Fourth Sunday of Lent [C]

Today’s readings

At the heart of it, Lent is about two things.  First, it’s about baptism.  That’s what the participants in our RCIA program are reflecting on these days, and two of them are preparing to be baptized at our Easter Vigil Mass this year.  And baptism leads us to the second purpose of Lent, which is conversion: forgiveness and reconciliation and grace.  Baptism is the sacrament that initially wipes away our sins and gives us grace to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to the Father.

Jesus paints a picture of a very forgiving Father in today’s Gospel, so this story is of course perfect for Lent, when we ourselves are being called to return to God.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard this story growing up, I was always kind of mad about what was going on.  I guess I’d have to say that I identified myself with the older son, who tried to do the right thing and got what seemed to be the short end of the deal.  But that’s not what the story is about.

We of ten call this parable the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I don’t think that’s right because I don’t think the story is about the son – either son – at least not primarily about them.  And the word “prodigal” does not mean what we think it means.  I think when we hear that word, we think prodigal means “wayward” or something, because we are relating the word to the younger son’s actions.  In fact, the word “prodigal” means something like “wildly, rashly, incredibly extravagant.”  It’s related to the words “profuse” or “prodigious.”

So the prodigal one here, I think, is the Father.  First of all, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it feels hurtful.  Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance now, please.”  But the Father gives him the inheritance without ill-will.  Secondly, the Father reaches out to the younger son on his return, running out to meet him, and before he can even finish his little prepared speech, lavishes gifts on him and throws a party.  So it is the Father who is prodigal here, not the son, not either of the sons.

There is a tendency, I think, for us to put ourselves into the story, which is not a bad thing to do.  But like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to identify with the hard feelings of the older son sometimes.  But let’s look at these two sons.  First of all, I’ll just say it, it’s not like one was sinful and the other wasn’t – no – they are both sinful.  The younger son’s sin is easy to see.  But the older son, with his underlying resentment and refusal to take part in the joy of his Father, is sinful too.  It’s worth noting that the Father comes out of the house to see both sons.  That’s significant because a good Jewish father in those days wouldn’t come out to meet anyone – they would come to him.  But the Father meets them where they are and desperately, lovingly, pleads with them to join the feast.

So, both sons are sinful.  But remember, this is a parable, and so the characters themselves are significant.  They all symbolize somebody.  We know who the Father symbolizes.  But the sons symbolize people – more specifically groups of people – too.  The younger son was for Jesus symbolic of the non-believer sinners – all those tax collectors and prostitutes and other gentile sinners Jesus was accused of hanging around with.  The older son symbolizes the people who should have known better: the religious leaders – the Pharisees and scribes.  In this parable, Jesus is making the point that the sinners are getting in to the banquet of God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, because the sinners are recognizing their sinfulness, and turning back to the Father, who longs to meet them more than half way.  The religious leaders think they are perfect and beyond all that repenting stuff, so they are missing out.

So again, it’s good to put ourselves in the story.  Which son are we, really?  Have we been like the younger son and messed up so badly that we are unworthy of the love of the Father, and deserve to be treated like a common servant?  Or are we like the older son, and do we miss the love and mercy of God in pursuit of trying to look good in everyone else’s eyes?  Maybe sometimes we are like one of the sons, and other times we are like the other.  But the point is, that we often sin.

But our response has to be like the younger son’s.  We have to be willing to turn back to the Father and be embraced in his mercy and love and forgiveness.  We can’t be like the older son and refuse to be forgiven, insisting on our own righteousness.  The stakes are too high for us to do that: we would be missing out on the banquet of eternal life to which Jesus Christ came to bring us.

For us, this Lent, this might mean that we have to go to confession.  Even if we haven’t been in a long time.  We have confessions at 4pm for the next two Saturdays, and on Saturday the 27th, we also have confessions at 6pm.  We also have our parish penance service on Tuesday the 30th at 7:30 … those are all on the front of the bulletin.  Lent is the perfect time to use that wonderful sacrament of forgiveness to turn back to the Father who longs to meet us more than half way with his prodigal love and mercy.  So don’t let anything get in the way of doing it.  If you haven’t been to confession in a very long time, go anyway.  We priests are there to help you make a good confession and we don’t yell at you, don’t embarrass you – we are there to help you experience God’s mercy.

We are all sinners and the stakes are high.  But the good news is that we have a Prodigal God, who longs to meet us more than half way.  All we have to do is decide to turn back.

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Aren’t the Lenten readings challenging?  But this is what it means to be a disciple.  We have to be willing to have our whole world turned upside-down; to do something completely against our nature; to let God take control of the life we want so much to control.

“For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”  I don’t know about you, but that scares the heck out of me.  Because there are plenty of times when it just about kills me to give someone a break.  The measure I sometimes use ends up being a bar set pretty high, and I would sure hate to have to leap over that bar myself.  But that’s what Jesus is saying will be our measure.

Because the measure of compassion is the compassion of God himself.  That is our model, that’s what we’re to strive for, that’s how we are to treat each other.  But when we do that, it means we can’t judge others.  It means that we have to see them as God does, which is to say that we have to see the Jesus in them and to see the goodness in them.  And that’s hard to do when that person has just cut you off in traffic, or has gossiped about you to your neighbors, or has crossed you in some other way.  But even then, we are called to stop judging others and show them the compassion of God.

Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.  That is the prayer of the Psalmist today.  We are given the promise of forgiveness, but we are also warned that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven either.  The measure with which we measure will in turn be measured out to us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to look really hard for a small ruler today.

Friday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think mercy may well be one of the hardest virtues to cultivate; but then again, maybe I am just projecting my own issues!  But in this day of entitlement, I think many people are quick to call others to task for just about anything that irritates them.  How, then, would we have treated Saul if we were David, given that Saul was distracted, and David was there unnoticed, and had the means necessary to take his life?  He even had good reason: Saul was trying to kill him.  But instead he shows him mercy, and relies on God’s justice.  We will be called upon to be merciful often.  How often will we take that opportunity, knowing that God’s justice is greater than anything we can imagine?

Advent Penance Service

I know a lot of people who get depressed this time of year.  Probably you do too.  Many people are missing loved ones who are far away from home, or who have passed away.  Some of my friends have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and so they are depressed when we don’t see the sun as much on cloudy days like today, or when it gets dark so early as it does during this time.  Some people also look back on another year almost finished, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been.  If there is any reason for being a little depressed at this time of year, it often seems like the joy that other people are experiencing during the Christmas season makes the pain even worse.

So for whatever reason, many of us experience darkness during this season, when so many seem to be rejoicing in light.  In essence, that’s what Advent is all about.  The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light.  Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world.  Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].”  This is a light that changes everything.  It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world.  We do that in symbolic ways: the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath symbolizes the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior.  But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory.  We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives.  The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God.  The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution.  Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way.  Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts.  Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Each of the days of Advent, we have been praying the “O Antiphons” which the Church gives us in Evening prayer each day.  Yesterday’s “O Antiphon” spoke of the light we celebrate tonight: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us.  The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ.  As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer.  Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Friday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today, Jesus gives us what might be considered to be his mission statement: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Or at least we might consider this to be his statement of what he wants from us, his people.  And we, like the Pharisees, might be tempted to make all sorts of sacrifices.  That might mean sacrificing our time to work long hours to attain our goals.  Or maybe we sacrifice to give to the poor, or spend more time at Church, or whatever.  None of those things is bad in and of themselves, in fact, depending on our intentions, they are probably good things.  But if we don’t have mercy in the mix, if we don’t then also extend God’s love to our family, coworkers, or whoever God puts in our presence today, then we’ve blown it.  It’s all for nothing.  But, if we put mercy first, if we forgive as we have been forgiven and love as we have been loved, then we’ve gotten our mission statement right, too.

Tuesday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I want to feel bad for Lot’s wife in today’s first reading.  Not only is she not even called by name in the entire reading, but she gets turned into a pillar of salt just for a backward glance.  But, sad as it is, this is the whole point of the reading, and it’s not like they weren’t warned – the angel was very clear: “Flee for your life!  Don’t look back or stop anywhere on the Plain.  Get off to the hills at once, or you will be swept away.”  So in some ways, she deserved what she got.  But I think the reading is getting at something a little deeper here than a mere glance over one’s shoulder.

Indeed the real issue is, what did that looking back mean?  Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed for their wanton evil.  They may have once been wonderful cities, but they had become centers of every kind of evil and debased action.  And this evil was so pervasive that no other corrective action other than total destruction of the cities would do.  If yesterday had not been the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, we would have heard the famous reading about Abraham and God bargaining to save those cities.  At the end of it all, God agrees at Abraham’s urging not to destroy the place if just ten righteous people could be found there.  Obviously the righteous numbered less than ten, amounting to just Lot, his wife, and his two daughters.

But, so pervasive was the evil of that place, that it infected even Lot’s wife, who didn’t just glance back to see if she dropped something.  No, the backward glance was more likely sorrow for what she left behind; she was not untainted by the scandal of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The lesson is that when God leads us forward, we cannot debase ourselves to look back.  The Psalmist has it right today, as always, when he says, “For your mercy is before my eyes, and I walk in your truth.”  Your mercy is before my eyes, so I need to look forward, not back.  Looking backward leads us to our old sinful ways; looking forward is what leads us to our God.  So if God is giving us the chance to move forward, as he did for Lot and his wife and his daughters, then we can do no less than fix our eyes on the path ahead, cutting our ties with everything that is behind us.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

I think sometimes we really need to know that we are in the hands of God. Things here on earth can be pretty uncertain on a daily basis. The state of the economy, wars being fought all over the globe, the disrespect for human life, antagonism toward Christ-like values, all of this makes us feel pretty uncertain, at best. Add to that the stuff that affects us directly: illness, death of a loved one, unemployment, family difficulties, our own sins – all of this may find us asking the question from time to time, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s why it’s so good to hear Jesus say today:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.

This does not, of course, mean that life is going to be easier for us, or that we won’t still be challenged in this world. But it does give us confidence that we are on the right track, and that our ways are being guarded. With this confidence, we are expected then to be disciples. We are expected to go forth and do what God asks of us, ministering to those in need, reaching out to the broken, preaching the Good News just by the way that we live our life.

We can live and preach the Gospel with confidence, we can be called Christians as our brothers and sisters in the first reading were for the first time, knowing that God has our back. Whatever we may suffer in this life for the sake of Christ will more than be rewarded in the life to come. And the good works we do here on earth, as small as they may seem to us in the face of such adversity, are never for nothing: God takes our efforts and makes them huge advances in the battle for souls.

Jesus says that the Father is greater than all, and that all of us, safe in the Father’s hands, can never be taken from him. Praise God for his providence and mercy and protection today.

Saturday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

That Jesus would welcome sinners and eat with them is obviously a big deal in his day. The audacity of such an action was sinful in and of itself, at least as far as the religious leadership was concerned. But as an act of mercy, it’s grace unlike anything else. And the significance for us is understandable. Jesus still welcomes sinners and eats with them. If that were not true, none of us would be here for the Eucharist today, would we?

Something that often gets overlooked in this very familiar parable is that both of the sons are sinful. We take it on faith that the youngest is sinful: taking half of his inheritance before his father is even in the grave, living a life of dissipation and sexual excess, using up all that money in a short time, content to eat among the swine which no good Jew would even think about touching, and finding himself very, very broken. But the so-called good son is sinful too. On his brother’s return, he refuses to go into the house to welcome him back, and takes his father to task for showing mercy and love. Failure to forgive is itself sinful.

Both sons are sinful in their own way. Both need the father’s love and mercy and forgiveness. And both receive it. Far from the way a proper Jewish father would act, he runs out to meet both sons where they are. Protocol would have them come to him, and not he to them. He comes out twice, once to meet the younger son who is on the way back to him, and once to meet his older son who refuses to come in.

Much is often made on where we find ourselves in this very familiar parable. Are we the sinful son? Are we the good son? Are we the father? It probably depends on the day – we might be like all of them at one time or another. I don’t think that’s what matters here. What matters is that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, in our case, feeding us with the finest bread and wine which are of course his very own body and blood. Without this grace, we would have no life – salvation would only be a pipe dream. But because this grace is very real, we have the opportunity to gather here at the Table of the Lord, and one day at the great heavenly banquet.

Praise God today for his forgiveness, mercy and grace. Praise God that he welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Ancient sources say that we are to pray the Lord’s prayer at least seven times daily. Why? Because the Lord’s prayer in all its wonderful simplicity reminds us that we can turn to our heavenly Father who knows our needs and cares for our welfare. It reminds us that the best opportunities we have to live the Gospel come when we turn to God who is bigger than our sins, more than generous enough to cover our deepest needs and longings, more than holy enough to sanctify our poorer efforts at discipleship and charity. It reminds us that God is God and we are not.

To those of us who are concerned with our own prestige and dwell on our own ego, the Lord’s prayer says “hallowed be God’s name.” When we would like all of our problems solved on our own terms and everyone to do things our own way, the Lord’s prayer says, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” For those times when we over-consume the goods of the earth, or want more than we can afford, or covet things we don’t need, the Lord’s prayer says, “give us this day our daily bread” – because that’s all we need. For us sinners who prefer to hold grudges against others, the Lord’s prayer says, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And when we stray into all sorts of temptations and give in to all the wrong things, the Lord’s prayer says “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The Lord’s prayer is powerful in all its simplicity. Whether we say it seven times a day or even just once, we need to say it with full thought of what we are asking of our God. And God will hear and answer that holy prayer. For his is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

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