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Friday, 4 March 2016

4th Sunday of Lent (Year C) 2016


My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, today we are encouraged to rejoice on this Sunday called ‘Laetare Sunday’, and so it is up to me now to show you something worth rejoicing about; indeed, something we should be continually bringing to our minds and cherishing most gratefully in our hearts.  That ‘something’ is encapsulated in those words of the father to his elder son:
My son, you are here 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.
Because human beings are sinful there are, at times, certain occurrences, situations, or questions, which one can only understand through suffering.  Sin is in the world, nestling actively in the hearts and minds of men, women, and even, potentially, in children (mostly to be made actual by imitation or indoctrination) throughout the world without exception; and sin, whether it be known or unknown, acknowledged or unacknowledged, because it necessarily brings with it suffering and death into human life, cannot long remain totally undiscovered or unsuspected.  That is at the root of the old adage that one never truly appreciates something or someone until you have lost it; that is the guiding principle of our Gospel parable today, which begins with the words:
                Then Jesus said, ‘A man had two sons’.
Immediately His hearers and we ourselves are under a certain tension awaiting what is to distinguish these unnamed brothers whose only positive characteristic is that they are both sons of the one father.  What kind of sons? comes to mind straight away.
It would appear that the younger son did not fully appreciate his current experience of son-ship as a privilege because we are told that he said to his father:
                Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.
The father went along with his son and divided the property between them.
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.
Whereupon, he had to endure much suffering before, coming to his senses and realizing what he had done, he decided:
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.
Those words ‘I no longer deserve to be called your son’ are the essential point of the whole parable.  He had not realized, not appreciated, his own birthright as son of such a father.
The elder son, on the other hand, does seem to have had greater appreciation of his father and awareness of his own privilege as son, especially as the first-born son.  He had not gone off chasing wilful pleasures; on the contrary he seems to have understood something of the worthiness of his father and his own duty to respect him.  He lived in that respect unselfishly and, having worked with diligence, duty well done had brought a certain dignity into his life.
However, when his younger brother came back to a ‘right royal’ welcome from his father we are told that:
He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.  He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, 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 your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughtered the fattened calf!’
Notice immediately, however, that the old man was very understanding, and responded in such a way as to recall to his elder son an awareness of just where his true dignity was, and where his ultimate fulfilment and happiness were to be found.  He said to him:
My son, you are here 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.
He calls the elder ‘My son’ and then speaks of the younger as ‘your brother’.  True, he was teaching his elder son that he should never forget that it was the fact of his own younger brother’s return, that is, his own ‘flesh and blood’ coming back so to speak from the dead, that was the right and good reason for them both to celebrate together.  For all that, however, he wanted the elder son to be quite well aware that he -- the loving father of them both -- was addressing him, the elder, as ‘my son’, while in the same breath referring to the younger -- though the beloved cause for such heartfelt rejoicing – simply as ‘your brother’.
My dear People of God, there is nothing whatsoever in life that can compare with the dignity and glory which is already ours as prospectively faithful disciples of Jesus -- the only-begotten and eternally beloved Son of God -- called, in Him, to become members of the heavenly Father’s family, His adopted and beloved children for all eternity; likewise, however, there could be no greater tragedy in our lives than that we should lose such an utterly incomparable privilege and destiny.  We must never forget the example of Esau who sold his birthright as first-born to his younger brother Jacob for some bread and a quickly consumed stew of lentils; and, above all we should never forget the heart-rending plea of Esau to his father Isaac (Genesis 25:31-34):
“Let my father sit up and eat some of his son’s game, that you may then give me your blessing.”  His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”  He said, “I am your son, your first-born son, Esau.”  Isaac trembled greatly.  “Who was it, then,” he asked, “that hunted game and brought it to me?   I ate it all before you came, and I blessed him.  Now he is blessed!” As he heard his father’s words, Esau burst into loud, bitter sobbing and said, “Father, bless me too!  Have you only one blessing, father?  Bless me too, father!”  And Esau wept aloud. 
People of God, treasure your greatest privilege; that privilege whereby you, as faithful and obedient disciples of Christ can invoke the eternal God as, ‘Our Father Who art in heaven…’  Do not allow worldly considerations in any way to obscure your grateful awareness of your truly sublime dignity: do not allow the allurements of pleasure, the appearances of self-sufficiency, the provocations of self-love, to move you to follow in Esau’s steps along the path to bitter grief and ultimate loss.
We should, however, notice that this parable of Jesus is addressed to some Pharisees and Scribes complaining about the fact of His choosing to eat with publicly acknowledged sinners.  Now, even St. John – so well loved and appreciated though he was --- teaches us, in his second letter (vv. 9-11), a not dissimilar doctrine and piece of every-day and enduring wisdom:
Anyone who is so “progressive” as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.  If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him in your house or even greet him; for whoever greets him shares in his evil works.
Moreover Jesus Himself had just (so St. Luke suggests) expressed an exemplary ‘hard-line’ appreciation of the cost of discipleship for all who, as He said, ‘would come to Him’:
Great crowds were traveling with Him, and He turned and addressed them, “If any one comes to Me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.  (Luke 14:25-27)
Therefore I like to think that perhaps Jesus is not directly responding to those Pharisees and Scribes as died-in-the-wool enemies and opponents, but addressing them as the father in the parable addresses his elder son; seeking, in that way, to reconcile them to His Father.  For there were among such scholars and devotees those to be found who favoured Jesus; for example, warning Him against His enemies and acknowledging the truth and beauty of His teachings, as St. Luke himself has told us (13:31; 10:25-28):
At that time some Pharisees came to Him and said, ‘Go away, leave this area because Herod wants to kill You! 
There was a scholar of the Law who stood up to test Him and said, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’  Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?  He said in reply, ‘You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all you strength, and with all you mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’  He replied to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live’. 
These, and their like, were ‘elder brothers’ who had long sought and served the God proclaimed and prepared for by the Law given through Moses; possibly they can be considered as being like the ‘elder son’ of the parable, somewhat disorientated and disturbed by what was 'new’ and above them.  Jesus, I like to think, overlooking their present attitude of fearful antagonism, appreciated their life-long (so far!) fidelity to His Father and was seeking – by offering them the humble joy of those words of appreciation addressed by the father to his elder son – to help them over the last hurdle towards their acceptance of Himself, for love of the Father.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the Father’s love for us-in-Jesus:
For the Father Himself loves you because you have loved Me and have come to believe that I came from God.  (John 16:27)
Is the essential constituent of our being, in so far as Jesus describes His own earthly being and experience in the framework of that one relationship:
I came from the Father and have come into the world.  Now I am leaving the world and going back to My Father.  (16:28)
By opening up the possibility of such a relationship we were told in our first reading that:
                The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today, I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.’
The reproach of our modern world is yet more virulent than that of Egypt, therefore keep in the front of your minds and close to your hearts those words of St. Paul in our second reading:
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 (the Father) Who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ.