Sunday, March 14, 2010

Father I Have Sinned. I Do Not Deserve To Be Called Your Child.

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Reading I

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
The LORD said to Joshua,
“Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”
While the Israelites were encamped
at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho,
they celebrated the Passover
on the evening of the fourteenth of the month.
On the day after the Passover,
they ate of the produce of the land
in the form of unleavened cakes and parched grain.
On that same day after the Passover,
on which they ate of the produce of the land,
the manna ceased.
No longer was there manna for the Israelites,
who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 34
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Glorify the LORD with me,
let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Reading II
2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Brothers and sisters:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
And all this is from God,
who has reconciled us to himself through Christ
and given us the ministry of reconciliation,
namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting their trespasses against them
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Tax collectors and sinners
were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes
began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners
and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons,
and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share
of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days,
the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance
on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill
of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father
and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned
against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat
one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son,
embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead,
and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants
and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat
to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead
and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
LENT IS A TIME FOR RENEWAL. Part of that renewal requires that we become aware of the disorder, the disharmony, the distortions in our life, in other words to become aware of the areas of sinfulness, of the evil in our behavior. We cannot change unless we are first aware of what needs to be changed. Many of us go through life not really prepared to take a really objective look at the kind of people we are, although we may spend a good deal of time being very aware of what is wrong with others.

Once aware of the areas of our lives which are ruled by negative forces like hate, anger, resentment, greed, vindictiveness, injustice or violence we need to repent. "Repent" in the Gospel calls not only for expressions of regret and sorrow; it also demands a radical change in my future behavior, a profound change in the way I see God and people and other things. It calls for a re-ordering of my relationships with God, with Jesus, with other people and with myself. It means a real turning round of my life, a real conversion.

Many have the good habit of making a serious confession during Lent or before Easter. However, we must be aware that such a confession entails not just clearing the decks of past wrongdoings; it also involves a genuine desire for a reform of life, a real change in our behaviour. If my confessions over the years do not seem to change very much, it may well be that in making them I have paid too little attention to the present and the future. As we will see, God is not really interested in our past.

Part of the renewal experience of Lent is to try to become more truly disciples of Jesus, to share more deeply his values, his outlook, and his attitudes. As St Paul told the Philippians we are to have the same mind, the same way of thinking as Jesus had.

In today's Mass, we have one of the most graphic descriptions of Jesus' - and therefore of God's - thinking. We are confronted with the attitude of God to the wrongdoer, his deep desire to forgive, that is, to be totally reconciled with the one who has severed relations with him.

The context of today's passage is important. Sinners and social outcasts were "all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say". The Pharisees and Scribes, who were the "good and religious" people, were shocked and disturbed. "This man welcomes sinners and [even worse] eats with them." By their standards, a "good" person avoids "bad company". To be quite honest, don't we think the same? If so, then we are not thinking like God or like Jesus.
Jesus answers the Pharisees by telling three parables, only one of which is given in today's Gospel. The first parable is about a shepherd who has lost one of his sheep. He goes to extraordinary lengths, even leaving all the other sheep, to find that single one that has gone astray. That is a picture of God and the sinner. When he finds it, he has to share his joy with all his companions. The second parable is about a poor woman who loses a coin. It may be only one coin but it means a lot to her. She turns her house upside down till she finds it and when she does, she joyfully tells all her neighbors.

But the most striking story is the third parable. We normally call it the "Prodigal Son" but, in fact, the emphasis is less on the son than on the father, who clearly represents God and Jesus.
No one can deny the appalling behavior of the younger son. He took all that his father generously gave to him as his inheritance and used it in leading a life of total debauchery and self-centered indulgence. In taking the money at this early stage, it was as if he was impatient for his father's death. Eventually, he had nothing and was reduced to living with pigs, something utterly abhorrent to the Jewish mind, and even sharing their slops, something even we would find appalling. "Served him right," might be the reaction of many, especially good and morally respectable people like you and me.

This, however, is not the reaction of the father, who has only one thought in his mind - how to get his son to come back to where he belongs. The father does not say: "This son has seriously offended me and brought disgrace on our family. Let him rot in hell." Instead, he says: "My son went away, is lost and I want so much to have him back." And he stands at the door of his house watching and waiting... His love for his wayward son has not changed one iota. There is no force involved. The police are not sent out. Servants are not instructed to haul him back. No, the father waits. It is up to the son himself to make the crucial decision: does he want to be with his father or not?

Eventually he "came to his senses", that is, he realized the wrongness of what he had done. He became aware of just how good his father had been. The process of repentance had begun. He felt deeply ashamed of his behavior and then, most significantly of all, he turned round to make his way back to his father.

The father, for his part, filled with compassion for his son's experiences, runs out to meet him, embraces him and brushes aside the carefully prepared speech the son had prepared. If the son had known his father better, he would have realized that such a speech was unnecessary. Immediately, orders are given to bring the very best things in the house and a banquet is prepared and served.

This is forgiveness, this is reconciliation and, on the part of the son, this is conversion, a real turning around of his life and a return to where he ought to be.

All this, it is important to remember, is in response to the comments of the Pharisees and Scribes about Jesus mixing with sinners. This story reveals a picture of a God which, on the one hand, many of us have not yet fully accepted and, on the other, a way of behavior that does not come easily to us in our own relationships with others.

That is where the elder son comes in. He simply cannot understand what is happening. He was never treated like this and had always been a "good" boy. What kind of justice is this? One brother stays at home keeping all the rules [Commandments] and seems to get nothing. His brother lives riotously with prostitutes in a pagan land and when he comes back he is treated like royalty. He could not understand the mind of his father and some of us may have difficulties too. One of the saddest sentences in this story is when the elder son refused to go into his Father's house.

In some ways God is very unjust - at least by our standards. He is corrupted by love! But fortunately for us he is like that. Supposing we went to confession one day and the priest said, "Sorry, that's it. There can be no more forgiveness, no more reconciliation. You've used up your quota. Too bad." Of course, it is not like that. There is no limit to God's forgiveness.
As was said earlier, God is not interested in the past but only in the present. I am judged not by what I have done or not done earlier. Nor need I be anxious how I will behave in the future. I am judged by my relationship with God here and now. It was on that basis that the murderous gangster crucified with Jesus was told, "This day you will be with me in Paradise." He is promised eternal life "this very day". It was on the same basis that the "sinful woman", presumably a prostitute, becomes totally reconciled with Jesus there and then and all her past behaviour forgotten. "She has no sin [now] because she loves so much [now]." All I have to worry about is whether right now I have a loving relationship with God and with all those around me through whom I come in contact with him.

There is clearly much for reflection, too, in today's readings on how we deal with those we feel have "offended" us. In wanting to experience God's forgiveness, we also need to learn how to be forgiving to others. Do we set limits to our forgiveness? To be reconciled with God we need to learn how to be reconciled with all those who are sources of conflict or pain in our lives.
We thank God that we have a Lord who is so ready to forgive and welcome us back again and again. But we cannot stop there. We have to learn to act towards others in the same way. "Forgive us our sins AS we forgive those who sin against us." We, too, need to see the person in the here and now and not continue to dredge up past hurts and resentments, anger and hatred.

By imitating Jesus more, we find that our relationships improve. In so doing we are coming closer to having the mind of Jesus but we are doing something else as well. We will find that life will become a far more peace-filled and harmonious experience. It is a perfect win-win situation.


Sarah in the tent said...

In the first reading, the Israelites finally come into their inheritance - the Promised Land - and the manna stops. In Our Lord's parable, I feel the prodigal son only really comes into his inheritance after the money his father gave him has run out and he returns home. His true inheritance is sonship. Money runs out, even manna ceases, but not sonship.

Perhaps Jesus is reminding the Pharisees that their true inheritance is not the fancy new temple and its treasury, nor the flocks and herds of sacrificial animals, but sonship of the living God. The temple, its treasures and holdings will pass away, but they - and we - have the promise of something that will never pass away.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, there is no "perhaps" about Jesus' message to the Pharisees -- and to all His Father's children in every age. Our treasure is not of this world, which is temporal -- and temporary. Our treasure is the gift of grace we were given at the moment we came into being: It is the presence of God's life and grace within us during this earthly life, and the promise of the fullness of God's life within us when this life comes to an end.

The only way for this promise to be fulfilled is to avoid the error of the older brother -- who took his place in the father's household for granted, and to follow the example of the younger brother -- who was willing to accept the father's justice, and because of his humble act of contrition, was rewarded by the father's mercy.