A Reflection on the Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 27
Reading I: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
Responsorial Psalm: 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
Reading II: 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
As we are in the season of Lent, we would expect our readings this week to reflect the theme of that season; repentance and forgiveness. Our first reading from the Book of Joshua takes place just prior to the siege of Jericho that brought down the walls of that city, opening the way for the Israelites to occupy the Promised Land. But we are told that “the reproach of Egypt” must be removed from the people before the siege could take place. According to the Book of Joshua, all of the circumcised men of military age who left Egypt in the Exodus had died in the desert “because they had not obeyed the command of the Lord” (Jos 5:6), but those born during the Exodus had not been circumcised. As circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with the Israelites, uncircumcised Israelite males were “the reproach of Egypt.” Therefore, God commanded Joshua to circumcise all the males, thereby affirming their covenantal relationship with God. To connect this with our second reading, we should understand that, to the ancient Israelites, circumcision was the sign of their fidelity to God.
In our second reading, St. Paul reminds us that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away.” It is now faith in God “who has reconciled us to himself through Christ,” rather than circumcision, that now defines our covenantal relationship with God. The “old things” of circumcision have passed away and are replaced by faith in the new covenant sealed in the Blood of Christ. Because of the reconciliation God accomplished through Christ, “we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Our gospel this week is the ever-familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son, found only in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. A dictionary definition of the word Prodigal might indicate one who spends excessively and wastefully. But the way the son spent his inheritance is not really the subject of this parable; the true subject is the love of the father for the returning son, not the sins of the son. So a better title might be The Parable of the Loving Father.
As we are all familiar with this gospel passage, it does not require a great deal of commentary, especially when we consider we are in the Liturgical Season of Lent, a season that calls upon us to repent of our sins and return to God with our whole heart. This parable clearly points out that God’s forgiveness is available to everyone; to those who are guilty of multiple serious sins like the prodigal son; those who have tried to live by God’s law but occasionally find themselves guilty of transgressions like the older brother; and to those who are not yet aware that they are in need of God’s forgiveness.
However, there are some interesting points in this passage that bears repeating. Under Jewish law, a father was free to distribute his estate before he died if he so chose, but the oldest son was to receive two-thirds of the estate and the younger son one-third (Dt 21:17). Our prodigal son is essentially saying to his father: Give me now the part of the estate that I will get anyway when you are dead. Of course, the father could have refused, but he seems to have known that this son had to learn the hard way. Applying the father figure in this parable to God, we could ask: Why does God permit sin in the world? Could it be because God knows we also have to learn the hard way?
The prodigal son ended up in the depths of despair feeding pigs, a task forbidden to Jews. His despair and self-esteem couldn’t have been any lower. Applying this parable to ourselves, could we not ask: When we compound our sins or try to justify them or fail to confess them and receive God’s absolution, do we not despair and suffer a loss of self-esteem?
Then in verse 17, we have the turning point of this passage, the moment of repentance: “Coming to his senses he thought; ….. I shall go to my father and I shall say to him ….. I have sinned against heaven and against you.” In speaking this parable to the Pharisees and Scribes and to us, Jesus is saying that when we turn away from God and separate ourselves from him we find ourselves in the depths of despair and are never truly ourselves because sin carries its own punishment. Sin produces anxiety within us; we don’t want others to know about our sinful actions, and if they find out, they will treat us differently, and we lose self-esteem. We don’t want to find ourselves in the depths of despair like the son; we want to “come to our senses” and return to our father.
It is also notable in this passage that the son does not ask to be welcomed back as a member of the family but as a hired hand. A hired hand was simply a day laborer and could be dismissed at any time. Even a household slave would rank higher than a hired hand. But the father saw the prodigal son “While he was still a long way off,” indicating that the father had been watching and waiting for the son to come home. The father knew his son would eventually come to his senses and return. God knows that we, like the prodigal son, have to learn the hard way, and he watches and waits for us to come to our senses and recognize that we are not truly whole and happy when we are separated from God.
The son asked to be nothing more than a hired hand, but the father would have nothing of it; he ordered that the son should be clothed with the finest robe (a symbol of honor), with a ring on his finger (a symbol of authority) and sandals on his feet (symbols of a son rather than of a hired hand). The son is restored to his original relationship with the father and with the family. Applying this parable to ourselves, we see that when we truly repent of our sins and turn our hearts to God, we are restored to our original condition of “the image and likeness of God.”
But the story doesn’t end with the return of the prodigal son. The older son enters the story and is not happy that his younger brother has returned home. He is resentful that their father has welcomed him home. The older brother is a symbol of the self-righteous Pharisees to whom the parable is addressed and who would rather see the sinner destroyed or cast out than saved. He shows no sympathy for his sibling. He is resentful that he has served and obeyed the father but has not been rewarded. He is resentful, but the father reminds him: “Everything I have is yours.” But first, the older son must “come to his senses” and convert his heart from resentment to joy: “We must celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Again, applying this parable to ourselves we see that everything God has is to be our inheritance; provided we come to our senses, confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Then we will hear: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).
Author: Ric Cross