|The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9, 10-12
Psalms 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
Second Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Shortly after being ordained, I was hearing confessions and a young lad came into the confessional, stood on the kneeler and began reciting a laundry list of transgressions. He continued after taking long deep breaths during one of which I gently asked him if he was sorry. His reply was, “For what?”
We hear in today’s first reading from Joshua that no more manna will be served to the people of Israel. Instead the people will be eating the grain and produce of their own land into which they had been accompanied by God. The reproach of Egypt has been removed; slavery there is now a memory. What is also in their memory, and now to be celebrated, is the great event of God’s passing over their own houses which had been marked with the blood of lambs on their door posts. They remember being welcomed home from the poverty of slavery into the abundance of Canaan. They had wandered; they had grumbled and they were reoriented to their original status as God’s beloved child.
The Gospel for today is both familiar and complex. The parable begins with a beloved son requesting that his father give him the share of the inheritance coming to him. He receives it and leaves to experience his independence. When his funds ran out so did his independence.
While sitting amidst his condition of poverty and shame, he, “coming to his senses,” longs for his former life. He says to himself that he will go back and tell his father exactly the truth. He has to say it all to make amends and to make it real. Upon his return he finds his father looking for him, and the son has to say it all. He has come to his senses, both the five physical senses which announce his plight and his interior senses of reason and responsibility. There is a wonderful reversal here, the son almost says that he’s sorry and the father almost says, “For what?”
The story ends with the older son answering the father’s question, “He has lots about which to be sorry and I feel sorry for myself.” The father then says that the older son has no real reason to be sorry either. The older son has been with his father and has had all the good things of that relationship. The father wishes to celebrate the reorientation of the son and the son wishes to celebrate that his father has mercifully past over the sons’ disorientation. This ending does complicate the story, but the center holds. The father’s love for the faithful and the unfaithful sons completes the parable, but does not erase all our questions. This makes it a very good and memorable parable.
Lent is the time for coming to our senses in several ways. In this part of the world our senses are thawing. Our earmuffs and mittens are put away, though we know where to find them at a snowflake’s notice. Our noses are finding some life in the air rather than the fragrances of frost. Our eyes see more clearly as the sun dries up puddles and dripping eves. We are returning to life around here after being in some distant land where our senses experienced a famine.
We are invited to a reorientation of our sense of values and our sense of who God says we are as individuals and as a human family. Turning from and returning to are only parts of the coming back to life. It is not merely the, “to what” are we returning, but “for what” are we being welcomed.
The people of Israel were brought out of slavery for more than safety-sake. They were saved from their alienation and for the praise and service to the Saving God. The returning son and all the rest of us, who have been welcomed home, are embraced for continuing the living out of the parable. What the reorienting son would do with and for his father, each of us does by extending forgiveness to others including parents, children, neighbors, those who have injured us and all those whom God forgives before we do. We return from various places and distances, but all are to be directed, oriented towards the new life which spring and Easter promise.
Are we sorry—“For what?” We are sorrier still and for what? For staying in our isolation, our slavery, for not letting God pass over in silent mercy. Re-Lent, repent and return for the eating of the new grains and produce of our new homeland in Jesus. Whether we are the younger or older children of the parable, the God of welcome and mercy remains constant. We pray to enjoy the warmth and new growth of God’s springtime love.
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