Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for Fourth Sunday of Lent
Year C: Joshua 5:9-12; Ps 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Today’s gospel gives us one of Jesus’s most famous and popular parables. The parable has many names because it gives many different descriptions of God and ourselves.
Its most known name is “The parable of the prodigal son”, as it principally is about the people of Israel, to whom God has a relation like a father to his son. God elects it, saves it, takes it to a promised land, as we heard in today’s first reading from the Book of Joshua, “raises” it spiritually and distinguishes it to be a beacon of light for all nations, testifying to the truth. But the people fall off their collective vocation and turn their back on God, God’s law and God’s prophets. Therethrough, the people are weakened, first spiritually and thence in other ways, whereby the land is invaded by enemies and the people are captured and taken away, exiled.
Jesus refers to this Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people, 500 years before our era, and thereby also to it as a general image of all forms of spiritual exile. We, who belong to the Church, the New Israel, chosen by God to testify to the world, also quench our existential thirst with things that only increase it, i.e. things we put in the place of God. We have to see how this leads us into exile, and instead turn towards the way to the Father, Jesus Christ. There will always be forgiveness and reconciliation, for a new start, through him and the sacraments of his Church, as our second reading from Second Corinthians so concisely reminded us. As much, and as many times, as we need it. And as Pope Francis often underlines: if we only ask.
This points to another name of the parable: “The merciful father”. Mercy, is when God, who is love, self-giving will of the good of the other only for the sake of the other, is confronted with sin, us living our lives selfishly, disengaged from what we were created for, and from the one who alone can quench our thirst for truth, goodness and beauty. The ultimate consequence of sin is eternal separation from God. This, God himself, through Christ, makes his utmost to prevent. Although justice requires of us to live with the consequence of our choices.
Mercy does not replace justice, but transcends it, and is also something more than empathy. It is granted in situations where we actually have ourselves to blame, freely having caused pain to ourselves and others. The long range of God’s mercy is revealed when we understand what the younger son in the parable actually was doing. Ancient believers were much stronger moved by it than us, because they knew that asking for one’s share of the estate, not waiting for the natural succession, in Antiquity was equal to consider one’s parents dead. We treat God similarly when we sin, large and small; we consider God dead because we do not think that he or his commandments, which the Church, on behalf of Christ, proclaims at all times, out of love, i.e. the will of our good, have anything to do with us and our choices. Overall, or within particular fields, where we individually consider ourselves to know better than 2000 years of Church tradition, based upon Biblical revelation, with the apostles, the martyrs and all saints, with 21 ecumenical councils and the teachings of all popes and bishops in line with that. And yet, nevertheless, God is willing to forgive, if we only repent, change the whole way we think.
The parable is also called “the parable of the two brothers”, because of the older brother emerging at the end. He, who is always in his father’s house, sharing everything with the father, is not happy at all at the return of his little brother, rather jealous. He does not understand how much his father’s goodness already radiates over him. His role in the parable, first reminds all faithful of the importance of gratitude. Jealousy eats away at love, and is fought by us learning to see the good things in life, like the fact that we live at all, as gifts. Each Christian prayer ought to begin with a topic for gratitude, albeit small.
Secondly, the brother reminds us how we, who try to realise God’s will in our lives, should look upon them who do not: like siblings who never are so lost that they never can return. But this reveals a task, viz. to actively seek out the ones in spiritual exile and show the way home. Therefore, we must abandon the misconception that it would be against “humility” to clearly speak for the Christian or Catholic faith, and the misconception that it would be “to judge” to present what Christ, through the Church, regards as a sin. Both are exactly the opposite, i.e. acts of love.
Finally, the parable can also be called “the two ditches”. Each brother describes a particular ditch drive in spiritual life. The younger son represents the path of false freedom, of autonomy or self-determination, viewing God’s will, as revealed by Christ and divinely commissioned to the Church to proclaim and explain through her teachings, as something for us to manipulate at our own discretion, according to what we “feel”. This turns the Catholic faith into a smorgasbord, where I pick one dish and reject the other, which does not fit my opinions at the moment. Often because I, contrary to what Jesus exhorts all of us to do, reject a particular cross, or think others ought to. As if different crosses were our choices.
The older son represents the opposite ditch, the path of joyless legalism, superficially doing God’s will, however without love, inner joy or peace, and without conviction of its truth. But the commandments of the Church do no become true because the Church teaches them. The Church teaches them because they are true. God is not a distanced, moody pasha whom we need to appease. God wants us to see the truth, to understand that there is where we will find him, and thus joy and peace. Not as absence of problems, but aware of that God, due to extravagant love, never abandons us when we find ourselves in the midst of all problems.
The parable and all aspects covered by its names, pose the question to me, if I understand that spiritual life, my own and others’, must be a process of repentance and penance? Do I pray for trust, patience and endurance, for myself and others? Particularly when I need to carry a cross for and with Jesus? Do I give thanks to God for his gifts, even if I only see the small ones? Am I prepared to ask for the Father’s mercy, as often as I need it? So that I, in turn, can pass it on to others, and with today’s responsorial psalm exclaim: “Magnify the Lord with me; let us together exalt his name.” Amen.