconcile with us and/or that nothing good will arise if we try to reconcile with those who are no longer part of our lives.
But, assuming no extraordinary circumstances like dealing with a dangerous criminal, if a person with whom you’ve been at odds is humble enough to express sorrow for the estranged relationship, as the younger son did in today’s Gospel, you have to recognize that person is doing what God wants of all of us. A situation like that should incentivize you to examine yourself and move toward the other person to re-establish the relationship on new terms. I recognize that’s a difficult thing to do if you’re still gripped by fear based on the past and believe that the unpleasant past will re-assert itself and damage the peace of your present life.
Today’s Gospel tells us that the father and his friends celebrated the return of the younger son, however, it does not tell us precisely what happened after the celebration. But we do know that the younger son had already received and spent his inheritance, as the text says that the entirety of the father’s estate will now go to the older son. What will continue to bind the younger son to the father will no longer include the former economic expectations but goes forward based purely on love. That is what binds us to God.
Reconciliation is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is rooted in the Old Testament. The story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis illustrates it. Jacob and Esau were the fraternal twin sons of Issac, whose father was Abraham. When Rebecca gave birth to them, Esau was born before Jacob, who came out holding on to his older brother’s heel as if he was trying to pull Esau back into the womb so that he could be firstborn. This is significant because the culture into which they were born gave advantages to a first-born son, who had an automatic right to two-thirds of his father’s estate.
When they were young men, Esau got hungry. Jacob took advantage of Esau’s misfortune by offering Esau some stew if he would give up his birthright as the firstborn son to Jacob. Rebecca, their mother, was only too glad to help because she favored Jacob over Esau as they were growing up, whereas Isaac favored Jacob.
The custom was that the father would give a blessing to formally acknowledge the firstborn as the principal heir. So when Isaac was dying and ready to give a departing blessing to his first-born son, Rebecca disguised Jacob to look like Esau so that Isaac would give the first-born blessing to Jacob that should have gone to Esau. As a result of this deception, Jacob now had the privileges of a first-born son.
As you can imagine, Esau becomes quite upset that Jacob had taken advantage of Esau’s necessities, and quite understandably, the two brothers became estranged from one another. In fact, Esau became furious and vowed to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac had died. Rebecca intervened to save Jacob, who fled from the land of his birth, leaving behind the estate he had tried by deception to inherit.
But their estrangement did not last their whole lives. God eventually told Jacob to return to his own country and reconcile with Esau. (Along the way, Jacob wrestled with an angel and suffered a permanent hip injury, but that’s a story for another day). Jacob and Esau saw one another coming. They met. They embraced and wept together. Jacob introduced Esau to his family and gave Esau a huge gift of livestock that Jacob had brought with him. They then peaceably go their own ways.
What is significant about this story was that the reconciliation was not forced by either brother but was commanded by God to occur. What this says is, that if reconciliation is meant to occur, God will make it so.
But do not forget that reconciliation is at the heart of all we do as the People of God. Reconciliation is found on almost every page of the New Testament; it is an essential part of the Gospel message. Jesus preached a message of reconciliation, both in his parables and in his healings. His life, death, and Resurrection were all part of revelation: the good news of God’s gift of reconciliation.
Jesus is reconciliation personified, both in his message and in his life, death, and resurrection. In this way, Jesus himself is the primordial sacrament of Reconciliation.
The world is full of conflicts that cry out for reconciliation. Turn on the news and watch war on live television as Putin’s Russian military continues to perpetrate their ongoing sin of horrific violence against innocent civilians that is likely to continue for a very long time.
God is always ready to reconcile with us. God’s grace is absolutely gratuitous. We need not do anything to gain it. All we need do is accept God’s invitation to be bathed in his mercy so that we might show mercy to others as God has loved us. AMEN.