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, many 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 most deeply consoling opportunity to experience human peace and bodily rest: that 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 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 provision of basic necessities. Only after years of guiding, supporting, strengthening, teaching, and blessing by God on their way through the desert, did the Israelites learn to appreciate their new found freedom and recognize their own human dignity once more; and only at the end of that long journey to 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 have become, in Jesus, children of God, called to heavenly life, 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 for the world’s rewards and pleasures cannot readily imagine the freedom of the children of God which Christ is offering: 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 Christians and Catholics 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 abandonment, to 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; and imagining indulgence to be without weariness or revulsion, they dreamt of total self-satisfaction without any qualms of conscience: and setting off to a distant country they squandered their inheritance on a life of dissipation. When, having freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, they found themselves in dire need; and, indeed, once having aspired to ‘free love’, they came to realize that tatty relationships of convenience were all they were able to either give or receive.
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 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, pleasures, and exigencies of this world.
According to Middle East culture and Jewish traditional values, the elder son should 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. Instead of that, this elder brother of our Gospel parable seems to have been content to let the younger one go off with his inheritance.
Of course, the fact that we are told that he was not pleased when his younger brother returned home is understandable; I suppose very few brothers would have been pleased to see such a wastrel back home again. Now, the elder brother could only accept his brother’s return out of love and/or reverence for his father … and he seems to have had difficulty in accepting his father’s extreme joy at his younger son’s return home. Again, that is understandable, for this father’s joy was the expression of a unique love, that of a true, indeed exemplary father for his lost-and-returning child.
Nevertheless, although the elder brother could not appreciate -- and we should not expect him to have appreciated -- such love, he ought to have recognized it and have made himself accept it with reverence, because of the almost inexpressible joy it gave his father.
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 as disciples of Jesus in our daily lives. For, we are all called, each in his or her 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 to confirm recent converts in their new-found faith said (1 Peter 2:11-12):
Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.
The elder brother in Jesus’ parable seems, indeed, 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 had not been enough to influence his younger, weaker, brother despite their years together at home, nor it did it prove enough to help the older son himself rise to the occasion and give positive help when his brother began thinking of leaving home with his patrimony; for ultimately the elder son, 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, for the first-born son the father was little more than a distant and authoritative figurehead. We see this yet more clearly in the father’s somewhat pathetic attempt to promote a special bond of mutual concern with his elder son:
My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we (that is, you and I together) must celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life again.
Notice here that the father does not attempt to draw the first-born into his own most deeply felt emotions at the return of the ‘prodigal’, as would have been the case had he said ‘my son’ rather than, your brother’: We must celebrate and rejoice because my son was dead and has come to life again.
No, he simply requests the elder son to show some gladness at the return of his brother … the words are delicately chosen but, the level of rejoicing having already been set to manifest the father’s delight at the return of the ‘prodigal’, it wanted what the first-born son could not give. Ultimately, the elder son had originally shown little personal appreciation of his father, and too little awareness of his own responsibilities towards both his father and his brother; as a result he was unable to influence his brother’s youthful and lustful selfishness; and he was, consequently, also quite unable to appreciate and respond to his father’s one, self-revealing, word of appeal:
we (you and I, both of us together), must celebrate, because your brother has come to life again.
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 the 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, because they themselves are unable to understand the difference between servile fear and reverential, filial, fear of God. Had they greater wisdom -- which is a gift of God’s goodness, not born of human forthrightness and fury -- they might admit that, though faulty, such obedience is both reasonable and wise. However, finding it unattractive, they compound their lack of wisdom by completely ignoring it. Nevertheless, there are others who do long, deep down, to know the strength and peace, to experience the joy and freedom, of a consuming commitment to the transcendent love of God; and when a Christian gives witness to Jesus and the Faith in such a way, then they – though young -- can be both impressed and inspired.
Failure to delight in the Lord is usually a fault in the believer. Such a failure is not simply due to 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; rather true delighting in Jesus flows from a habit of faithfully remembering, deeply appreciating, and gratefully acknowledging one’s blessings.
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 collections; 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 human instinctive practice of recalling, reviewing, and rejoicing over what has been gained or granted. And the Psalmist applies this human, psychological, fact to religion when he tells us (Ps. 105:3-5):
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.
People of God, I suggest to you, on this ‘Laetare Sunday’, dedicated to spiritual rejoicing, that you would do much to avoid repeating the elder son’s failure, if you learned to truly rejoice in your, our, faith. By that I mean that you should try, first of all, to look honestly at yourselves and learn to recognize the many blessings you have received over the years; and then 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 ISIS fanatics, are the only ones who can commit themselves totally to a heavenly future they believe, or think 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 all will -- in accordance with St. Paul’s words -- be graced to transfigure our old, private and hidden, 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!