Fourth Sunday of Lent – Cycle C

1st Reading: Joshua 5: 9a, 10-12

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 34: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7

2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21

Gospel: Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

This gospel is read twice during Cycle C; today as well as the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time.  (It is that important.)  However, the first and second readings, as well as the Psalm are different than the version we will hear in the fall.  This makes me think that the focus of the readings (and intent for understanding) is just a little different.  The gospel story is the same, but the season is different, and therefore the theme will be altered a bit, too.  To understand the Church’s intent, we have to consider the readings relative to the season of Lent.

Many years ago, the fourth Sunday of Lent was known as Laetare (rejoice in Latin) Sunday.  Similar to Gaudete Sunday during the season of Advent, we pause at the halfway mark of the season to rejoice in the process and further anticipate the coming celebration.  Traditionally, priests would wear rose-colored vestments (even if they didn’t think they looked “pretty in pink”).

In the first reading from Joshua, we hear about the end of the Israelites’ time in the desert.  For 39+ years, they’ve been wandering in the desert, escaping slavery in Egypt, and completely relying on God for their needs.  God tells them the transition is complete.  They are no longer slaves, and no longer reliant on the manna God had previously provided.  They celebrate the Passover for the first time in their new home “the promised land.”  This is the church’s gentle reminder to us that Lent, too, won’t last forever.

In the second reading, Paul is also speaking of transition when he says, “the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”  He calls people to participate in this opportunity to reconcile with God through Jesus Christ.  God is reconciling the world to Himself, and we have to do our part.

Both the first and second readings remind me of an old adage: “Pray to God, but row for the shore.”  Pray, yes, but also get busy doing what needs to be done.  Faith is not a substitute for the work that is required to live.  God expects us to use our (God-given) gifts, talents, and resources to take care of ourselves and those around us.

All of the writings regarding this gospel that I read this week started with the same line: “This is one of the most beloved Gospels.”  To that, I say “HA!”  It is not one of my favorites.  The Pharisees didn’t like this story either.  For me, it’s my sympathetic attitude for the older, obedient son.  For them, there was no place at God’s table for losers, latecomers or slackers.  They would not accept someone who had lived such a questionable lifestyle and even held the low-life job of pig feeder.  For the Jews, this was the worst of the worst as far as occupations were concerned.

When we read gospel stories, we place ourselves in them.  We pick out what or with whom we identify. I struggle with this one.  I’m not the father or the wandering son.  My initial reaction is to identify with the oldest son who appears to get the short end of the stick.  But, ultimately, I can see myself as every one of these characters: the father, the oldest son, and even the wanderer.  This indeed is “good news” for those of us who also identify with the losers, latecomers, and slackers.

We call this gospel the story of the Prodigal Son.  Prodigal as an adjective means excessive, extravagant, immoderate and wasteful.   Prodigal as a noun it is a synonym for spendthrift, squanderer or wastrel.  All of these words certainly describe the younger son.  But if we stop and think about it, they also represent the father who runs out to greet his returning son.  He is excessive and extravagant with his mercy.  The father did not chastise his son or reprimand him.  His immediate response was to lavish great things upon him, and to prepare a feast, just as God is in his mercy for us.

Maybe this gospel should be called the Prodigal Father or The Prodigal God.  God will squander on us, as well, even in our pettiness.  God’s prodigal love was there in Israel in the story of the manna just as it is here for us, now.  The 1st lesson for me this week is that it’s much easier to stay in the position of the older son.  It’s not always exciting, or adventurous, but it’s safe, and it is always in the presence of the father.  Think of all the younger son had to endure: traveling to a foreign land, famine, job hunting, crappy employment (pardon the pun), remorse, guilt, sacrificing his position of significance.  When the older son began to whine (as I have SO many times) the father assures him; “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.”

The 2nd lesson is a safety net.  Even if we do wander and squander, God has a plan for that too.  All we have to do is recognize that we are wrong and return to him.  And he will run to us with open arms to welcome us home.  And the 3rd lesson is concerning my own interpersonal relationships.  Not only does God call us to recognize this opportunity of saving grace when it is offered to us, He also wants us to be prodigal in our relationships with each other.  We are called to lavish this prodigal love on our families and our neighbors, in our homes and in our communities.

Reflection Questions:

1.    In what ways have I turned from life with God to follow my agenda, my way in this world?

2.    How successful has “my way” been for me or for my family?

3.    What does it mean for me to return to God’s way for my life?

The RCIA used readings from Cycle A for this week, so there is no handout available.