4 Sunday of Lent - Year C

Commentary on Joshua 5:9a,10-12, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, Luke 15:1-3,11-32

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 behaviour.

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 behaviour, 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.

Looking to the future

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, his attitudes. As St Paul told the Philippians we are to have the same mind, the same way of thinking as Jesus had.

God’s way of thinking

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 neighbours.

The prodigal father

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 behaviour 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-centred indulgence. 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 the good and morally respectable.

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. May he 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.

No force

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 realised 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 behaviour 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 realised that such a speech was unnecessary. Immediately, orders are given to bring the very best things in the house and a banquet is laid on.

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 God which, on the one hand, many of us have not yet fully accepted and, on the other, a way of behaviour that does not come easily to us in our own relationships with others.

No understanding

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.

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 reconciliations. 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.

What limits do we set?

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.