Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 24, 1974 – C.N.R.
More directly than many others, today’s New Testament readings ask us, individually and as a community, “How do you view the world?” There are obviously two sides to that question, an objective side, if you will–what is this universe of being in which we live?–and a subjective side: how does it appear to us? If the reading from Paul concentrates on the former, the parable of the merciful Father makes it clear that the two sides of the question are inseparable.
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” writes St. Paul; “the old order has passed away: now all is new!” A statement which would have needed no special verification at the time of Paul’s writing; he and most of his people would have come to the faith as adults, and their conversion was nothing short of a revolution. They would have had their own experience of alienation from God and a sense of wonder at the revelation of the “new” in Christ, an experience which it is more difficult to make our own–the “new” for us is old and familiar. That new reality was the truth that Paul repeats twice in our passage: “God through Christ reconciled us to himself;” “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” There is the truth of things, the definition of reality, of the world. Sin, alienation, enmity, dissolution of truth and goodness, evil–these are not the final words a man must speak; there is another word, and it is a word that radically undoes those other words–and that word is “the message of reconciliation.” That is what we confront when we confront Jesus Christ, for he, though he was sinless, was given over to the sinner’s condition of life, that we sinners might be brought over into God’s right order of things. And the passage asks us persistently: What is the truth of things? Is there a new creation? Has the old order passed away?
The reconciliation which is the new creation Paul describes more fully as God’s “not counting men’s transgressions against them,” and there are few illustrations of this more beautiful than the parable of the prodigal son. It is the story of a father made desolate at the loss, the death, of his son; and of his racing to meet him as he returns, and of his feasting celebration. “The old order has passed way; now all things are new!” The point of the parable is that in Christ God is rushing to meet us sinners, that in fact the derisive objection of the Pharisees and scribes speaks the truth, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s transgressions against them.”
But that is not the whole story. Paul must implore his people on behalf of Christ: “Be reconciled to God!” Receive what God would give you, and on the terms he has revealed. Let the old order pass away; let there be something new; let there be a new creation. That there can be no new creation unless we surrender our old selves to the new order is effectively illustrated in the Gospel-parable. The older son lives in a different universe from that of his father. For him the old order of works done in an obedience experienced as slavery and for the sake of reward–that old order has not passed away. He is in the most pitiable of all states of heart, envious of his brother’s reconciliation, resentful at his father’s love. He is the perfect model of unreconciled man, angry and hurt and, above all, lonely, having lost both his brother and his father. He is a man of the old order living in the world of the new creation, and he is the saddest figure in the whole of the Gospels.
But even he does not have the last word. The father who had run down the road to greet his returning son, will not leave this son either, and he comes out to plead with him. If the son would repudiate both brother and father, the father will not lose this son without one last word. Be reconciled, he says; “we have to celebrate and rejoice. Your brother was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.”And in that father’s words, we hear St. Paul’s words imploring us, on behalf of Christ: “Be reconciled to God.”
My brothers and sisters, these readings ask us, “How do you view the world?” Where do you live? In the old order? Or in Christ and in his new creation? Where are you now? Are you on your way to your father’s house? Then, in these words see the father running to meet you. Are you outside in the lonely dark? Then listen to him inviting you in, to share the feast of his own joy. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That simple sentence states the ultimate truth of things, and “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
Fourth Sunday in Lent–March 20, 1977–CNR
Although they are quite different in literary form, there is a remarkable similarity between our two New Testament readings today. To see it, however, one has to read the Gospel-parable as more than a beautiful and touching story or than a sentimental description of a general truth. To encourage a true reading of the parable, the Church includes the few verses which provide its context.
Jesus has been eating and drinking with the despised of the land, tax-collectors and sinners. When Pharisees and scribes protest against this open violation of the laws of religious association, Jesus replies with three parables, about a shepherd who had lost a sheep, a woman who had lost a coin, and a father who had lost a son. All three of them go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve the insignificant: the shepherd placing the ninety-nine sheep in danger while he goes in search of the one that that had strayed, the woman turning the house upside-down for a paltry coin, the father providing a feast for a son who had in effect wished him dead so that he might have his portion of the inheritance. They are parables of what God was doing in Jesus: he was off in search for the ones whom men had written off. All three parables embody what Paul put into a neat theological formula: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Paul even takes up and transforms the implied accusation against Jesus–that his association with sinners stained him with their guilt: so great was his identification with the lot of sinners, Paul says, that “for our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” It is not Jesus who is changed by the association with sinners; they are changed and brought to be before God what Jesus himself is.
What is going on in the ministry of Jesus, then, is, in Paul’s words, nothing less than “a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new is come.” That, of course, is precisely what the older son cannot accept. He still lives in the old world in which it is simple lunacy to leave the ninety-nine sheep to seek out one that has wandered or to turn a house upside-down for a coin of little worth, the old world in which it was an act of injustice to “reward” with joyful feast an ungrateful and scornful son. What about his years of obedient slavery to his father’s orders? Where was his reward? Was not his father’s joy a mockery of his own faithful service? Father and son inhabit two different worlds. For the older son, the old has not passed away, and there is nothing new.
I don’t think that Jesus ever preached a more effective parable, for a couple of reasons. First, because the vision of the old father throwing aside his dignity and running down the road to greet his son is such an affecting symbol of what God was doing in Christ. Secondly, because of the dialogue between father and elder son perfectly embodies the revolution of world and self that Christian faith implies. And thirdly, because the parable ends with the issue unresolved: does the elder son come in to the feast, or does he remain outside, self-righteous and lonely? The question, of course, is not about him at all; it is about us: where are we? still outside, or inside, at the feast, embracing the brother who was lost?
The elder son is a striking figure, a terrible one even. Not only do we recognize something of ourselves in his anger and resentment, but we also see in his loneliness outside something of the frightful state of those who cannot rejoice where God rejoices. We have all, perhaps, had the experience of being with others and yet not being with them; of not sharing their interests or joys; of not being understood and not understanding. What Jesus is saying here is that it is possible to be on the outside looking in at God’s joy, of being alienated from his thoughts, of not understanding and not sharing his ways. It is an awful thought, made less terrible only by the father’s again taking the initiative and coming out and inviting the elder son into his new creation.
All of us here are invited in to the father’s joys. If we are the younger son, we are met on the path of our repentance and embraced before we can even confess our guilt. If we are the older son, we are tenderly addressed by him, and invited to let go, to love where he loves and to be joyful where he is joyful. What a wonderful world we may enter! God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and in Christ we may be part of this new act of creation! The world is not what it seems: the old is passing away, behold, the new is come! It is the whole of the Gospel that is here announced, and we are asked to believe it and to become its new preachers, announcing this message of reconciliation, living as if this is the truth of things, the truth of ourselves, the truth for others, if only we and they will acknowledge it, and surrender to it, and thus let God’s grand feast be the joy of all, both sinner and self-righteous, but especially of the Father whose joy is full only when we all rejoice with him.
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT – 26 MARCH 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
This parable still works. A couple of years ago, a colleague at Catholic University asked her class to read it and to jot down some ideas about what it means. After a few minutes a woman in the class, came up to the teacher, said, “I can’t do this,” and walked out. The next day she came to explain. She had been an excellent student in high school and been accepted at a prestigious university. During the summer before she was to leave for school, her younger sister ran away from home, desolating her parents, who spent hours driving around their town looking for the girl. The older sister decided she could not leave her parents and enrolled at Catholic to be near home. One day she came home and found great excitement at the house. As she entered, her mother rushed to her and said, “Emma is home!” “I walked into the living room,” the woman told my colleague, “went over to my sister and slapped her across the face. And I haven’t been home since.”
It is a mistake to call today’s reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It would be more proper to call it the Parable of the Forgiving Father or perhaps the Parable of the Unforgiving Brother. The whole point of it is concentrated in its second half, in the dialogue between the father and the older brother, which sets out two visions of what the world is like and what kinds of selves we ought to be in it.
The worlds are visible in the language of each. Listen to the older brother again: “For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as kid goat to celebrate with my friends. Then, when this son of yours returns after having gone through your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him.” He doesn’t address his father as “Father.” He doesn’t acknowledge the other one as his brother. He speaks of slavery, of orders, of obedience, of expectation of reward. All too familiar a world, with which more than a few people have confused Christianity, with which more than a few people still think a society can be content.
Listen now to the father to the older son: “My son, you are with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found!” The bonds of communion and presence between him and his older son are recalled. The bond between brother and brother is invoked. And there is a call to acknowledge an ought, a “have to”: “We have to celebrate and rejoice!”
Two worlds, two selves. Two selves, two worlds. The ought the father experiences does not fit in the older son’s world. The only oughts he knows are within the enslaved framework of orders and obedience: I ought to obey, and if I obey, I ought to be rewarded. There is no joy in it, and no room for an ought of forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t fit, and within that world no logic can ever conclude to this ought.
Where does the father’s ought come from? It comes from his love for his younger son. “There’s no explaining love,” a saying goes, which means, on the one hand, that if you don’t love, you will never understand love’s demands and, on the other, that if you do love, love’s requirements don’t need justifying. “Give me someone who loves,” St. Augustine once said in a related context, “and he will understand.” The father’s ought only love can experience and understand.
Which world is the real world? the father’s or the older son’s? Who says? Who decides? By what arguments do you decide? What is the world really like?
Left to ourselves, I do not think we could decide. But this is a parable, a parable spoken in reply to those who grumbled that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners. The parable describes what is going on when he eats with sinners. In him and in this welcoming gesture God is that father, throwing off his oriental dignity, running down the road to embrace his errant son, and calling for a joyful feast. That settles what the world is really like, as defined and determined by its creator and redeemer. God’s act created this world out of generosity and God’s act in Christ recreated it out of generosity even greater now, because it takes the form of forgiveness. God made the world and God settles the question what the world is really like. The whole Gospel is here, in this one page.
True. Yes. Yes, of course, we may say. But there is one other person who must determine what the world is like, what world he lives in: You, each of you, and I. Some years ago, I was asked if while I was reading this Gospel at Mass, three men could mime it. I said yes, provided I could see the mime beforehand. They showed me what they intended to do: their mime ended with the father and the older brother embracing. I said that they could not do that without destroying the drama that Jesus deliberately left unresolved. When we came to the Gospel in that Mass, they did their mime, but after the older son had described himself and his world and the father had described himself and his world, the mime ended, as the Gospel does, with the two of them standing in face of each other. There they stand again, still today. We decide–you, each of you, and I–we decide whether they embrace.
Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 21, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
I believe that if everything else that Jesus of Nazareth taught were lost except what is found in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke,, we would still have the essence of his teaching. The whole of the chapter is devoted to three parables, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and (the one we have just heard) the lost son. The parables were spoken in response to the criticism that Jesus had incurred because he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The parables have the identical structure and point. A shepherd foolishly leaves ninety-nine sheep to go off in search of one lost sheep; a housewife turns her house upside-down in search of a coin of insignificant worth; an aged patriarch throws a party to welcome home a wastrel son. All of the parables end with that party, the shepherd and the housewife invite their neighbors to come and rejoice that they had found what was lost; the parable we just heard reaches its climax in the conversation between the father and the resentful older son.
The parables tell in story-form what St. Paul, in today’s second reading, states in a kind of primitive, encapsulated creed: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” That was Jesus’ response to the Pharisees: in me God is in search of his lost sheep, in search of a coin not worth searching for, welcoming home one thought not worth welcome. The father forgets his younger son’s disrespect and abandonment of him. This is what is happening in Jesus, embodied in the meals to which he welcomes sinners and eats with them. The Pharisees are the older son, pouting outside the party, refusing to join the joy of God at a sinner who repents.
The clash of worlds between father and son is vividly registered in their exchange. The older son doesn’t even address his father as father, doesn’t call his brother brother. Listen to him: “I have served you all these years and never have I disobeyed you, and you have never given me even a young goat for a party with my friends. But when this son of yours returns after wasting your money with prostitutes, you slaughter the fattened calf.” And now listen to the father: “My son, you are with me always and everything I have is yours, but we have to celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found.” Two different worlds clash here: one of strict justice: obedience to orders for the sake of reward; the other incomprehensibly different: disobedience is forgotten and there is joy in reconciliation. The parable asks which is the true world, the world as it is, the world as it should be, the older son’s or the father’s.
And what makes the difference? The father loves where the older son does not. Love discerns duties (“We have to celebrate”) that are not discernible to those who do not love. And the only way one can move from one world to another is if one loves as the father loves. There is no logic within the older son’s world that could possibly lead to the conclusion that he should celebrate and rejoice; his world’s logic has no room for it. All the father can do is to call the older son back to an awareness of the love in which he himself stands; he appeals to him as to a son, he reminds him that he has a brother, lost and now found.
We are not told whether the older son joins the party. We are not told that because it is we who decide whether he goes in or not, and we decide that by whether or not we belong in the father’s world or in that of the older son. This parable retains all its power. I asked students one day whether there were any parables of Jesus they didn’t like, and this one was mentioned, along with that other one about the workers who got paid the same amount for one hour as others for a full day’s work. Both of them involve grumbling, you may note. Well, if there was any grumbling in your soul, anything more than a smidgen of sympathy for the older son, as you listened to the parable today, then this parable is for you.
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” As that was the fundamental meaning of what was happening in Jesus of Nazareth, so the fundamental task of the Church is a ministry of reconciliation and its fundamental message is a message of reconciliation. Paul goes on: “We implore you, then, on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God.” If you feel more like the younger son, wondering whether you will be welcomed back by God, the first part of today’s parable is for you: come home and be reconciled, no matter how unworthy of forgiveness you may feel. If you feel more like the older brother, well then you have what may be the harder part: trying to love as God loves, which in this case means being reconciled to a reconciling God. In either case, a perfect text for Lent, and for preparing for the great party, the great feast of Easter. Easter should not find us outside sulking, resentful because God is generous.
Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 18, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
We have in today’s New Testament readings two of the most powerful statements of what the Christian religion is all about, of what its center is, its core, the source of its light and energy. The first occurs in the brief passage we heard from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” The sentence reads almost like a brief creedal formula; certainly it could serve as one if you are ever asked what the heart of Christian faith is, what do Christians believe was going on in Jesus of Nazareth, what he was doing, what his significance is, what one is called to believe if one feels called to become a Christian: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”
And is this not what is also set out in one of the most beautiful chapters in the New Testament, chapter fifteen of the Gospel according to St. Luke? We have heard only the third of three parables that Jesus told in response to complaints that he was “welcoming sinners and eating with them.” The smaller parables are of the lost sheep and the lost coin; in each case it ends with first the shepherd and then the housewife calling friends to celebrate over having found what was lost. Today we have heard the parable of the lost son, a better title than “prodigal son” (which in any case should be “prodigal father”). Despite what Hollywood thought in a pretty awful movie produced in the 1950s, the point of the parable is not what the younger son did while off spending his inheritance, but what his father does when he sees his lost son returning to him. He throws off his oriental dignity and runs out to embrace his son and orders a great feast in celebration of his return.
And this point is emphasized even more in the dialogue between father and elder son: the father goes out to him also, and there ensues the exchange that reveals how hard it is for some people to accept the fundamental mark of Christianity. Two worlds collide in this exchange: the older son’s world defined by a master-slave relationship, where orders are given and obeyed in expectation of reward. This is a world in which what the father has done is incomprehensible: it goes against what justice could require; it can’t be understood because the father feels an “ought”–“we have to celebrate,” he exclaims–that arises out of love, an “ought” that only love can feel, only love can fulfill, and do so joyfully. In parable form Jesus is illustrating what St. Paul would put so crisply: in reply to his critics Jesus is saying: “In me God is reconciling the world to himself.” And he is inviting all to leave their narrower worlds, surrender their crabbed hearts, and enter into the Father’s joy.
Two great lessons suggest themselves from these two readings. The first is the assurance that God will rejoice in our return to him. Some people find it very difficult to believe that they can be forgiven for some terrible sin or crime they have committed, and encountering such people is one of the most difficult, painful parts of any priest’s ministry. But God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, St. Paul says, “not counting (he goes on) not counting their trespasses against them,” not counting them any more than the prodigal father did. Please, don’t any one stay away because you fear you cannot be forgiven. Take advantage of the ministry of reconciliation that Paul claimed and that the Church continues to exercise down to our own day. As Paul said to the Corinthians, I can say to you today: “We implore you on behalf of Christ; be reconciled to God.”
And, secondly, recognize that this ministry of reconciliation is not confined to the apostles and to their successors in the ordained ministry. Reconciliation is supposed to be the fundamental work that the whole Church undertakes in the world. It is, of course, supposed to characterize the inner life of the Church–where all differences are supposed to be overcome in Christ; but it is also supposed to be a primary characteristic of every Christian and a gift that each of us should embody in our everyday lives. If we are children of the God whom Jesus and Paul described, then we have to work at reconciliation wherever it is needed: within our families, in the larger community, in our work–forgiveness and reconciliation should become part of their dynamics. It should also be something we seek to see realized in our world, among nations, among races, between rich and poor. That is supposed to be the contribution that the Church makes, that we Christians make, in our world. We must, in other words, make our own Paul’s description of his own gift–a ministry of reconciliation–and, as ambassadors of Christ, say to our world: ‘Be reconciled to God!”