Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Saturday of the Second Week of Lent
March 18, 2017
Mic 7:14-15.18-20, Ps 103, Lk 15:1-3.11-32
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today we reach the dramatic end of the first phase of the Lenten Season. From Ash Wednesday through Saturday of the Second Week of Lent, the readings from Sacred Scripture are all fundamentally geared to helping us understand and live the type of conversion to which God is calling us. Tomorrow, we begin a heavy emphasis on the meaning of baptism, to assist catechumens in their journey toward the saving waters and to reinvigorate all those who have already been baptized in the life that is supposed to flow from baptism. At the end of the Fifth Week of Lent, we will make another transition to consider specifically all those prophecies and historical events that predicted and led to Jesus’ passion and death.
- Today, however, we come to the exclamation point of the phase in which God has been calling us, as Jesus told us on Ash Wednesday, to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” to pray, fast and give alms in such a way that we begin to think with the mind of God, hunger for what he hungers, and gratefully participate in his providential care of our brothers and sisters. It’s a time to become holy like God is holy, perfect as God is perfect, merciful like the Father is merciful. It is a time to focus on how his mercy endures forever and therefore our recognizing our need for it, our coming to receive it, our rejoicing in it and our seeking to pass it on to others like we’ve first received it, are all meant to grow.
- In today’s readings we focus on mercy. The Prophet Micah exclaims with wonder and gratitude about God’s hesed, his merciful faithfulness to us despite our sins: “Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; Who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency, and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt? You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins; You will show faithfulness to Jacob, and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.” In the Responsorial Psalm we ponder how “kind and merciful” he is who “pardons all your iniquities, … heals all your ills, … redeems your life from destruction, … crowns you with kindness and compassion, … will not always chide, … does not keep his wrath forever, … who does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our crimes,” who has “put our transgressions” further from us as the east is from the west and the heavens are high above the earth.” And then in the Gospel, Jesus illustrates for us the love of God who delights in clemency, who shows his faithfulness to his wayward children, who does not deal with us according to our sins but who treats his with paternal kindness and compassion. It’s perhaps the most famous short-story of all time. It’s called the Parable of the Prodigal Son after the youngest of two boys, but it could easily have been called the Parable of the Merciful Father or the Parable of the Merciless Brother. We conclude this phase of Lent pondering what Jesus wants to teach us about mercy through all three characters in today’s Gospel.
- We begin with the younger son. His essential sin was not all that he did to blow his inheritance on a dissolute life. It was to treat his Father as if he were dead. To ask for the inheritance while the Father was still living was tantamount to saying, “You’re dead to me, Old Man. I don’t want to wait until you croak. Give me now, as if it’s a right I have rather than an unmerited grace, what you’re planning to give me when finally you breathe your last.” And the Father, doubtless more concerned over the direction of his son’s life than nursing his own wounds at the son’s ingratitude and presumption, gave him the inheritance, probably figuring out it would be the only chance that the son might have of learning the lesson he had long missed.
- The son, as we know, went and squandered everything in an immoral life. Eventually when a famine hit the land where he was, he needed to do work that no Jew would ever have signed up for, to care for pigs (whom the Jews considered unclean animals). He was eventually so hungry that he longed for what the pigs were eating, something that indicated basically that he had become almost subhuman. But that’s when the grace of conversion first hit him. “Coming to his senses,” St. Luke writes, he realized that his Father’s hired hands were always well-fed and he decided to return to his Father’s house, to apologize for his sins, and asked to be treated like a hired hand. He recognized that at least his Father was a good man who cared for those who worked for him. When we hear the word today, “hired hand,” most of us, I think, imagine he was being asked to be treated as an “employee,” but it was nothing really of the sort. He was asking to be treated as “less than a slave.” The slaves were considered members of the household to some degree and they were taken care of and fed. The “hired hands” were not members of the family. They were responsible for their own upkeep, if they could get a job day-by-day. But the younger son recognized that the Father was kind and gave “more than enough food to eat” even to those who had no right to food. The son was beginning to reawaken to the Father’s goodness. But he still didn’t understand the Father.
- He rehearsed his speech as he was returning home, that he had sinned against God and against his father — both of whom he had treated as if they were dead to him — and didn’t deserve to be treated as a son, thinking that the relationship of filiation would now have been “dead” since he had basically already pronounced his father’s obituary. But the Father, seeing him far off, was filled with merciful love and ran to his son. I’ve always imagined a 60 year old man in sandals looking foolish running to embrace his long-lost son, but running the way a child scampers across the airport to greet his or her father returning from military service overseas. The son began with his well-practiced confession, but the Father interrupted him. He called for the finest garment to be put around him to cover up all of the swine excrement with which doubtless he had been covered. He put a signet ring on his finger, to show that he still had “power of attorney” over the Father’s goods. He had sandals plead on his feet to symbolize that he was free to go about as he pleased — slaves never had sandals. Whereas he was prepared to ask to be treated like a hired hand lower than slaves, the Father restored him to his full dignity!
- This is obviously an allusion to what God seeks to do to all of us through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. When we come to our senses, when we realize the Father not only is not dead but is good and cares for us and we begin to make the journey home, he runs out to meet us to restore us to who we really are. In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin elsewhere in the same chapter of Luke 15, Jesus tells us that heaven rejoices most of all for the return of one sinner, because every forgiven sinner is a restored beloved son or daughter of the Father. The Father initiates a massive celebration, having the special fattened calf slaughtered for the son’s return, because, as he says, “My son was dead and has come back to life again. He was lost and has been found.” That’s what happens every good Confession. Every reconciliation is a resurrection, when we’re raised from the dead by the Father’s mercy (which is why, I believe, Jesus founded it on Easter Sunday evening). The Sacraments is God’s great lost-and-found department for his beloved children. The whole point of this first phase of Lent was to bring us back fully into the house of the Father so that he could restore us to who we really are. Lent is a time for us to recognize that we’re the prodigal son and make the journey to the Father’s restorative embrace. As Pope Francis said at the beginning of his papacy, “God never tires of forgiving us, but it’s we who tire of asking for forgiveness.” The Father is always ready to embrace us with his merciful love, but we must be sensible enough to recognize who he is, come back to say sorry, and be grateful for the way that he does far more than feed and employ us.
- During this Lenten season we have to do more than respond to God’s grace to restore our relationship with God the Father, however. We also have to seek to restore our relationship with our brothers and sisters. And that’s where the second and older brother comes into the scene. In some ways, Jesus told the whole parable in order to focus on his reaction to the loving mercy of the Father toward his younger brother. The setting for the parable was in response to the Pharisees and Scribes’ complaints that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They would rather have had the sinners never convert than for Jesus to have shown mercy to them. They were a society of older brothers in the parable. And we can see in the older brother’s behavior that he, too, never really grasped the Father’s goodness or love.
- When he got angry and refused to enter the party the Father was throwing for the younger son’s return, he passive-aggressively waited outside until the Father came for him. He couldn’t join in the celebration because, in his heart, his brother was still dead. When the Father pleaded with him to enter the party, he replied with anger that betrayed that he had never related to his Father out of love but only out of duty. He was essentially a slave who, even though he never left the Father’s house, really didn’t want to be there either and resented his Father out of the type of envy we heard about yesterday in the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers and the prophesied betrayal of Jesus by his own people. “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I ever disobey your orders.” That’s the language of a slave, not a son! You can almost hear him calling his Father “Master” or “Boss-man” rather than “Dad.” And it gets worse. “Yet when this son of yours returns…” He can’t even refer to his own flesh-and-blood as his brother. The younger brother had wasted his inheritance “with prostitutes,” he said, a detail that isn’t in evidence, a sign that that’s likely what he would have done had he been bold enough to do what the younger brother had done and gotten his own half of the inheritance. He was filled with envy and hatred against his brother as well as against the Father. He had never even been allowed to kill a young goat for a party with his friends and yet the other brother got a fatted calf. By this point of the story, we can clearly see that while the younger brother was restored to health the older brother was still sick. The younger brother now at least understood the love of the Father and was rejoicing in it, whereas the older brother was still in a judgmental, bitter pigsty of his own. Jesus concludes the parable by telling us that the Father basically thought he had no choice but to celebrate because of his younger son’s being brought back morally from the dead, for his being restored fully into the inheritance, which was not a thing fundamentally of money but of fatherly love. We don’t know whether the older brother entered the party with him or not. The reason is because that was still an open question for the scribes and the pharisees who were listening to the parable of Jesus, whether they would share his joy and come to welcome and eat with the same sinners, the same prodigal sons and daughters with whom Jesus was dining, or whether they would continue to remain defiantly and enviously outside.
- There’s an obvious application for all of us, too, of this second part of the parable. Do we rejoice when other sinners return to the faith or do we resent that after they “had their fun” they are now restored to the same status as we have? For priests and religious, do we rejoice when a fellow priest or sister who, for example, used to be terribly willful and disobedient to superiors or even who caused scandal totally repents and then is not only restored but given an important office: do we rejoice at the person’s conversion or remember the sins and failings with resentment? When we’re tempted toward this type of hardness of heart of the Scribes and the Pharisees, the most common reason is because we look at the practice of the faith in general or the consecrated or priestly life in particular fundamentally as a series of duties, of God as a powerful task master, rather than as a drama of love with God as the most loving Father ever. It’s also because we look at others not with the love of brothers and sisters but rather begrudgingly as fallen away sons and daughters of God but with whom we don’t want really to associate. The first phase of the Lenten season is meant to help us not only to make the journey of the Prodigal Son but also the journey to which Jesus was summoning the Scribes and the Pharisees. The Father comes out and wants us to join in the party. God’s greatest joy is forgiving, as Pope Francis likes to say, and he wants us to enter into that joy. In fact, he wants us to join him in going out to others to invite them to return to the Father’s house so that the joy of heaven will be even greater.
- Today we’ve all come as repentant prodigals to the Father’s house here, where he seeks to renew us in our baptismal garments, to restore us to our full inheritance and help us to walk with true free. We’ve come here so that as we join ourselves worshipping him with the whole Church from the rising of the Sun to its setting, we may realize that he desires to put our sins as far away from us as San Francisco is from New York. And in his kindness and mercy, he hasn’t prepared a fattened calf but something far greater — a Lamb looking as if he has been slain — so that through communion with His own beloved Son on the inside, we may live always in the love of the Father and have his love become fully alive in our lives. This is the path by which our Lent will be translated into the Easter Easter.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
MI 7:14-15, 18-20
the flock of your inheritance,
That dwells apart in a woodland,
in the midst of Carmel.
Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead,
as in the days of old;
As in the days when you came from the land of Egypt,
show us wonderful signs.
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?
You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins;
You will show faithfulness to Jacob,
and grace to Abraham,
As you have sworn to our fathers
from days of old.
PS 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
He pardons all your iniquities,
he heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
he crowns you with kindness and compassion.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
He will not always chide,
nor does he keep his wrath forever.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
LK 15:1-3, 11-32
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable.
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father 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.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
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.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
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 slaughter the fattened calf.’
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.’“