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4th SUNDAY OF LENT (Cycle C)

Readings:
Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
Psalm 34:2-7
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings ~ The Necessity of Continual Reconciliation and Renewal
Many of the Pharisees of Jesus' day believed that by diligently observing the Law of Moses that God would give them their salvation in return.  They failed to take into account that salvation is a gift of grace and cannot be earned—only a selfish or callous father would sell his love in such a way.  God calls us to do good deeds not in order to purchase our salvation but as evidence of our faith and as the result of our sanctification.  In the First Reading the children of Israel keep God's command to celebrate the sacrifice of the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread as soon as they crossed over into the Promised Land (Lev 23:4-8; Num 28:16-25).  Their work of obedience was a sign of their continual love and gratitude to God in remembrance of their deliverance from their Egyptian enemies and for bringing them to the land He promised the Patriarch Abraham. 

In the Second Reading St. Paul teaches that God has reconciled the human family to Himself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  In Christ we become a "new creature."  We are no longer the lost sons and daughters in the family of Adam, but we have become the "re-born" children of Christian baptism in the family of our heavenly Father. 

This theme of renewal and continual conversion is carried over into the Gospel reading in Jesus' teaching of the Parable of the Lost Son.  The parable is a reminder that no matter how much sin has caused us to become estranged from our heavenly Father that He is always ready to welcome us back to communion with Him and to fellowship with our extended family in the Church when we return to Him in repentance and humility.  God will renew us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and in the healing power of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Whether you are the lost son or the righteous son in the Gospel Reading, or the re-born faithful Christian in the Second Reading, we all need reconciliation that is a gift of God's grace.  All we have to do is to claim the gift and be renewed.

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12 (NJB) ~ The Israelites celebrate the Passover in the Promised Land
9a Yahweh then said to Joshua, "Today I have taken the shame of Egypt away from you" ... 10 The Israelites pitched their camp at Gilgal and kept the Passover there on the fourteenth day of the month, at evening [between the twilights = noon], in the plain of Jericho.  11 On the very next day after the Passover, they ate what the land produced, unleavened bread and roaster ears of corn [grain].  12 The manna stopped the day after they had eaten the produce of the land.  The Israelites from that year onwards ate the produce of Canaan and had no more manna.  [...] = IBHE, vol. II, page 568.

This event took place after Joshua had led the children of Israel in the crossing of the Jordan River into Canaan when God parted the waters of the river just as He had parted the waters in the miracle crossing of the Red Sea in their exodus out of Egypt.  The "plain of Jericho" is the steppe-like region west of the Jordan River.  The gift of the manna, that began after crossing the Red Sea on the Exodus out of Egypt (Ex 16:4-36), stopped on the day after the Passover sacrifice, on the fifteenth of Nisan that was the first daytime celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Lev 23:5-7).  According to the Jewish Mishnah and the first century AD Jewish priest/historian Flavius Josephus, the Passover sacrifices were to begin at noon on the fourteenth of Nisan and the sacred meal of the Passover victim was to begin after sundown.  Since the day began at sundown, the meal celebrated by Joshua and the people was on the night of the fifteenth that was the first night of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and not only remembered the first sacred meal of the Passover victim in the Exodus out of Egypt (Ex 12:1-20), but this event also signaled the renewal of the covenant and sacred meal when the Sinai Covenant was ratified in Exodus 24:3-11.  The ending of the gift of manna is the signal that the desert wandering period of Israel's history is over.  The people of God will not receive "bread from Heaven" again until the first night of the Feast of Unleavened Bread at the Last Supper when Jesus turns unleavened bread into His flesh and wine into His blood in the inaugural sacred meal of a new covenant (Lk 22:15, 19-20).

Responsorial Psalm 34:2-7 ~ Experience the Goodness of the Lord
Response: "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord."
 
2 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.  3 Let my soul glory in the LORD; the lowly will hear me and be glad.
Response:
4 Glorify the LORD with me, let us together extol his name.  5 I sought the LORD, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Response:
6 Look at him that you may be radiant with joy, and your faces may not blush with shame.  7 When the poor one called out, the LORD heard, and from all his distress he saved him.
Response:

This psalm is attributed to David when he praised the Lord God for delivering him from being captured by the Philistine king Achish [or Abimelech = a title for Philistine kings] (1 Sam 21:11-22:1a).  That event occurred at what was probably one of the lowest points in David's life when he was an outcast hunted by King Saul of Israel who had sworn to kill him. 

The response is taken from verse 8 of the psalm and may refer to the sacred communion meal of the Todah that was eaten by the faithful in the presence of God in the Sanctuary, reestablishing the joy of fellowship with God.  Todah in Hebrew means "thanksgiving" and in Greek the word is "eucharistia." In the Old Covenant Todah ("thanksgiving") the people ate their communion sacrifices, but in our New Covenant Todah, we literally "taste and see the goodness of the Lord" in our Eucharistic sacred meal that is literally the body of Christ (Jn 6:53-58).

The psalm begins with David's/the psalmist's resolve to give a testimony of praise to God and to share his praise and gratitude with others who are also afflicted and oppressed (verse 2).  He invites all the "lowly" who suffer to unite themselves to God in praise with him (verses 3-4).  Then, the psalmist gives the reasons why God should be praised in verse 5:

Reflecting on his own experience in verse 6, David gives another invitation for the poor to share his joy in the Lord God followed by the assurance that when the poor and afflicted cry out to Yahweh that he will heard their petitions and will save them for their distress (verse 7).

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 ~ Our Ministry of Reconciliation
17 Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.  18 And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sins who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

St. Paul's message to the Christians at Corinth, and to us, is that God in Christ has reconciled us to Himself.  In verse 17 Paul comments on the contrast between the "before and after" in one's life—life before one's conversion experience and the profound change that takes place in the Sacrament of Baptism when one become a "new creation" and a spiritually reborn child in the family of God.  Through the grace of Baptism, a person becomes a member of Christ's body—living by and in Christ (2 Cor 3:9; Gal 2:10, 15; Eph 6:15).  The transforming life experience of Baptism prepares us for becoming Christ's ambassadors to the world in sharing the Gospel of salvation.  But to be effective in our ministry of reconciliation, we must be conscious of the need for continual conversion and reconciliation in our own lives in order to be righteous witnesses who are fit to carry forth the Gospel of salvation.

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 ~ The Parable of the Lost Son
1 The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, 2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."  3 So to them he addressed this parable ... 11 Then he said, "a man had two sons, 12 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.  13 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.  14 When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country and he found himself in dire need.  15 So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.  16 And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.  17 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.  18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  19 I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."  20 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.  21 His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.'  22 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.  23 Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.  Then let us celebrate with a feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.'  Then the celebration began. 25 Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard sound of music and dancing.  26 He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.  27 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.'  28 He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.  29 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.  29 But when you son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.'  31 He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.  32 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.'"

Verses 1-3 set the stage: Jesus is teaching the crowds of Jews who have come to hear Him preach and to see Him work miracles.  Tax collectors (who served the Roman authorities and were despised by the common people) and other sinners were drawing near to hear Jesus teach.  The Pharisees (the most influential religious party in Judea) and the scribes (the teachers of the Law) were high status members of Jewish society who considered themselves to be among the "righteous."  They interpreted the Scriptures and the Law very rigidly, often neglecting to follow the example of God's mercy and justice (Lk 11:39-52).  They criticized Jesus for His interaction with what they considered to be the dregs of society. 

Jews were expected to keep themselves ritually clean and fit for worship by avoiding anything that might transmit ritual uncleanness—unlike those who were acknowledged "unclean" sinners not fit to enter the Temple and offer God sacrifice and worship.  This is not the first time this group of self-professed "righteous" Jews have criticized Jesus for the kind of company He keeps.  The same complaint was made of Him in Luke 5:30.  Jesus answers their criticism by offering three parables of finding what was lost: The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-8), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:8-10), and the Parable of the Lost Son (Lk 15:11-32).

The Parable of the Lost Son is only found in the Gospel of St. Luke.  It is also called the Parable of the Two Sons and the Parable of the Prodigal (wasteful) Son.  However, a better title is probably the Parable of the Merciful Father since the father's mercy is the focus of the story and he is the pivotal figure.  This parable is an answer to the Pharisees' criticism of Jesus' interest in sinners and is an  insightful commentary on human conduct, illustrating the conflict between free-will and responsibility, estrangement and family love, and the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation.  But above all, the parable teaches the gift of divine forgiveness to a lost sinner—the kind of people who were seeking Jesus and the restoration He promised to those who repented and accepted the coming of His Kingdom.

In verse11 Jesus begins His parable with the statement: "a man had two sons ..."  He sets the contrast in the story between the character of the two sons—the younger son who left home because he thought he wanted the absolute freedom to live as he wished without any obligations except to himself, and the elder son, the father's heir, who dutifully served the father and stayed at home.  The parable is divided into two parts: the estrangement of the younger son followed by his return and reconciliation with the father (verses 11-24), and the elder son's anger when his brother returns (verses 25-31).  As in all Jesus' parables, the elements of the story are symbolic and point to Jesus' teaching on our relationship with God and His kingdom.  Each of the people in the parable represents what is greater than the story presents: 

Symbolic Comparisons in the Parable of the Lost Son
the loving father God the Father
the father's home the "kingdom" of the Old Covenant Church/Temple
the distant country the secular world
the elder son the religiously observant Jews
the younger son the repentant sinner and the estranged Gentile nations of the world

 In Exodus 4:22 Moses is instructed by God to tell the Egyptian Pharaoh: "Israel is my firstborn son."  If Israel's status is God's first-born son in the human family, then that makes all other non-Israelite members of the human family the younger sons.  The people of the Sinai Covenant were collectively the "sons/daughters of God" (in Ex 4:22 the word "son" is in the singular as in Wis 18:13).

In the story the father extends his love to both sons, in the same way Father God extends his love toward the repentant sinner (symbolized younger son) and the toward the angry older son despite his criticism of the father's decision to welcome back his brother.  The parable stresses God's willingness to accept all repentant sinners into His kingdom.  As St. Luke mentioned in 7:29-30:...tax collectors and sinners who were baptized with the baptism of  John [the Baptist] acknowledged the righteousness of God; but the Pharisees and scholars of the law [scribes], who were not baptized by him, rejected the plan of God for themselves.  The younger son embodies man of every age, beginning with Adam who was the first to distain his "Father's" gifts to run after what His Father told him to avoid, losing the inheritance of grace and original justice.  In fact, as Pope John Paul II wrote, "The parable indirectly touches upon every aspect of the breach in covenant love, every loss of grace, every sin (Dives in misericordia, 5).

Do not miss the significance that the younger son tended swine.  Swine were unclean animals and association with them was strictly forbidden for a member of the Sinai Covenant according to the Law (Lev 11:7; Dt 14:8).  That he was willing to tend swine shows how far the younger son had traveled from the Law and the depths to which he had sunk in his personal life.  His anxiety, hunger, and homelessness are the result of his rebellious free will choices (Sirach 15:14; CCC 1730-34) and enslavement to sin (Rom 1:25; 6:6; Gal 5:1) by which he has lost the freedom of being a beloved son of his father to become one whose sin has placed him under the power of Satan (Rom 8:21; Gal 4:31; 5:13).  By contrast, the fatted calf the father offers upon his return symbolizes the restoration of communion with the father and the younger son's family in the same way a repentant sinner is restored to God's family in the Sacrament of the Eucharist within the household of the Church.

The Pharisees and scribes to whom Jesus is directing His parable are displaying the same anger and unwillingness to welcome back the repentant sinners to whom Jesus' extends His mercy and forgiveness like the elder brother who will not welcome back his younger sibling.  In addition, there is another comparison that can be made to the Jews of the Old Covenant who jealously guarded their status as "firstborn sons." The Jews are the "firstborn" sons, as God told Moses in Exodus 4:22, making all other nations of the earth the "younger sons" in the human family.  The Jews refused to welcome their "younger brothers" of the Gentile nations into the New Covenant in Christ Jesus (see verses 29-30).  The father in the parable manifests his love for the elder, upright son.  But he reminds his elder son and heir that the younger son must be restored to the family and his restoration must be celebrated in the communion meal.  It is a subtle warning Jesus gives His kinsmen of the Old Covenant faith that they must be prepared to welcome the repentant "younger brothers" of the Gentile nations into the Kingdom He has come to establish.

In the parable the elder son has to make a decision—will he accept the father's rebuke and welcome his younger brother back into communion with the family, or will he reject his younger brother and harm his relationship with his father?  We are not told what decision the elder brother made, but we know that many of the Jews rejected the Divine Father's plan for the restoration of the human family through Jesus' perfect sacrifice for the sins of all mankind on the altar of the Cross and His Gospel message of God's gift of salvation.  In their missionary journeys, Saints Paul and Barnabas followed Jesus' example and always went to the elder brothers—the Jews first, but when they rejected Jesus' Gospel of salvation they turned, as God directed them, to the "younger brothers" of the human family—the non-Jewish Gentiles.  At Antioch in Pisidia Saints Paul and Barnabas first offered Jesus' Gospel of salvation at the Jewish Synagogue, but later When the Jews saw the crowds [of Gentiles], they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.  Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.  For so the Lord commanded us, 'I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth'" (Acts 13:45-47).  And as St. Paul assured the Galatians: For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendant, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29).

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013

Catechism references for this passage: CCC 545, 589, 1423, 1439, 1468, 1700, 1730-34, 2795.