The fourth Sunday in Lent is traditionally a day of celebration within this austere season. It carries the theme of rejoicing and so is called Laetare Sunday. Laetare is Latin for rejoicing, and rose, or pink vestments, can be worn like on the third Sunday in Advent, and The readings for this Sunday are full of rejoicing. Like our responsorial Psalm that begins, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!” Rejoicing is mainly present in today’s Gospel in which Jesus uses a parable in answering the Pharisees and scribe’s criticism of his welcoming sinners to a table fellowship.
In the familiar parable, most commonly known as The Prodigal Son, a father has never stopped loving the child who demanded his legacy immediately and chose to go away, to live a self-indulgent life.
Through one powerful sentence in the story—But while he was still far off, his father saw him—we know the father never stopped looking for the return of his lost son. And even though this once prosperous, well-nourished, and well-dressed young prodigal is now filthy, skinny, and in rags, the father recognizes him from afar and runs to meet him with open arms. Instead of upbraiding him, he puts fine clothes and a ring on him and throws a big welcome home party. The man’s older son objected to his father’s positive reaction and welcomed his son home. He felt that although he was always faithful to his father, he was never honored.
Instead of the parable of the prodigal son, I think it should be called the parable of the forgiving father and the two ungrateful sons.
There is a hymn I think most of us are familiar with in our hymnal. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” numbers 469 and 470. The lyrics are from a poem by Frederick William Faber:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.”
The hymn speaks of “welcome for the sinner” and “graces for the good.” It speaks of the “plentiful redemption” and “the charity of God.” As St. Paul said, “God who reconciles us to himself through Christ.”
Unfortunately, left out are the stanzas of the poem that say:
But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own, And we magnify His strictness With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd Half so gentle, half so sweet, As the Savior who would have us Come and gather at His feet?
The Evangelist telling of this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes shows their reaction to God’s actions in Israel through Jesus. We can see that the new kingdom-work of reconciliation going forward was like a return from exile.
Sinners and outcasts were finding themselves welcomed into fellowship with Jesus, and so with God, in a way, they would have thought impossible. But whenever a work of God goes effectively forward, there is always someone muttering in the background that things aren’t that easy, that God’s got no right to be generous, that people who’ve done nothing wrong are overlooked. That happened at the time when the exiles returned from Babylon; quite a lot of people, not least the Samaritans, didn’t want them back.
The story reveals the sheer self-centeredness in the grumbling of the older brother. He shows his awful temper by rejecting his brother’s repentance and his father’s unfailing love. (2) He has no more genuine respect for his father than his brother. He lectures his father in front of his guests and refuses his plea to come in. Once more, the father is generous to his self-righteous older son.
I just got back from a holiday trip to Disneyland with my daughter and four grandchildren, and I must say I had a wonderful time. Because of my ankles, I used one of those little electric scooters to get around the park. Because of this change in perspective from six-foot eye-level to about four and my 2 Granddaughters guarding my Way, I could look up at the beautiful buildings with their beautiful colors. See the sunlight shining through the tree leaves, see the cast members’ beautiful costumes, and pay attention to the beautiful sounds. I wasn’t hampered by having to navigate the crowds having a negative perspective. I was so overwhelmed it brought tears to my eyes.
That sums up the older brother in the story. He considered his familial duty slavery, apparently not seeing the beauty in his relationship with his father any more than the younger brother. And it’s the older brother who provides the real punchline of the parable. This is Jesus’ response to his critics. They were so focused on the wickedness of the tax-collectors and sinners and of Jesus himself for daring to eat with them despite claiming to be a prophet of God’s kingdom that they couldn’t see the sunlight sparkling through the fresh spring leaves of God’s love. All these people were being changed, healed, and transformed their lives physically, emotionally, morally, and spiritually; the grumblers could only see litter, the human garbage they usually despised and avoided.
Jesus is not content to tell his accusers that they’re out of line; he, too, wants to reason with the Pharisees and the lawyers, to point out that, through God’s generosity, the wideness of God’s mercy, God is indeed reaching out to people they didn’t expect. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any left for them. If they insist on staying out of the party because it isn’t the sort of thing they like, that’s up to them; but it won’t be because God doesn’t love them as well.
For Luke, this parable pointed beyond the immediate situation of Jesus’ ministry and into the early church, for whom he was writing. Gentiles came into the church, and Jews and Jewish Christians often found it challenging to celebrate. Paul realized when writing Romans that the new communities needed never to give their older sisters and brothers the impression that God had finished with them. Somehow, a balance had to be kept. (3)
Of course, as with all holy Scripture, this parable extends to us today. If we squander our heavenly treasure, will we be able to humble ourselves and ask God’s forgiveness to be reconciled with God and raised to newness of life through Christ and his church? As of equal importance, can we move toward becoming people through whom ‘resurrection’ happens to others? There is a new creation in Christ: everything old has passed away, and everything has become new. Or will we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own; And magnify Her strictness with a zeal she will not own.
Through this time of Lent, a time of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, we can grow as ambassadors for Christ and celebrate the table fellowship of God’s love. Welcoming to the banquet not only our younger sisters and brothers who have come back from the dead, and our older sisters and brothers who thought there was nothing wrong with them.
As ambassadors of Christ’s love, we must never forget to invite the outcast and marginalized of society, the refugee, poor and oppressed. We are all children of God, and our Savior would have us all partake of his banquet.
(1) Stage Five Productions, Volcano Productions, and ABC Productions
(2) N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 191). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
(3) N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 191-192). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.