Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 18, 2007

St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati

(Based on Joshua 5:9,10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3,13-32)

“We must celebrate and rejoice!” We must celebrate and rejoice?

Here we are at the high point in our Lenten journey, on our way to Jesus’ passion and death, and the church gives us passages that call us to celebrate and rejoice. What’s going on here?

To understand the answer we need to turn, not immediately to the story of “The Prodigal Son” but to the first three verses, which tell us the context in which Jesus tells the story. Because the context brings us to a deeper realization of what’s at stake.

There is Jesus seated in the midst of the tax collectors and sinners. He’s with those he was clearly comfortable with, because they come up again and again in the Gospels. And the scribes and Pharisees, the representatives of religious righteousness, see it and are shocked! They are scandalized. “This fellow is supposed to be the Messiah—and these are the kind of people he associates with?”

As Luke presents Jesus’s response to this serious attack on his credibility as a religious leader, Jesus answers by telling three stories. In each one there is a significant loss and then a happy recovery. Some have described this as the “Lost and Found” section of the Gospels.

A shepherd’s sheep wanders off and is lost to the herd; a woman suffers the loss of a precious coin; and a father has to endure the sadness at watching a beloved son throwing his life away. All are painful experiences. But in each case Jesus is at pains to depict the great joy as the lost is found. In the case of the shepherd there is more joy in heaven over the return of one sinner than the lives of all the righteous. When the woman finds the coin we see her going around to her neighbors and calling them to come and rejoice with her: “I found it, I found it!” And then in today’s passage the father’s joy is so great at the return of his son that he just has to give a banquet—with all the trimmings.

The parable of the son who went astray has been told so often that it’s easy to turn it into a morality play, a biblical O. Henry story. We can easily psychologize the process by which the son “comes to his senses” to realize his situation and “turns” (i.e., is converted) to the father, who is obviously a stand-in for God. Many a spiritual writer has done it.

The story is one of conversion, of course, and there is much worth praying about as we hear the vivid details of the situation the young man creates for himself by his alienation from his father. The pigs and the slop and the aloneness and the rejection by his companions who have no more time for him—it’s all wonderful spiritual drama. It’s good stuff to ponder and pray about, for sure. But we could miss the whole point if we stop there; if we forget the reason Jesus is telling the story in the first place. It’s easy to make it a melodrama, and then it becomes all about us. (And that’s a particular hazard for us as Americans. So much of our culture is focused on the individual—on me—to the neglect of the communal or social implications of what’s going on here.

In reality the parable, as all of Jesus’s parables, is not primarily about us but is an invitation to a deeper appreciation of the kind of God Jesus is inviting us to rejoice in.

Remember, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem (Luke tells us he “set his face;” he’s entering upon a confrontation). The guardians of the faith there are promoting the image of a God who sides with wealth and power and currying favor with the Roman oppressors of the people. Theirs is a religion of walls and exclusions. For a gentile to dare to enter the temple precincts would mean his death. Even Jewish women were excluded from the site of actual sacrifice, being permitted only to an outer court.

Jesus is bringing the revelation of a God who accepts all, without favor or exception. His message—and he himself—will be rejected, as we know. The righteous cannot accept a God who does not view them as privileged.

That’s the meaning of “the rest of the story,” the reaction of the other son. Luke put that element into the narrative because we can’t really get the point of Jesus’s response without it. The elder brother simply can’t accept that his father would be reconciled with this no-good.bum. What’s all this ‘music and dancing’ about? Notice how scornfully he names the situation. “I played by the rules. You never gave me a thing And then this ‘son’ of yours comes back. After carousing with prostitutes. And you expect me to sit at table in communion with the likes of him?”

It’s not enough that the father goes out to talk to him (just as the father had been out on the lookout for the prodigal long before he came to his senses). It’s not enough that the father tells him he’s always with him. It’s not even enough that the father tells him that all the father has is his.

And the attitude of the son (which is really the attitude of Jesus’s audience: the scribes and pharisees) continues. Listen a bit to a piece of the history of our church you may not be aware of:

In the late first and second centuries the followers of Jesus experienced one persecution after another. The emperors wanted them to abandon this faith which threatened their power; they demanded that the Christians worship the emperor instead of the Messiah. Finally the worst persecution of all took place under the emperor Diocletian. Thousands of the faithful were put to the sword for refusing to give up their faith. But another thing also took place: for the first time thousands of Christians also failed the test of martyrdom. They apostatized. They bowed down in worship before the emperor.

But then after the persecution was over and there was peace they “came to their senses.” They repented. And they asked to be re-admitted to the Eucharistic table. And the church, living out the teaching of Jesus, accepted their repentance and re-admitted them to the fullness of Eucharistic communion.

And then occurred an amazing, sorrowful thing. Those who had kept the faith and suffered beatings and imprisonment and loss of their livelihoods said to church authorities, “Oh no! We bore the burden of the struggle, we suffered for the faith, we were faithful followers of Jesus—and you expect us to come to the table of the Lord with them? With these apostates, these emperor-worshipers?”

The sad outcome was that the righteous ones separated themselves from the body of the faith. They became schismatic. It is called the Novatian schism. They didn’t deny any of the teaching of the church so they weren’t heretics. But they cut themselves off from unity and reconciliation. Paul reminds us First Corinthians that we can even hand ourselves over to the flames as martyrs but if we do not have love, it is worth nothing. The parable Jesus offers us is not only about personal conversion, it’s ultimately about our sins as a people, as a society. Our sins of self-righteousness and exclusion and rejection of the offering of reconciliation and sharing at the one table of the Lord’s graciousness.

Just think about how many want to deal with the undocumented in our midst today. Oh, we’re happy to have them pick our vegetables and fruits; we’re glad they’re here to clean our toilets and make the beds in our hotels and clean up our fast-food chains—but citizenship? Look, they broke the rules. (And we, of course, are all upstanding citizens who never took liberties with these bureaucratic trivia.)

Think about the way we deal with brothers and sisters who did indeed commit crimes but then fulfilled society’s rules and paid all the price required by our law. They completed their terms, their punishment. And then they are told, with no warrant in the law, “You don’t expect to vote, do you? That’s only for people who haven’t broken the law.”

And it happens on a smaller scale, too. You may have read of that sorority over at DePauw University. Good law-abiding middle Americans. They are told by the national overseers of the sorority that many of the girls who are members at the school just ‘don’t fit’ the image the national body wants to project. The young women are overweight and they don’t know how to dress ‘right;’ they don’t know how to wear attractive make-up. And they’re too focused on studies! They’re nerds. We can’t have them represent us.

Thank God the local sorority had the integrity to tell the national body where to go.

The self-righteous miss the point of it all. We have a Father who wants always to be with us, who tells us “everything I have is yours,” and they want a God of their own making, a God who screens out the unworthy.

In Corinthians Paul tells us that all is new. The old order, of a God who picks and chooses, has passed away.

As we pray for our own ever deeper conversion, as we examine ourselves to uncover any traces of exclusion of sisters or brothers in our hearts or our behavior, as we ask for a richer appreciation of the all-compassionate God Jesus offers us, let’s pray also for our leaders, in our society and our church. Let’s pray that leaders in our cities and states and country may enact and implement policies that complete the promise of our founding ideals, that all have a right to the same life and the same liberty and the same pursuit of happiness..

And let’s pray for the leaders of our church, that they may show that same compassion of Jesus by welcoming to the fullness of participation at the Eucharistic table today’s “tax collectors and sinners”: women and gays, the divorced and single mothers. Yes, and even Catholic politicians who happen to hold a different position from our bishops on matters of public policy. . . .