It is indeed degrading for a human being to be held in slavery; and, just as someone who has long been under the influence of drugs cannot endure being deprived of their addiction, likewise, those who have been slaves for a long period of time can become so degraded that they are no longer able to conceive of anything more desirable than their daily quota of food and rest. When freedom has been long denied, victims can find its very idea meaningless and its prospect unattractive and even frightening.
It had been like that with Israel in Egypt. During many -- seemingly endless -- years of exhausting labour under the ever-present threat of beatings, the short nights at home with the daily quota of Egyptian food had been the sole and supremely consoling opportunity to experience human peace and bodily rest; the partial satisfaction of their hunger together with a few snatched hours of sleep and family communion was the only joy they could imagine and to which they could aspire. Long slavery meant that they found the thought of freedom decidedly un-attractive when the struggle to attain it might involve unknown dangers and temporary loss of regular food; and during the trials of their desert journey they were, at times, much tempted to return to captivity once again for its regular supply of food: in comparison with such relative security what did the labour and degradation of slavery matter? Only after years of guiding, supporting, strengthening, teaching and blessing by God on their way through the desert, did the people of Israel learn to appreciate their new found freedom and recognize their own human dignity once more; only at the end of that long journey from the shackles of Egypt to the borders of the Promised Land, was the Lord able to say to Joshua, the leader of Israel:
Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.
A similar situation is to be found in our modern society when life lived in this world and for this world’s pleasures and comforts is compared with the life offered us in Christ, which is lived indeed in this world but for the kingdom of heaven. As St. Paul told us:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.
Being reconciled to God means that we become -- in Jesus -- children of God, called to heavenly, eternal, life. However, just as the Israelites, after long years of slavery in Egypt, found the prospect of freedom somewhat alien and unattractive, so too, those who today live in the world and for the world’s pleasures cannot readily imagine the freedom of the children of God which Christ is offering; and the joy, hope, and peace of those called to become, as Paul said, the goodness of God, seems totally unreal.
There are also others who started as Catholics and Christians, in some measure, and then went on to imitate the younger son in the Gospel parable and left their paternal home, the faith of their fathers, in order to taste the forbidden fruit of independence and self-sufficiency, before succumbing, all too often, to the pride and the abandonment, the pleasures and passions, of the world around. Unappreciative of the blessings that had been their inheritance, they had set out to break what they felt were chains of conformity and to challenge what they regarded as unsubstantial taboos; imagining indulgence to be without weariness or revulsion, they dreamt of total self-satisfaction without any qualms of conscience; and having aspired to free love, they found relationships of convenience to be all that they were able to either give or receive. As we heard in the parable:
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When, however, he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.
However, our main interest is centred today, ‘Laetare Sunday’ (literally, ‘Rejoice Sunday’), not so much on the younger as on the elder son, the one who remained faithful to his father. St. Paul in our second reading told us that:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
The elder son in the parable had a somewhat similar office of reconciliation to fulfil with regard to his younger brother, and he seems to have largely failed in his duty; therefore, perhaps we can learn something from his mistakes that will be of help to us, and through us, also of help to those who, lapsed or lapsing from the faith, are on the way to becoming slaves, captivated by the promises and pleasures of this world.
According to Middle East culture and Jewish traditional values, such an elder son would hold the position of mediator in a family crisis. When the younger son asked for his inheritance the responsibility and obligation of the elder one was clear to the first-century listener: the old father should have been asked to leave the matter in the hands of his elder son, because the younger boy did not really mean what he had said; the elder should then have demanded that his younger brother apologize to their father. This does not seem to have happened so perhaps the elder brother had been somewhat remiss in letting the younger one go off with his inheritance too easily; and this appreciation seems to be backed up by the fact that we are told that he was none too pleased when his brother returned home.
Now something of that sort can happen among us. Far too often we -- as Catholics and Christians -- do not speak, as we should, about the beauty, the worth, the blessings, and, above all, of the joy of the Faith, as we have both learnt and experienced it in Mother Church and in our daily lives. For we are all called, each in his or her own degree, to live, like Paul, as ambassadors of Christ, ambassadors through whom God makes His appeal to those who do not yet know or appreciate Him. St. Peter, writing his first letter to confirm recent converts in their new-found faith said:
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that if they speak of you as evil doers, they may observe your good works, and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
The elder brother -- representing perhaps the Pharisees and scribes to whom in Jesus’ parable was addressed -- seems to have given good example to his younger brother in so far as he was always obedient and respectful to their father, as he himself reminded his father:
These many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time.
But that sort of example was not enough to influence his younger brother despite their years together at home, nor was it enough to help the older brother himself rise to the occasion and give positive help when his brother began thinking of leaving home with his patrimony; for ultimately the elder brother, like his younger sibling, regarded his father impersonally: not indeed so coarsely as his brother, for whom his father was primarily the one in charge of the money; but nevertheless, as we learn from his own words, as little more than a distant and authoritative figurehead. The elder son had shown too little personal appreciation of, and love for, his father to be able to influence his brother’s youthful wilfulness and lust; and he was, consequently, a this moment of deep tension on his return, quite unprepared and perhaps unable to appreciate and respond to any words of his father:
All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders, yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends; but when this son of yours ...
His ingrained relationship of objective obedience to, as distinct from loving reverence for and fellowship with, his father, showed itself immediately in those passionate words against his brother’s behaviour: giving expression not only to indignation against his brother but also, perhaps, to his own self-love in recrimination with his father. Was there such a complicating aspect to the Pharisees’ rigidity and self-righteousness not only in the face of sinners, but, indeed also in their relations with God Himself?
The father -- surely not a reference to God the Father Himself, but a figure fit to encourage the Pharisees and scribes to reconsider their relations with Him -- made some effort to draw his first-born to himself with the words:
My son, you are with me always everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.
Notice, however, that the father does not attempt to draw the elder son into an intimate relationship of shared responsibility, as would have been the case had he said ‘my son’ as well as,’ your brother’.
We must celebrate and rejoice because your brother and my son was dead and has come to life again.
This was because the younger son had never been dead to his father whose love for him kept him ever dear; he had, however, become dead to the elder son, who had heard of and utterly condemned him along with his riotous and sinful behaviour. The result was that a gulf looms between the father and his elder son who, though first-born and heir – almost inevitably, after living years at an impersonal distance from his father and cocooning himself round with pride and self-satisfaction, -- misinterprets his father’s beautiful but ultimately insufficient words:
We must celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
and finds himself able to think that his father is wrongly blaming him for what has happened in the family.
In this, the elder brother is like many Catholics today who will obey the commandments of God and Mother Church consistently enough, but who can never stir up enough zeal to give open and personal witness to Jesus and their heavenly Father, by their joy and delight, their peace and their hope in the Faith; and thereby they fail Jesus, themselves, and their neighbour.
Many, especially young people, find such passionless obedience -- given, they think, more out of fear than zeal – unattractive. With a modicum of patience and understanding they might admit that, though faulty, such obedience could be seen as both reasonable and wise; but, finding it unattractive, they prefer to totally ignore it. Nevertheless, they do at times, deep down, long to know the strength and peace, to experience the joy and freedom, of a total commitment to God’s transcending love; and when a Christian gives such witness to Jesus and the Faith, scoffers can be both impressed and inspired: some, maybe, to nothing more than their present confusion, but others, to their ultimate conversion.
Failure to delight in the Lord is not simply due to one being undemonstrative by nature, but also to an insufficiently committed, perhaps lazy, spiritual attitude. For delighting in the Lord is not a matter of blind emotion or natural excitability; but oozes up and flows forth from the habit of faithfully remembering, deeply appreciating, and gratefully acknowledging one’s blessings; and such an attitude is normal enough and indeed almost instinctive. For example, the rich man is perennially pictured as counting his coins, admiring his jewels, adding to his collection; we have had popular songs telling us to ‘Count your blessings one by one’. In fact, it can be truthfully said that no good -- least of all a great good -- can be suitably appreciated apart from the humanly instinctive practice of recalling and rejoicing over what has been gained or granted. And the Psalmist applies this fact to our worship of God when he tells us:
Let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the Lord! Seek the Lord and His strength; seek His face evermore! Remember His marvellous works which He has done. (Psalm 105:3-5)
People of God, I suggest to you, on this ‘Laetare Sunday’, dedicated to spiritual rejoicing, that we would do much to avoid repeating the elder son’s failure, if we learned to truly rejoice in our faith. By that I mean that we should try, first of all, to look honestly at ourselves and learn to recognize the many blessings we have received over the years; and then, that we also begin to look forward to the promises given us concerning our future in Jesus; after all, can it be that ill-educated, grossly miss-led young fanatics, are the only ones who can commit themselves totally to a heavenly future they believe in?
Finally, having, in that way, become prepared, ready, and willing, to speak more freely and sincerely of the sure delight we have in the faith, of the comfort and strength it affords us in the present life, and of the joyful and confident hope it inspires in us for the life to come, we will -- in accordance with St. Paul’s words -- be graced to transfigure our old, private, obedience into public confession and praise, since:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come!