Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“Rejoice Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning: exult and be satisfied at her consoling breasts.” (Isaiah 66:10-11)
This entrance antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday, captures the movement of the Scriptures for this day. It is a reality check for us as we ask ourselves, “How engaged have we been in the renewal of our hearts?”
Conversion is a life-long process of turning and being turned toward God. The theologian Karl Rahner captured this rhythm of the conversion experience when he wrote, “Contact with the Holy is relational. Mystery reveals itself as person to person. If contact is authentic, if relationship happens, then response is required. In the unfolding of salvation history, such responsiveness to the Holy Mystery of God gets fleshed out in conversion.”
Our first reading from the Book of Joshua is a great example of the responsiveness to the Mystery of God. After their long journey through the desert, the Israelites celebrated the Passover in the Promised Land for the first time. They renewed their commitment and their covenant with God. On the day following the Passover, they ate produce from the land in the form of unleavened bread and parched grains. The manna ceased from that time on.
Our reading from the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians also speaks of the dynamics of conversion. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are reconciled to God and become a new creation in Christ. Ilia Delio notes, “The more we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of love, the more we become ourselves, and the more we become ourselves, the more we are like God.” (Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love, 61)
As I was reading the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke for this Sunday, I was reminded of this beautiful story. A few years ago, at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine runners – all physically or mentally challenged – assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the sound of the starter’s gun, they all took off, not exactly in a dash, but with an eagerness to finish the race and win. All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over and over a couple of time, and began to cry.
Hearing the boy’s cries, the other eight runners slowed down to see what had happened. Then they all turned around and ran back to the boy. One young girl with Down syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “That will make it much better!” Then all nine runners linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium rose and cheered the winners – all nine of them.
The love that these nine runners had in their hearts instinctively placed the pain of another ahead of their hope for the gold prize. This love is not just the absence of hostility and conflict: it involves a deep sense of caring, a sense of compassion, mercy, and understanding of our connectedness to one another as children of the same God.
It is interesting to note that Luke, in the gospel for today, has a fascinating way of presenting the parable of the Prodigal son from the father’s perspective. It seems very brash and immature on the part of the younger son to ask for his share of the inheritance even before his father dies. The father gently listens to his son’s request and goes off to sell his property and shares the inheritance with his son. A few days later, his son packs up his belongings and goes off to a distant land and squanders his inheritance.
When he no longer has money to buy food, it seems the only job he can find is to feed swine. It is while he is feeding swine and he has hit rock bottom, so to speak, when he experiences a breakthrough moment of grace. He decides to return home and ask his father for forgiveness. “I will go to my father and say to him: Father I have sinned against heaven and against you, I no longer deserve to be your son.”
It is interesting to note the actions of the father as he sees him coming. ‘While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion, ran to him, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called you son.” The father orders his servant, to find the best robe and put it on him, a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. Kill the fatted calf and prepare for a party, for “We must celebrate because this son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and has been found.” The gentle and compassionate way his father receives him comes from a deep sense of caring, love, mercy, and forgiveness.
When the older son, who was working in the fields, comes home, he hears the sounds of the party for the younger son, he is not happy and refuses to go into the house and join in the celebration. The father comes out to speak with him. In his gentle, compassionate, and loving way, he tries to reason with him that we must celebrate for your brother was lost and is found. In the end, he leaves his son to ponder and reflect whether he can open his heart to forgive his brother and come and join the celebration.
All the scripture readings for this Sunday keep before us the challenge of life-long conversion. The question that faces us today is, “How engaged do I want to be in developing that person-to-person relationship with the Holy Mystery which is so much a part of the conversion experience?”
Henry Nouwen has encouraging words of us as we ponder our response. “Hope frees us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us.”