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RCIA – The 4th Sunday of Lent – The Prodigal Son

March 13, 2010

Opening Prayer:  God of compassion, we rejoice in your Word, Jesus, who reconciles us to you. Like our ancestors, we have wandered far in the desert, searching for your promised one, Jesus. Remove our disgrace and turn us around, leading us ever closer to the long-awaited Easter feast. Nourish us with the food of your holy scriptures and open us to receive and rejoice in the Word this day. We bless and praise you, for you are our God, now and forever. Amen. (RCL)

Take a moment now to silently reflect upon the past week in the light of today’s readings.

Now reflect on the following images from today’s readings:

“they ate of the produce of the land”

“the yield of the land of Canaan”

“taste and see how good the Lord is”

“anyone in Christ is a new creation”

“be reconciled to God”

“he ran out to meet him and threw his arms around his neck”

“let us eat and celebrate”

How would you describe the God of these readings?

Last week’s gospel told of a God who is kind and merciful. (It was Jesus’ parable about the fig tree, where it had not produced any fruit for the last three years. The owner wanted the tree cut down, but the gardener wanted to give the tree another year to produce good fruit.) In this week’s parable, the prodigal son is welcomed home by the father with open arms. What other insights do you have as to the nature of God in these readings?

What stance do we need to take to accept God’s gift of forgiveness? What is the effectiveness of God’s forgiveness upon our lives?

Spend a quiet moment reflecting on the effects of God’s forgiveness in your lives.

Today the Church’s Lenten catechesis on conversion continues. Last week’s readings drew our attention to the God of mercy and forgiveness who patiently calls us to conversion. Today’s scripture texts focus our attention on our human response: the experience of conversion, which constitutes our acceptance of God’s offer of forgiveness. Next week, in the story of the woman caught in adultery, we will see an image of how God’s forgiveness opens up for us a new life. (RCL)

This Sunday was called “Laetare Sunday” in the old Latin liturgy, and today’s rubrics still allow the wearing of rose vestments as a sign that a pause in the rigors of penance may be appropriate at this stage of the Lenten journey (we are half way through Lent). A mood of festive celebration, in fact, still resonates in the scripture texts of today. (RCL)

Psalm 34

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Prayer: God who is all forgiving and loving, enter our lives and change them. Heal and free us that we might prepare to celebrate this Easter feast with hearts renewed. Turn our hatred into love; our struggles into serenity; our discouragement into hope and our fears into faith. In You we can change and grow into a people, ready and willing to be Your ambassadors of love to a world in need. Grant us this conversion, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Amen.

1st Reading – Joshua 5:9a, 10-12

In the first reading from the Book of Joshua, the tribes of Israel celebrate the Passover meal. Their disgrace – slavery in Egypt and wanderings in the desert – has ended. As they settle themselves in the long sought Promised Land, the miraculous manna is no longer needed instead they enjoy the produce of the land. Their lives are forever changed from wandering nomadic tribes to a settled, agricultural people. (RCL)

The Book of Joshua describes the conquest of Canaan at the hands of Joshua, Moses’ successor as leader of the tribes of Israel. The “disgrace” that has been removed from the people is most probably a reference to their slavery in Egypt, now ended as they establish themselves in the Promised Land. The setting for this scene is a period of rest before the siege of Jericho. The Passover meal that is described marks an end to the people’s need for manna, the miraculous food God provided during their desert wanderings. The responsorial psalm refrain (“Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”) highlights the meal motif – clearly a Eucharistic reference when sung in the context of our liturgy. (RCL)

This is Laetare Sunday, a day of intentional rejoicing during this penitential season as we draw closer to the victory of Easter. Joy permeates all of today’s readings. Joshua’s reason for rejoicing is the celebration of Israel’s first Passover in the Promised Land, a significant milestone in the life of Israel. God had sworn that, as punishment for their disobedience, none of the circumcised warriors who left Egypt would enter the new land. Only those born during the desert wanderings would see the land of milk and honey. Joshua has just circumcised all these younger men, thus leaving behind the “reproach of Egypt,” the slavery and misery that nation represented. (LTP)

In the new land, the “manna ceased.” During the desert sojourn, this bread from heaven signified God’s provident care. Its termination now signals not God’s disfavor, but Israel’s coming of age. The chosen people will henceforth eat the fruit of their own labor. Their exodus is over and they begin a new moment in the life of the nation. Each year, through our Lenten observance, we too experience the drama of being lost and wandering, and finally finding our way back home to God. (LTP)

2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians a similar transformation is observable. The shift from life before and after Christ is described by Paul. The baptized Corinthians are in Christ and thus a new creation. For Paul to be ‘in Christ’ is to be radically and continually transformed in the life of faith. This is not just a matter of becoming a better person. But it is a total conversion made possible by God who reconciled all of humankind to God’s self through Christ. (RCL)

The reading from Paul today comes from a longer section in which he is discussing his apostolic ministry, a ministry founded on the conversion experience that made him an “ambassador” for Christ. For Paul, the experience of conversion is like a “new creation” that remakes a person “in Christ.” The intensity of his personal feelings show through his words, “We entreat you…be reconciled to God.” For Paul, the consequence of conversion is the same for all Christians: They must share with others the reconciliation they have experienced in Christ. The strange-sounding phrase, the “God made Christ to be sin,” is a reference to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in expiation for our sins. In Paul’s theology, it was Jesus’ embrace of our sinful human condition that has made it possible for us to “become the righteousness of God.” (RCL)

The most arresting aspect of the father’s behavior in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal is his initiative in forgiving his wayward son. Paul revels in that same initiative here as he announces a God who “has reconciled us to himself” and made all things “new!” Paul joyously announces that “the old things have passed away.” The spiritual life is built on such experiences – God constantly remaking us, reversing our distortions, forgiving us, and restoring our original likeness. (LTP)

Paradoxically, Paul implores reconciliation from those he calls a new creation. Reconciliation requires constant renewal – hence, the urgency of the second half of the reading. Paul speaks passionately of God’s refusal to count our transgressions against us. Paul is an “ambassador,” imploring that we not miss the opportunity to become the “righteousness” of God. Christ, the sinless one, “became sin,” that is, accepted the condition of alienation common to humanity, to make possible this reconciliation. (LTP)

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

This radical transformation is very beautifully illustrated in the gospel account of the son, who is empowered to change his whole life, because of the waiting forgiveness, the open-armed reconciliation of the father. Notice that while the son might have rehearsed his speech of repentance, before he could open his mouth, the father accepted him. (RCL)

The parable of the Prodigal Son is an extremely dense tale, rich with many layers of meaning. It offers at one time a phenomenology (the study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to or a part of philosophy) of the process of conversion, a powerful and even shocking image of the unconditional nature of God’s forgiving love even before we repent, and a sharp rebuke of the self-righteous attitudes typified in the older brother. Each of the three figures in the story carries an important message for us today, just as they did for Jesus’ contemporaries and for the community of Luke. Read against the backdrop of today’s first reading, the parable becomes a story of how the “disgrace” of the son’s slavery is rolled back. Like the ancient Israelites celebrating the Passover meal in the Promised Land, the son is offered a festive meal with which to celebrate his reconciliation. The early Christian community of Luke would surely have understood that authentic conversion leads to the Eucharistic table. (RCL)

This is not simply the tale of a repentant son, but a two-act drama of a father and two sons. The section focusing on the prodigal son is followed by the equally profound and potentially more important section concerning the elder son. Most who gather in church probably resemble the older some more than the younger. But it’s the father who dominates the story with his eagerness to dole out prodigious love to both offspring. (LTP)

Jesus’ audience is familiar with stories that juxtapose brothers: Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. In those stories, the younger brother always comes out on top. But this story is more nuanced, including the setting in which Jesus tells the parable. The text describes the very situation in which Jesus finds himself – the company of sinners who, according to common belief, should be excluded from inheriting the kingdom. (LTP)

According to Jewish law, eldest sons inherited a double share of the estate, so the younger brother’s portion is only a third. A father would normally deed property to his sons while continuing to collect rent until his death. But the brash younger son demands everything now, effectively depriving father and brother of potential revenue. The events in the “distant country” are significant: the son’s gradual dissolution, and his loss of identity. By the end, he’s become more Gentile than Jew as he resorts to tending pigs. He reeks of self-pity and self-hatred as he rehearses what he will say to his father. (LTP)

“While …. A long way off” is the most important information we have about the father. That he runs to meet and kiss the boy is a great revelation of his character. Sincerely, the son begins his rehearsed speech, but the father stops him and instead orders a celebration. “Robe” and “ring” signal that the boy will not return as a servant but as a son. (LTP)

“Now the older son… “ introduces the second half of the drama. The naïve excitement of the servants contrasts with and exacerbates the son’s anger. Whether explosive or seething, his anger is expressed with self righteousness (“all these years I have served you”), absolutes (“not once”), and jealousy (“for him you slaughter…”). He fails to realize that he, too, has dined with swine and eaten freely of the husks of bitterness and hate. (LTP)

The father reminds him that “everything” (the remaining two-thirds of the property) is already deeded to him. But that is irrelevant now. There is no choice but to celebrate: brother can’t disown brother any more than father can disown son. (LTP)

The gospel of the prodigal son gets read twice this month, today and on Saturday, the 6th. As a result the Magnificat magazine has two saintly reflections on this parable. These reflections help us understand better this densely, layered tale.

The first is by St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) who was monk and archbishop of Thessalonica:

As soon as the son who had broken away from his father came to his senses and realized into what evils he had sunk, he wept over himself saying, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?” …

The younger son, who has abandoned his sonship, come out of his holy country of his own free will, and fallen into famine, passes judgment on himself, humbles himself, and repents… Nobody can manage the steps of virtue on his own, though also not without his own deliberate choice. “And he arose,” it says, “and came to his father. When he was still a great way off” (Lk 15:20). How did he come to him when he was still far away, so that his father, having compassion on him, came out to meet him? He who repents in his soul reaches God by his good purpose and his rejection of sin. He is, however, still far from God, tyrannized mentally by habitual sins and failings, and he needs great compassion and help from above if he is to be saved.

The Father of Mercies came down to meet him. He embraced him and ordered his servants, namely the priests, to put on him the best robe, sonship, in which he had been clothed before through holy baptism, and to place a ring on his hand, putting the seal of contemplative virtue on the active part of the soul, as symbolized by the hand, as an earnest of the inheritance to come. He also ordered them to put shoes on his feet as holy protection and assurance to empower him to tread on snakes and scorpions and all the power of the enemy. Then he orders the fatted calf to be brought, slain, and offered at table. This calf is the Lord himself who is lead out from the hidden place of divinity, from the heavenly throne set above all things. Having appeared on earth as a man, he is slain like a fatted calf for us sinners, that is, he is offered to us as bread to eat.

God shares his joy and celebration over these events with his saints, making our ways his own, and his extreme love for mankind, and saying, “Come, let us eat and be merry” (Lk 15:23). (M)

The second reflection is by Saint Peter Chrysologus (+450), a Doctor of the Church and was archbishop of Ravenna, Italy.

“He arose and went to his father.” He arose from the wreckage of his conscience and body alike. He arose from the depths of hell and touched the heights of heaven. Before the heavenly Father, a child rises higher because of pardon than he fell low because of guilt.

“He arose and went to his father.” He went not by the motion of his feet, but by the progress of his thought. Being afar off, he had no need of an earthly journey, because he had found short-cuts along the way of salvation. He who seeks the divine Father by faith soon finds him present to himself, and has no need to seek him by traversing roads.

“He arose and went to his father. But when he was yet a long way off.” How is he who is coming a long way off? Because he has not yet arrived. He who is coming is coming to do penance, but he had not yet arrived at grace. He is coming to his Father’s house, but he has not yet reached the glory of his former condition, appearance, and honor.

“But when he was yet a long way off, his father saw him.” That Father saw, he “who dwells on high, and looks down on the low things,” “and the high he knows afar off.” “His father saw him.” The father saw him, in such a way that the son could also behold his father. The father’s countenance illumined the face of the approaching son in such a way that all the dark aspect was dispelled which his guilt had previously cast about it. (M)

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

It is never too late to return to God, our loving Father. The distance is never too great. The welcome never grows cold. Sin’s exile ends with the first step taken on the road toward home. This assurance is our joy. (M)

I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Is. 44:22) (M)

How might the Israelites felt about their radical change of lifestyle? Have you ever experienced a similar change? What does being ‘in Christ’ mean for your life? What in the parable of the Prodigal Son reminds you of God’s reconciling love?

Reflect on the transformative power of God’s forgiveness.

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Catholic Teaching

Share how God’s forgiveness has transformed you.

The Church’s teaching on conversion:

  • Lent is a time of conversion. Conversion means a metanoia, a change in direction, a radical turning around.
  • We began the season with the Ash Wednesday reading from Joel, in which we are told to “return to me (God) with all your heart.” The signing with the ashes signifies our willingness to turn away from sin.
  • Conversion marks the entire Christian life. This radical call to repent and believe is not simply meant for those about to be baptized, but for all the baptized.
  • Conversion is not only an individual task but is an invitation for communities and groups to pursue.

Paul challenges us to become ambassadors of God’s reconciliation to the world. How does our continual transformation make us ambassadors?

At the beginning of the Lenten season, the faithful were marked with the sign of the cross, the sign of redemption, with ashes and were admonished, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel!” Even though the baptized have been freed from sin through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus and in Lent recall their salvation, everyone who has been initiated still experiences the weakness of the human condition and concupiscence, the inclination to sin. (CCC1426) (RCL)

The newness of life received by those who are baptized can help overcome this inclination toward sin. This is the “turning away from sin” referred to in the Ash Wednesday ritual of signing with ashes. Such a turning may require a lifelong struggle, and the changes entailed are described as conversion. (RCL)

Jesus begins his public ministry with the call to repent and believe in the good news (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). Jesus preaches conversion. The imperative to change one’s life in accord with the life of God is not simply meant for those who are hearing the gospel for the first time in preparation for baptism. Catholic theology has always recognized conversion as an ongoing reality after one’s baptism. (CCC 1428) (RCL)

In pondering the mystery of the Church, the fathers of Vatican II explained: “The Church, … clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” Thus, the Church may “reveal in the world, faithfully, however darkly, the mystery of her Lord until, in the consummation, it shall be manifested in full light.” (Lumen Gentium, 1964) (RCL)

Conversion is not only an individual task but is an invitation for communities and groups to pursue, since sinfulness and the tendency toward sin can also be experienced within, imbedded in and practiced by those in communities and groups. John Paul II has devoted a significant portion of his apostolic exhortation “Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today” (2 Dec 1984, n. 16) to an exposition of the social aspects of sin and the resulting need for conversion by groups. Understanding the need for both individual and communal reconciliation, the Church prays during Lent to God: “Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed…. As we recall the great events that gave us new life in Christ, you bring the image of your Son to perfection within us.” (Preface, Lent I, Roman Missal.) (RCL)

The inner conversion called for by Jesus and for which all constantly strive is expressed eventually in outward signs and gestures. The radical reorienting of one’s life issues forth in good works. This is given expression in the Lenten prayer of the Church to the God who pursues us with mercy and forgiveness, “You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father, and of willing service to our neighbor.” (Preface, Lent I, Roman Missal.) (RCL)

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Catholic Culture

Christians have cherished down through the ages the autobiographical work of St. Augustine, The Confessions, which details his journey away from sin and toward God. In 1948, Thomas Merton told the story of his journey to the Catholic faith and monastic life in his autobiography, TThe Seven Storey Mountain. (RCL) Steve Ray, a Catholic convert who told his story in Crossing the Tiber, allows converts of today bandwidth to post their conversion stories on the internet at http://www.catholic-convert.com/community/conversion-stories/.

During the Vietnam war, American POWs copied in secret portions of the Bible, since books were denied to them except for Christmas day. They used toilet tissue for paper, wire for pens, and ashes for ink. The passages they recorded were the Lost Sheep, and the most famous of all Jesus’ parables: the Prodigal Son (Mark Link, Path Through Scripture, Thomas More, Allen, Texas, 1987, p. 137). (RCL)

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Putting Faith into Practice

How has your ongoing conversion process led you to reach out to others?

Where do you think God is leading you to a change of heart – to conversion?

Based on your answers to the above questions, write an intercession to be used in the closing prayer:

God of forgiveness and unconditional love, change my heart that I might___________________.

Loving God, hear our prayer.

A final theme of today’s readings is homecoming. Homecoming can be such a warm experience. Yet we can refuse to take part in homecoming activities. Our ego can cause us to adamantly dismiss handshakes, kisses, and embraces. This is especially true if the homecomer has hurt us. Our readings today, however, suggest that to be a Christian is to join in the parade of well-wishers. (JOF)

One should not place limits on God’s capacity to forgive. All can come home again. The parable raises questions of whether we will be like the forgiving father or the pouting elder son. For the father, the younger son’s return from death to life calls for a party. The elder son does not share his father’s enthusiasm for this homecoming. He is the embodiment of righteous indignation and the inability to forgive. He never even refers to the Prodigal as “my brother,’ but only as “this son of yours.” (JOF)

Pain, hurt, betrayal, and similar sufferings are part of human experience. To be a Christian is not to isolate oneself from the daily shocks of life but to put aside revenge and self-pity and concentrate on a God who throws parties for ”prodigals.” To worship this God means to worship in the company of those who have offended us. In such worship the Christian is challenged to offer reconciliation precisely because the offender is a “new creation.” (JOF)

Closing prayer: Loving God, change our hearts, our minds and our lives, through the power of your reconciling love. In Jesus, we are reconciled to you and one another. Let us grow in our faith with a willingness to be transformed in love. We are your willing ambassadors to the world. Prepare and transform us as we seek your divine will. All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Quote:

Put yourself on good terms with God: have recourse to the sacrament of penance; you will sleep as quietly as an angel.  – Saint John Vianney

Sources:

M – Magnificat, Mar 2010

RCL –Foundations in Faith RCL

LTP –Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word, 2010

JOF –The Word into Life, Year C

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