Fourth Sunday in Lent
Mary Holmen

Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Psalm 32; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Today has a number of different names. It is the fourth Sunday in Lent. In some traditions it is called Refreshment Sunday or Mid-Lent Sunday. It is literally the mid-point of Lent; there are three weeks behind us and three to come. Any pilgrimage must have its resting places, its oases of refreshment. Every Sunday is one of those oases, because it is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, even in the midst of our Lenten journey. That’s why Sundays are not included in the forty days of the season. And today, because it is the half-way point of the journey, is a special time to pause, gather our strength and prepare for the final stretch toward Jerusalem and the cross. The traditional Latin name for today is Laetare from the first word of the introit or entrance rite: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow...” It is a day of hope with Easter being within sight, and a day of relaxation of Lenten disciplines. Even weddings, which were traditionally forbidden in Lent, were allowed to be performed on this day. Servants were released from their service for the day to go home and visit their mothers, hence the English name of Mothering Sunday. In some churches, the traditional purple vestments are replaced with rose-coloured, rose being seen as a lighter shade of violet.

The readings for today are woven together by themes of joy and feasting:

  • In the first reading, the joy of promises fulfilled. God has brought Israel into the land of Canaan, the land promised to their ancestors. Here, Israel celebrates the Passover, the festival of freedom, and recalls God’s action to save them from their slavery in Egypt. From being a nomadic people moving through the desert, they begin the process of settling into the land. Now the manna which sustained them throughout their journey ceases. Instead, God feeds the people from the produce of the land.
  • The psalm rejoices in the forgiveness of sin and calls the people to worship God with joy.
  • In the epistle reading, Paul joyfully proclaims the effects of Jesus’ saving act: reconciliation, a new creation. Everything is new! Because of the cross, we are reconciled to God. Because Jesus became sin, in other words became one of us, we can become the righteousness of God.
  • And the gospel reading is all about the joy of repentance and return, climaxing in a boisterous homecoming feast in which a father makes merry because a son who was dead is alive again.

It is important to note that there is not much that is superficial or light-hearted about this joy. It is no empty “eat, drink, and be merry” mood. This is joy born out of tragedy and suffering: the suffering of slavery, the hard work of self-examination and self-knowledge, and the sacrifice of Christ who went to the cross “for the sake of the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 11:2). But Lent is not a season of unrelieved puritanical renunciation. While we contemplate the sin in us and in the world that made the cross necessary, we also know that in the cross is the source of life and hope. And so we rejoice and give thanks for the grace that turns death into life. But it is a sober joy, because we cannot forget that “he was bruised for our iniquities, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

At the heart of today’s gospel reading is the joyful news of reconciliation. Jesus told the story to defend his attitude toward sinners and tax collectors. In the estimation of the scribes and Pharisees, these people were outcasts, defiled and cut off from God. That Jesus actually ate with such people, in fact seemed deliberately to seek them out, and then turned around and socialized with the righteous, was something that mightily offended the righteous! By his actions, Jesus made visible the radical hospitality of God. By his parable, Jesus not only illustrated God’s unconditional love for the repentant sinner, but also the attitude which the community ought to adopt. Let’s follow the characters in the story.

The younger son, the prodigal. Young, impetuous, kind of an insensitive pup. Too restless to stick around the old place with the old man. Let me out of here! I want to go where the action is. Life has no meaning here. I want my share of the inheritance now. He doesn’t want to wait for his father to die. In effect, he is saying, “Drop dead, Dad!” So “he gathered all he had and went to a far-off country”. Cut himself off. Abandoned his roots. “He squandered his property in reckless living.” Restlessly searching for meaning, never satisfied. Then – famine, catastrophe. “He began to be in need.” His so-called friends disappeared. He was trapped, at a dead end. The only work he could find – feeding pigs. He, a Jew, tending unclean animals. Not only that, he was so desperate that, if he could have, he would have shared the pigs’ food. You cannot get further “out”, further away from home and yourself, than that. Truly cut off and alone, the living death of the unclean. Alone with his thoughts and feelings. A gradual awakening, until at last “he came to himself”. He remembered who he was. Perhaps he had to sink that low to realize the full extent of his plight. His own conscience gave him no mercy. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Yet something inside him prompts him to resolve, “I will arise and go to my father.” I will throw myself on his mercy. Maybe he’ll give me a place in the household as a servant. How will I be received? I don’t know, but I’ll go anyway.

Then there is the father. Wise and loving. Loving the younger son enough to let him go. Not willing to force love and respect, knowing they cannot be forced. Really, this story could just as well have been called the parable of the prodigal father. Prodigal, almost wasteful with his love and mercy. While the son “was still at a distance, his father saw him.” You know what that means? It means he was watching, waiting. The first sign of a return is enough. “The father’s heart was moved with compassion.” It must have burst within him for joy! The old man “ran to meet him”. He met his son more than halfway. Mercy reached out. The son walked; the father ran! Love went running down the street and threw his arms around his boy’s neck. Disregarded the nicely prepared little speech. “Quick, bring the robe, the ring, the sandals” – everything that belongs to a son. Let us feast; let us celebrate. My son who was dead is alive!

The prodigal son goes home and acknowledges his failure, and his father welcomes him. That is the whole theology of repentance. It is something we do, and then it’s done. Repentance is not a permanent state of brow-beating and grovelling. Repentance is turning away from unloving behaviour, regaining the knowledge of who we are and where we belong, and going back home. The father does not expect his son to keep apologizing over and over again. He does expect him to wear the robe and ring and to come to the banquet. When the family eats together, the lost son will truly be home again.

The third character in the story is the older son. His is the natural, human reaction. Bitter, angry, jealous, legalistic. “He became angry and refused to go in.” Look at all the years I’ve worked for you. He is faithful, but his obedience is lifeless and sterile. “You never even gave me a kid.” He forgets all that the father has given him. He refuses to acknowledge his relationship with either his father or his brother. “This son of yours has returned.” How fortunate that God does not react as we would. Does the older brother go in to the feast? We don’t know; the story ends there. Maybe it’s better that it ends with the father’s words of reconciliation and peace.

It’s probably easy to put ourselves in the place of the wayward younger son. We know this story is told to us about our need for forgiveness. Like this son, we would settle for very little, just a job around the house. But our God wants us as sons and daughters, not slaves. How little we know and trust God! How little we accept either ourselves as forgiven or God as forgiving.

I suspect, though, that we have a foot in both camps. There is a large element of “older brother-ish” feeling within us, if we’re honest. This story calls us to examine our attitude toward, not just the outcasts of our world – we can identify them easily and often see them as legitimate objects of our loving action – but also and more importantly toward those in our midst whom we might judge and look down upon. I’m convinced that a large part of the judgement we dish out is based in projection; we cannot accept certain things within us so we project them onto others. It is not easy to accept everyone, yet that is exactly what we are called to do. “For our sake God made to be sin the one who knew no sin.” Jesus stands in solidarity with sinful outcasts. Already in his ministry we see him acting out God’s loving acceptance of the wretched. When Jesus ate and drank with sinners and outcasts, it was God’s own self breaking through the law’s condemnation to seek and to save the lost. It was that love and compassion that led Jesus to his ultimate act of solidarity with sinful humanity. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” On the cross, Jesus knew the sinner’s utter desolation. He became what we are in order that we might become what he is – the righteousness of God. By his death, we are reconciled to God and thus to each other.

This ministry of reconciliation is entrusted now to us. The story of the prodigal son tells us that we are most like God when we accept those whom God accepts, no matter how unacceptable we may find them. Jesus’ action of eating and drinking with outcasts has a direct bearing on our eating and drinking in fellowship around his table. When we receive the bread and hear the words “the Body of Christ”, when we say our Amen we are saying yes to all the members of his body. We accept Jesus and also all those with whom he eats and drinks, all those who have strayed from their inheritance. We also say a yes of forgiveness to any who have offended us, and a yes of reconciliation to all whom we have offended. There’s a lot wrapped up in that Amen. The forgiveness of the father in the story is to be our way too, and the source and setting for this way of life is the table of fellowship with Jesus and all who love him and try to follow him. Here we find God’s radical acceptance. Here, over time, we may even learn to accept ourselves.

God’s forgiveness calls us to forgive. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. When God receives us back, the change is as dramatic as the change from death to life. There is a new creation. The old has passed away. This, my child, was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.

I’d like to close with some words from Steven Shakespeare’s book Prayers for an Inclusive Church. It’s his Collect for today:

Undignified God,
spirit of dangerous feasts,
inviting the unclean to your table:
find us in the far country
of hopelessness and greed;
free us from the prison
of resentment and envy
and bring us back to life;
through Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners.