It’s Laetare Sunday — time to rejoice with a joy only reconciliation can bring

Father R. Michael Schaab

Living the Word/By Father R. Michael Schaab

Fourth Sunday of Lent/March 27

Joshua 5:9a,10-12; Psalm 34:2-3,4-5,6-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3,11-32

(For Year A readings, visit bible.usccb.org)

Normally, it is best to look to the First Reading and the Gospel of the Mass to discover the major theme of the day’s Scripture readings. However, for today’s readings it’s best to look at the Second Reading first and then proceed to the others. In that Second Reading from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, he says, “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation.” Baptism, like the old creation, was the work of God, so also this new creation is God’s work.

He goes on to say, “God . . . has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Reconciliation is the theme of today’s readings.

In the First Reading from the Book of Joshua we discover the first step in the process of reconciliation, and, like in creation, it is clear that all this is the work of God. The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” “Reproach” is the opposite of “approach.” “Approach” means to draw near to something or someone. “Reproach” means to draw-back or withdraw. The “reproach of Egypt” was the enslavement of God’s chosen people, which drew them away from their God.

Interestingly, this first step of reconciliation, this removal of a reproach, takes place “while . . . they celebrated the Passover. The Eucharist which comes from the Last Supper was also a Passover celebration? It is the sacrifice of perfect reconciliation.

The Israelites were forever grateful that God had removed this reproach. It was a long process beginning with the call of Moses and the command to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” It continued as they crossed through the Sea and for the next 40 years wandered in the desert. It culminated with their entry into the Promised Land. Through it all God was removing the reproach of the chosen people.

In the end, they invite us to share in their joy by joining with them in the Responsorial Psalm, “Glorify the LORD with me, let us together extol his name. . . . Look to him that you may be radiant with joy.”

(Remember, this Sunday the “white” of Easter breaks through the “purple” of Lent? Then, recall that laetare means, “be joyful,” just as the Israelites were when they experienced reconciliation with their God.)

RESTORING RIGHT RELATIONSHIP

But it’s the Gospel that really presents the message of reconciliation in such a way as it touches our hearts as well as informs our minds. In one sense the parable of the “Prodigal Son” is an instruction about the Sacrament of Penance, the Rite of Reconciliation. But, it’s much more than that because it teaches us that we are not only the sinners who need to be reconciled. We also are the ones who have been given “the ministry of reconciliation,” “we are ambassadors for Christ.” That doesn’t mean that we’re in control. Rather, it is “as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” We are agents of God’s forgiveness in the world.

In one sense the parable of the “Prodigal Son” is an instruction about the Sacrament of Penance, the Rite of Reconciliation. But, it’s much more than that because it teaches us that we are not only the sinners who need to be reconciled. . . . We are agents of God’s forgiveness in the world.

It’s important to recall that the long parable we hear in today’s Gospel is in response to a criticism leveled at Jesus: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It’s also important to know that the meaning of “reconciliation” is to “be back together again.” This parable is a reflection on how God is always working to bring us sinners back to our original relationship with our God.

The beauty of the Gospel Reading from Luke is in the three main characters – the young son, the father and the older son. Through them, the reader is called to a change of heart. We’re invited to identify with the younger son in his immaturity, his self-centeredness and his desire for “the good life.” It’s because we can so easily identify with him, that when everything falls apart for him we feel empathy rather than feeling anger or any kind of satisfaction at seeing him get-what-he-deserves.

The father is, quite simply, good. Later on in his book of the Gospel, Luke will say, “No one is good, except God alone.” (Luke 8:19) Without any direct reference to his reaction to his younger son’s decision to leave home with his inheritance, we naturally read between the lines and recognize the father’s shock, embarrassment and disappointment. Brokenhearted might be the term that best describes the father. But that wasn’t all. There must have been hope because he kept waiting for his return. “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him.” He’d been looking forward to this moment. And, he waited for his son with love. He “was filled with compassion.”

MAN OF ACTION

The moment of reconciliation is one of the most moving moments in all the parables of Jesus. The son has memorized his speech like a little child. He must have looked and smelled awful. He had left not only his family but also his people, the “chosen people,” for he had gone “off to a distant country.” He may have been seen by others as ritually impure because of his association with the swine, a food forbidden to the Israelites. But none of this mattered to the father. All the while he was longing for his son’s return, he had been planning. And when his son returned he put his plan into action.

And it seems that the father was truly a man of action. It’s interesting that in the parable, the father never speaks directly to his young son. But look at the actions. “He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” It’s not even clear that the father actually heard the son’s rehearsed little speech. He was all caught up in moving to the next step — celebration.

And that brings the parable to the older son.

Reconciliation is fine if you’re the sinner. But what if you’re the one who has been offended by the sin? That’s what the older son represents. And his struggle is really with his own “ministry of reconciliation.” That is what the father is calling him to, to be “an ambassador for Christ.” And that’s the real challenge of the parable. Do we who so easily identify with the younger son, have the honesty to identify with the older son? That was also the message Jesus presented to the Pharisees and scribes who leveled the original complaint.

Do we need to move away from just words of forgiveness and begin to focus on actions like the father? The father’s words, “now we must celebrate and rejoice,” finally bring us back to the title for this Sunday, “Laetare.” In the middle of Lent, we’re to be joyful — a joy that only reconciliation can bring.

FATHER R. MICHAEL Schaab is a senior priest of the Diocese of Peoria who gives retreats and days of recollection, and who fills in as presider at parish Masses on weekends. He resides on a hobby farm in Putnam County.

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