FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT/LAETARE (Rejoice) SUNDAY (2019)
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The opening prayer (Collect) for today’s liturgy draws our attention to what is most important: “O God, who through your Word reconcilethe human race to yourself in a wonderful way, grant, we pray, that with prompt devotion and eager faith the Christian people may hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come.” The themes of reconciliation and forgiveness are important not solely because they are woven throughout the fabric of today’s celebration. They are important because they are of the essence of who God is, and they are integral to the life of those who call themselves Christians.
The rather opaque first reading from the Book of Joshua describes a noteworthy celebration of the Passover, a celebration which was critical for the life of good Jews, a celebration which is the foundation of the sacrament of the Eucharist for Christians. The Passover celebration “at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho” marks the homecoming of God’s people to the Promised Land, and celebrates the beginning of their new life as God’s liberated and covenant people. For forty years they were wandering in the desert, oftentimes rebelling against God and the leadership of Moses and Joshua, oftentimes repenting of their sinfulness. Through Joshua in our first reading the Jewish people learn, once again, that God has forgiven their sins of infidelity, has “removed the reproach of Egypt” and reconciled them to Himself. This was surely a reason to rejoice.
The second reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians continues the theme of reconciliation, reminding us that God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ. For Paul reconciliation is a ministry, and as God did not count our trespasses against us, so too are we to be “ambassadors for Christ,” announcing a reconciliation intended for all humanity by our unconditional forgiveness of those who trespass against us. Like the Jews in the desert, we are to recognize our sinfulness and be reconciled to God and to one another, furthering the Kingdom that God came into our world to establish. Because of God’s reconciliation, Christians always have a reason to rejoice.
Finally, our singularly magnificent gospel reading, recounted only by the evangelist Luke, beautifully enforces our themes of reconciliation and forgiveness. Commonly, though inaccurately, referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, this “greatest short story in the world” (Dickens) speaks about a father and two sons, both of whom are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. The insult of the younger son is not to be underestimated. His demand for an inheritance usually dispersed on the death of his father was, at best, insensitive, at worst, demonstrably greedy. The squandering of “his inheritance on a life of dissipation” reveals a serious character flaw, and his willingness to “tend the swine” showed little respect for his Jewish faith. Further, his decision to return to his father appears to be more a consistently selfish opportunity to assuage his dire hunger, and less a moment of genuine compassion or conversion. Assessing just how loathsome the younger son is, helps us to better appreciate the overwhelming and unconditional love of the father figure.
The elder son, bound by a sense of duty, appears to have done everything right, but in reality he was resentful, bitter and angry. Returning from working in the field “he heard the sound of music and dancing” emanating from his brother’s welcome home party. The angry elder brother refused to enter the house and join in the celebration. The father, just as he did with the younger child, “came out” of the house and pleaded for the brother to come inside and celebrate, for his “brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” We are left to assume that the father’s pleading fell on deaf ears.
Neither brother is presented by Luke for our emulation, but one, even if desperate, was at least able to admit that he “had sinned against heaven and against [his father].” The person worth emulating is, of course, the father, who symbolizes the loving and unconditionally forgiving Heavenly Father who is excessive, extravagant and generous with His forgiveness and mercy. Our God is patient like the father in Luke, and while He desires what is best for us, He understands the human condition that can cause us to squander our inheritance, to get lost in the things of this world, and to succumb to the temptations to resentment, bitterness and anger. When we have strayed, God beckons us to return to Him, to be embraced in unconditional love in His house which we freely enter into, a house where we are forgiven all that is sinful. It is in God’s house where we will celebrate eternally, and where we will rejoice that God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ. For the Christian, there is always a reason to rejoice.
Sent from my iPad