Fourth Sunday of Lent – C

Readings: Jos 5:9-12; Ps 34:2-7; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

GOD’S MERCY HAS NO BOUNDARIES

A Modern-Day Prodigal: Jenny grew up in Rankin Park, Newcastle. In her early teenage years she fell into a pattern of long running battles with her parents. They didn’t react too well when she came home with a nose ring. They were furious when she stayed out all night without so much as a phone call to tell them where she was. Her friends weren’t exactly her parent’s first choice.

One night Jenny and her folks have a huge fight. “I hate you!” she screams at her father as she slams the door to her bedroom. That night she acts on a plan that’s been forming for some time. Once everyone has gone to sleep she gets dressed, packs a bag and goes into the kitchen. Opening the kitchen drawer she rifles through her parent’s wallets. She takes the credit cards, the cash, and their bank book. She hops on the train and heads for Sydney. When she gets there she waits on the doorstep of the Commonwealth Bank so she can be the first through the door. She forges her mother’s signature and withdraws $12500 her parents had in their investment account. She grabs a cab to the airport and uses Dad’s credit card to buy a ticket to Melbourne – she figures the last place her parents will look for her is on the streets of St Kilda.

She arrives in Melbourne and pretty soon she’s enjoying the high life – a new group of friends, plenty of booze, late nights, sleep all day, no school, no parent’s hassling her about a nose ring, let alone her experiments with sex and drugs. It doesn’t take long till the $12500’s gone and the credit cards have been cancelled.

Back home her parent’s are frantic. Mum’s had to start packing shelves at night to pay off the credit card debt, and the $12500 set aside for her sister’s university fees is gone. The police are notified, the streets are searched – first Newcastle, then Kings Cross. Her parents don’t know what’s happened. They fear the worst.

Meanwhile down on the streets of St Kilda things aren’t going too well. Jenny’s soon addicted to heroin and the money she stole doesn’t go too far. She moves into a squat and starts selling herself for sex.

One day she’s walking down the street and sees a poster on the telegraph pole. It’s headed “have you seen this girl?” Below the heading is a photo of her – at least as she used to look. The poster’s got her parent’s phone number on it, and asks for anyone with information to call. Jenny rips the poster down, folds it up and puts it into her pocket.

The months pass, then the years. Jenny’s been careless one time too many. At first she writes off her sickness as just another bout of flu. But the illness persists. She goes to the free clinic to discover she’s contracted hepatitis C and hIV. Not even the brothel wants anything to do with her now.

As she sits lonely, tired and hungry in the squat, she looks at the poster she’d rescued from that telegraph pole and saved for the last few years. She thinks back to her previous life – as a typical schoolgirl in a middle class suburban Newcastle family. It triggers memories of the famous family waterfight one steaming summer day when she was 12; and of crazy moments dancing together; of her sister’s comforting arms when she broke up with David. “God, why did I leave?” she says to herself. “Even the family mutt lives a better life than I do.” She’s sobbing now, and knows that more than anything she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Mum, dad, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a train up to Newcastle. I’ll be at Newcastle station about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well I guess I’ll just stay on the train til I get to Queensland.”

The next day on the train Jenny thinks about all the flaws in her plan. What if mum and dad were out and miss the message? And what are they going to do if they heard it anyway – after all, it’s been 10 years and they haven’t heard a word from me in all that time. How are they going to react when they discover I’m a junkie with AIDS? If they do show up what on earth am I going to say?…”

The train pulls into Newcastle station at ten minutes past midnight. She hears the hiss of the brakes as the train comes to a stop. Her heart starts pounding. “This is it. Oh well, get ready for nothing.”

Jenny steps out of the train not knowing what to expect. She looks to her right and sees an empty platform, but before she can look back she hears someone call her name. Her head whips around and there’s her mum and dad and her sister and her aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother. They’re holding a banner that reads “Welcome home”, and everyone’s wearing goofy party hats and throwing streamers and popping party poppers, and there’s her mum and dad running towards her, tears streaming down their face, arms held wide. Jenny can’t move. Her parent’s grab her with such force it almost knocks her over.

“Dad, I’m sorry. I know…”

“hush child. Forget the apologies. All we care about is that you’re home. I just want to hold you. Come on, everyone’s waiting – we’ve got a big party organised at home.” And Jenny finds herself awash in a sea of family and love that she has not known for over 10 years.

Inability to Forgive ….

The singing career of Grammy award winner Marvin Gaye ended in tragedy on April 1, 1983. He was shot to death by his own father. Gaye’s close friend David Ritz wrote Gaye’s biography a year later. He called it Divided Soul. Gaye was indeed a divided soul. He was part artist and part entertainer, part sinner and part saint, part macho man and part gentleman. Gaye’s childhood was tormented by cruelty inflicted upon him by his father. Commenting on the effect this had on Gaye, Ritz says of his friend: “he really believed in Jesus a lot, but he could never apply the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness to his own father.” That story of an unforgiving father and son contrasts sharply with the story of the forgiving father and son, which Jesus tells in today’s gospel. And the contrast between the two stories spotlights a growing problem in modern society. It is the inability or unwillingness of people to forgive one another. — Mark Link in ‘Sunday homilies’

The possibility of beginning a new life is never denied to any human person, no matter however grave the situation into which the person had fallen. The people of Israel could enter the Promised Land and begin normal life only after forty long years of painful wait. For forty years they longed for a settled life and to eat what they would grow in their own courtyard. But in the process they came to the realization of their folly. The lost son came to the realization of returning home only when he was in dire need, when he faced the shame of eating the food meant for pigs but not permitted to eat even that. His return home and the welcome he received were beyond his wildest expectations. What would we do if we were to find ourselves in similar situations? Will we muster courage and take the bold step of admitting our mistakes? If so, we will see a miracle unfolding in front of us.

The Passover celebration described in today’s First Reading is the first in the Promised Land. Because they have now settled in Canaan, the people no longer need the manna (the “bread from heaven”) God has been providing on their journey through the desert. Their new homeland will produce all the food they need.

In the Second Reading, Paul enthusiastically describes how God has made all things new through Christ. He pictures each of us as an ambassador of peace sent by God to our own little corner of the world. To be effective ambassadors, we must first experience God’s peace in our lives. One way we can do this is through the sacrament of Reconciliation, a sacrament of peace.

Religious people often criticized Jesus for eating and associating with sinners. But these people did not realize that everyone needs God’s mercy and love. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus wants us to know what God’s mercy is like. When anyone sins and is sorry for that sin, God rushes out at top speed to embrace that person. Even when we feel that we may be undeserving of God’s love, Jesus tells us that God rejoices like the father in the Gospel story.

What is it about God that is the most difficult for you to accept? Is it that he exists? Or that he punishes the disobedient? For most, it is probably that he loves us, that he is concerned with our welfare. The result of this is that many are frustrated, full of fear and guilt. Eventually, this distorted view of God is to be found as the root of all legalism.

Just look at the ways that we view God. We view him as the heavenly record-keeper, in spite of the fact that Paul, in I Corinthians 13, said that love keeps no record of wrongs. Even Jesus, in answering the legalistically based question of Peter, said that forgiveness is to be unlimited. Surely Peter, thinking himself to be generous with his offer of sevenfold forgiveness, expected the Lord to praise him. And yet, Jesus (expressing the nature of God) explained that forgiveness cannot be limited to what man can imagine. If God were to expect this of man, what can we expect of God? When men begin to find it hard to see God as forgiving, we also begin to view him as hard to please as though he is always looking to find fault in us. Perhaps this is because our own fathers were this way or because we ourselves are difficult to please. Perhaps we ourselves are constantly looking for ways to find fault in our own children and others, so we choose not to see God as he truly is, we create him in our own image. Never is God’s loving, forgiving nature more clearly seen than in the parable of the lost son (Lk. 15:1If).

TOTAL POVERTY: Jesus tells this story about a young man who went from riches to rags. How many of us can relate to the young man (the one who left)? We have at least felt the magnetic pull of independence. We know what it feels like to think that we can make it on our own, that old pop has lost touch with the modern world, that he doesn’t really remember what it feels like to be young. Most of us look back on that time in our lives with shame. We think about the money wasted, the time spent in pursuit of things that, when realized, were so empty and void. We cringe at the thought of our own little hog-pens and the slop meals of our youth.

The problem with some of us is that we do not have a realistic understanding of the spiritual poverty from which we have been saved. Somehow, somewhere in our perverted thinking, we think that our salvation was no more than a “little help” from God. We could have made it on our own, just not as well. This misses the point of what God’s love and forgiveness is all about. His love is “in spite of” and not “because of” ourselves. And here is the root of all legalism. We just do not like to think of God’s love in these terms. It is not complimentary to us. The thought that we are totally and completely impoverished does not appeal to us because it says something about us that we do not like to hear or think about. Our naturally legalistic minds begin to “reshape” God and his grace to fit our thinking. His grace becomes that little extra “boost” we needed to get us over the hump. God’s grace is not in addition to anything (Eph. 2:8-10). The reason that man misses salvation is not because he fails to keep a specific list of rules and laws, but because he fails to see God as a loving and forgiving God who expressed (with the ultimate gift) his love for us (II Thess. 1:5-9; Rom 5:6-8). Man is lost because he fails to see his complete spiritual poverty, and so refuses to turn to his loving God.

SPIRITUAL AWAKENING: The young man in the parable experienced a spiritual awakening that was the beginning of his salvation. When he saw his condition, that he had fallen from great heights to the ultimate bottom, “he came to his senses” and decided to humble himself before his father and accept whatever status his father was willing to give him. There is no negotiation for position or rationalization of his stupidity to be found in this young man. He knew that he had nothing to offer his father with which to redeem himself. He expressed to his father his total unworthiness. The young man may have felt “unworthy” but he missed one very important point. While he may have “felt” unworthy, his father considered him to be of great worth.

FORGIVENESS: Notice the reaction of the father, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and KISSED him.” If Jesus was trying to express something about the heavenly Father in this parable, it does not sound like he meant to say that God is some kind of harsh, unforgiving taskmaster. This son had squandered everything that the father had worked so hard to accumulate, he had rejected the love of his father. Surely, the father pleaded with tears, before his son left, for him to reconsider and not do this terrible thing. Yet, here is this same father running to greet this same rebellious son, crying and kissing him.

It would have been enough if the father had said: “I love you son, but you are going to have to prove yourself. You live with the hired men for a while, then, if you are really good, you can life with the servants. Perhaps, one day, you may even be considered my son again.” Not this father. His forgiveness was total and complete. It was not based on anything good the son had done and in spite of everything bad. He even did for him what he had not done for the other son; he celebrated.

Some may say “but you don’t understand my sin. I have really blown it. Even after becoming a Christian, I have sinned!” Again, we miss the scope of God’s forgiveness. I John 2:1 is a good example: “I write these things to you so that you do not sin …!” God’s intention is for us NOT to sin. His grace and love are not to be taken lightly. There is, however, a clause in that verse that should mean a great deal to those who recognize their own spiritual bankruptcy: “… BUT, if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense Jesus Christ, the Righteous one.” Try this little exercise: in place of the word “sin” insert the sin that you have the most trouble feeling forgiven for. Go ahead, try it! “If anyone does ‘commit adultery’ …

LEGALISTIC JEALOUSY: Legalists always become angry, whenever grace is extended to another. The reason is because they like to think that there is some merit in what they do. Legalists always ignore their own poverty. Legalists usually perform well and, in the eyes of the world, measure up quite well. In fact, they are the ones who set the rules (ones that are easy for them and hard for others to keep). They like to look at the sin-infested world and click their tongues.

The “faithful” son indeed had been outwardly “faithful” but he had no understanding of the father’s heart. He did not care that his brother (who had been given up for dead) was now alive again. “I was good to you all these years and always obedient yet you didn’t let me have a party. Then when this ‘son’ of yours comes back from his decadent life, you welcome him with open arms like nothing ever happened.” how we hate forgiveness whenever we are dependent on our own performance rather than God’s love.

Jesus dealt with this legalistic mind-set time and again, perhaps the most stinging rebuke ever delivered to the legalists was the one given in Matthew 23. Just think about it, he defends the prostitute (John 8), speaks openly to the woman at the well (John 4), he was known as the friend of sinners and outcasts, yet he speaks to the “faithful” in such terms as “hypocrite, blind guide, white-washed tombs, snake pits, blind pharisees.”

If we were to start a “movement” we would go after the influential by flattering them somehow. After all, we need those centers of influence to bring the masses to us. Not Jesus, he seemed to go out of his way to alienate them from himself. Why? Why would he destroy what could have been a very profitable relationship? The most obvious reason is that he probably knew he did not need them. After all, he was the Son of God. But there was another reason that needs mentioning. He knew that the legalists had the potential to lead the masses away from God. After all, they looked so “together” in the eyes of the people. Legalists make up little “rules” and put them in bundles on the backs of those over whom they already have assumed authority’. Legalists always rise to positions of authority and control. It is the only way that legalism can survive; it’s leaders must have someone whose performance does not measure up to their own. We might call that little game “comparative poverty”. “I may be poor, but I’m not as poor as you!” Jesus condemned it all. The doing of good things in order to be seen by other men, the love of public recognition, the title signifying religious order, Jesus hated with passion greater than adultery, drunkenness and the other “bad” sins because it’s trap is so sinister and deceiving.

Yes, legalism hates grace, because grace forgives on the basis of love and not performance. Grace will not allow men to impose their own teachings on others and convince them that it is the will of God (Matt. 15:1-15). Love will compel you to look at others on an equal plane.

Can you accept it? God is love. Love is his nature, it’s what he is all about. Everything else that God is, relates to him BEING love. There are only two reasons for not accepting God’s forgiveness: 1) it’s just too good to be true, 2) it conflicts with our legalistic standard of performance.

“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we hAD to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

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ST. FRANCIS OF ASSIS’ PRAYER FOR PEACE

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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