4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: LENT AS HOMECOMING

1-return-of-the-prodigal-son-rembrandt
The Return of the Prodigal Son, a Painting by Rembrandt

In today’s 4th Sunday of Lent we continue to dig deeper into the meaning of the Lenten discipline. For several Sundays now we have pointed out that repentance is a central challenge of the Lenten discipline. In today’s readings we shall come to understand repentance as homecoming.

In the First Reading, the Israelites have finally arrived from Exodus to their homeland–the land flowing with milk and honey, the land that God promised to give them. The sign that the Exodus was over was when they eat the parched grain from the produce of the land and no longer the manna that God provided for them during their journey in the wilderness. The parched grain was the beginning of life in the promised land, where the Israelites found a home. The consoling sweetness of manna came out of the harshness of the conditions of the Exodus. Out of the sorrow of trading manna for parched grain there came the consolation of home.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul implores the Corinthians to return to God, “We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God.” To return home to God is to reconcile with God which implies forgiveness, restoring harmony, rectifying the wrong deeds and reunion. 

The Gospel narrates the popular parable of the prodigal son. Luke reminds us that the parable of the prodigal was told to Pharisees who complained about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. The parable of the two lost sons (Lk 15:11-32) is Jesus’ self justification for “hosting” sinners at table fellowship (Lk 15:1-2).

For a long time, the focus of the parable, as suggested by its title, is on the younger son who was the prodigal son. He squandered all his inheritance on riotous living in a far away country. The younger son was lost and veered so far away from his home with the Father.  Listening to the whole parable, however, we realize that the younger son is not the only one lost who veered far away from his father. The elder son too was lost. Even if the elder son never left his Father’s home, his heart could not identify with the Father’s compassion for the wretched younger son. Indeed, the parable is about two lost sons in the face of the father’s prodigal love for both of them. 

Applying these readings to Lent, we can say that Lent is a call to return to home. Home is where our Father is. The first step to returning home is the realization of the darkness of our lives. Lent is the blessed season to examine and confront the dark side of our lives. It is to enter into the bottom of whatever hellish pit we have made of our  lives. In this darkness and hellish pit we realized how we veered away from our true home with God, from our fellowship with others and ultimately from our true selves. Like the younger son in the parable, we are prodigal children. We live prodigal lives. We have in many ways squandered our Father’s inheritance. We have wasted many opportunities in pursuit of our own glory. We have abused the love and trust of many people. We have destroyed the abundant and wonderful world God gave us to live in. We poison its air, we pollute its water, we erode its topsoil.

In the midst of the darkness and the bottomness of our pit,  we regain what we have forgotten–who we truly are, and whose we are. We realized once again that we are a redeemed people; we are loved unconditionally by God. This profound remembrance inspires us to do what the younger son did: “I will break away and return to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against you.’”

Repentance is not just, however, returning to the Father.  Repentance is not just between me and God. It has social implications. This is what the elder son found it hard to understand. We are called not only to be reconciled with God but to embrace God’s inclusive love for everyone especially the sinners and the rejects. We are called to be compassionate and forgiving just as the Father is compassionate and forgiving.

Thus, Lent as homecoming calls us to a ministry of reconciliation in the world. We live in a world where there is still so much division, brokenness and hatred. Wherever there is injustice in the world something is not reconciled. Lent is a time to ‘pass over,’ to pass from the world of injustice we have created over to a world of reconciliation. It is a time to “turn hatred to love, conflict to peace, death to eternal life.”

The ending of parable is rather abrupt. We are left with many questions. What did the elder son do? Did he join the party to celebrate the homecoming of his wretched brother or did he remain in his own regret that the Father could still love his younger brother after everything he has done? Did the younger son also sought the forgiveness of his elder brother? These are the questions the Pharisees and scribes (see Lk 15:2) and the contemporary believer must answer in their own accord.

What would you do?

Advertisements

3RD SUNDAY OF LENT: REPENTANCE AS BEARING FRUIT

20190306-ash-wednesday-baclaran-afp
Photo courtesy of Ted Aljbe, AFP

Whenever there are man-made tragedies and natural calamities, we hear people say that these calamities are sent by God because of his wrath and punishment for our sins. Calamities, they say, are part of God’s will and God’s plan. We need to be careful, however, that this viewpoint does not give us a convenient way out of our own culpability for the tragedies and calamities like the destruction of nature and exploitation of our fellow humans.  Although, calamities and tragedies may indeed become wake up calls and offer us golden opportunities for the reform of our lives. This should not, however, distort the very nature of God as loving and compassionate. Our Lord Jesus did not come to punish us through the disasters, but came to be one with us, to live amongst us in the midst of despair and destruction and guide us towards transformation and to bear fruit.

In the gospel of today’s 3rd Sunday of Lent, people approached Jesus asking about his view on a tragic incident. Pilate has murdered a number of Galilean people. Worse, Pilate has mixed their blood with that of sacrificed animals. In the highly politically charged atmosphere of Roman-occupied Palestine, this was a trap. If Jesus ignores this event, He will be accused of insensitivity to His people. But if He criticizes Pilate, He will probably be reported to the Roman authorities and be punished by them.

Jesus connected this tragedy to an accident involving construction workers in Siloam. From both events he draws a warning for Israel. What took place in Galilee and at Siloam were not judgments of God but a call to repentanceUnless the nation repents, it too will perish. 

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

The bottom line here is that we all need to repent. Am I so often focused on the evils to be uprooted that I neglect the need for personal reform as well? Repentance calls all of us at all times of our lives. 

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, in the second reading today, conveys the same note of urgency and necessity for repentance. If the very people who experienced God’s liberating power in the Exodus could lose their sense of the divine presence sustaining and saving them, it requires all of us today not to remain complacent. In our own journey in the wilderness of life, we are subject to our own addictions and idolatries. Paul writes, 

These things happened to them as an example,
and they have been written down as a warning to us,
upon whom the end of the ages has come.
Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.

Luke shows the urgency of repentance in the parable of the fruitless fig tree. In the parable, the tree is symbolic. It stands for all of us who needs to heed Jesus’ call for repentance. Jesus’ call for repentance is our journey from fruitlessness to fruitfulness. In this journey, God constantly guide and transform us.   

The merciful God who guides his people towards transformation is indicated by the name of God as revealed to Moses in the first reading from the book of Exodus. When Moses asked God what shall he call him, God responded, “I am who I am,” or, as many contemporary exegetes interpret it, “He causes to be what comes into existence.”

Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.”
Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites:
I AM sent me to you.”

The unnameable God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the God who intervenes powerfully in human history. God saw the affliction of his people. He “comes down,” that is, intervenes in history out of his transcendence, to deliver them from the slavery of sin and to bring them into the land “flowing with milk and honey.” God called Moses and sent him to lead his people out of Egypt through the wilderness, refreshing them with water from the rock and bringing them into the Promised Land.  Finally he sends his Son, offering his people the fullness of repentance by accepting his salvific and liberating life and mission.

The season of Lent is a most blessed time which calls all of us to a profound repentance. Thus, one of the highlights during Lent, is the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. During Lent, the church in many parishes abundantly celebrates the sacrament of reconciliation to give people plenty of opportunity to  experience genuine repentance. Repentance is not just expressing true sorrow for our sins but the eager desire to rebuild anew our lives. Thus, repenting takes hard work that is why it is a discipline. The discipline of Lent entails hard-work repentance which leads to the new life that Easter promises.