This Sunday is, so called because of the opening words to the antiphon for the Mass: Laetare Jerusalem….Rejoice, O Jerusalem…
All of our readings reflect and point to the celebration theme of joy here at the midpoint of our Lenten journey. When the Israelites reach the promised land the Lord announced that their guilt had been lifted, and so the people celebrate. They had become new people in a new land – just as St. Paul reminds us in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” But the gospel is the real celebration in the wonderful telling of the parable of the Prodigal Son. There are a myriad of things that could be said about this parable, but let me suggest one for your consideration this Sunday.
So often during the Sacrament of Confession, I hear people use language that would imply they have wasted their lives, the grace and love of God – and that may be true to some extent – but to the extent where they come to believe that God wants nothing to do with them unless they repent and leave their prodigal ways behind. It is as though people think they have no relationship with God. In reality our starting point should be that God, as Creator, has established a relationship with all people. And that Christ’s death and resurrection establishes a relationship with all sinners. It is like the old rhyme: a son grows up to take a wife, but a mother’s a mother the rest of her life. The relationship is always there.
But we can walk away like the younger son in the Prodigal Son parable. Or we can be close by, grumbling, unhappy, and just as distant in other ways. There are lots of ways to be prodigal – to waste the Father’s love – and all of those ways call for repentance. So, yeah, people in the confessional are correct, they need to repent and leave their prodigal ways behind. What does that mean? If you have been away, come home. The Father is waiting with open arms, ready to embrace, to love, and to forgive. If you have been close by, don’t be like the older son who won’t join the celebration. Come on in and rejoice.
This parable is located in the same chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke, along with the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Neither sheep nor coins can repent, but these parables and the Prodigal Son aim not only at calling the “sinners” to repentance but at calling the “righteous” to join the celebration. Whether one will join the celebration is all-important because it reveals whether one’s relationships are based on merit or mercy. Those who find God’s mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents. Thus they exclude themselves from God’s grace.
If one refuses to join our Father in heaven with all the angels in rejoicing, then we are in needed of repentance. If we insist on reward for our obedience and righteousness, we need only remember that God does not commend the righteous for what they ought to be in the first place. Nor has he criticized their standards. When God reaches out to those we consider in need of repentance, what God expects of us is that we share His joy over what was once lost but now found. That we set aside bread, water, ashes, sackcloth, tears, and prostration for the fatted calf, the finest robes and rings, music and dancing, and the celebration of joy – quite the Lenten image, heh?