Words on the Word
4. Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9a, 10-12: On the morrow of the Passover, they tasted the produce of the land.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21: For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation.
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32: Your brother was dead and has come to life.
Today we keep Lætare Sunday, a little over halfway through Lent. There’s a festive expectancy in our liturgy. The Church likens Lent to a pilgrimage. Today we stand on a promontory with a view on Jerusalem. We rejoice in the distance already covered. We rejoice that our destination is in sight. In the collect we pray for grace to ‘hasten towards the solemn celebrations to come.’ There has to be a spring in our step.
Our reading from Joshua contextualises our expectation. For forty years the people have wandered in the desert, living on manna. It is a sufficient but monotonous nourishment, made real to us through our own deprivations during Lent. On the morrow of the Passover the Israelites ate, finally, ‘of the produce of the land’. It was proof that they had come home and were no longer vagabonds.
We, too, are called home. The word ‘home’ has a sweetness unmatched by any other word. Our home is not necessarily where we come from. Think of Israel: the men and women who came home to the Promised Land had never seen it before; they were born abroad. Many of you gathered here will have had similar experiences. The home you have made for yourself is premised on a departure, in some cases a painful departure, from an original home that no longer feels like home.
Where am I at home? Where do I belong? These questions are crucial for us humans. They’re not always easy to answer.
The Gospel describes a home from three different points of view. The younger son sees home as a resource to which he is entitled. He wants his patrimony. It is striking that he says to his father: ‘Give me what is mine.’ It isn’t, in fact, his. It is his father’s. The inheritance would normally be dispensed when the father dies, but he is alive and well. The son says, then: Let’s settle accounts now, as if you were already dead, so that I can live as I please. Home, to him, is something he wants to leave behind.
Let’s not judge the youngster too harshly. Who among us hasn’t, as a teenager, felt the pull of the wide world? What we have grown up with seems limited and small. We wish to enter the land of possibility, uncertain, perhaps, of where it is placed on the map, but certain that it is elsewhere. We needn’t burden the younger son with an Oedipus complex, as if his desire were to murder his father. He is a bird eager to stretch its wings. Home appears to him like a cage.
The father lets him fly. It is admirable, and gives us a sense of how he understands home. For the father, home is a place of freedom that facilitates choose. The fact that he still, after many years, keeps a look-out for his exiled son indicates how much the leave-taking cost him. But he exercises no coercion.
What a sacrifice it can be for a mother or father to find that one’s child wants to move away, and to accept this decision without reproach!
The eldest son’s attitude to home is, of the three, the most complex. He is no adventurer. He stays where he has always been. That is also a choice. But he takes no responsibility for it. That is what makes him unhappy. In his heart of hearts he is bitter. He says: ‘Here I am, toiling away, and no one thanks me for it. I don’t want anything else, but I don’t want this either.’ The eldest son embodies a latent depressions that is widespread nowadays. It springs from the sense of being imprisoned in a situation that nonetheless I do nothing to change. I give myself up instead to a dubious satisfaction: I think of myself as the victim of circumstances.
No wonder the oldest son is provoked by his brother’s return home. His existence is based on a notion of life as something closed and determined, something to be endured, be it with gritted teeth. His father and brother live differently. Both of them give proof of inner freedom.
For one who is enclosed in a perception of being the subject of great wrongs, others’ freedom is unendurable.
The younger son reconsiders his choices. He does something brave and mature: he judges himself. He says: ‘I have acted wrongly; I will ask for pardon. I thought subsistence was mine by right; now I see that it is in fact a gift. I wish to receive it gratefully.’ The father, too, is open. He renounces any claim to reparation. He says: ‘My son’s freedom, which pulled him away from me, has brought him back. My son does not belong to me. But I am glad that he chooses to be with me.’
For the older son, this approach is unintelligible. His working hypothesis is that everything in this world is calculable. So he retreats into a sulk. His behaviour is a warning to us. Let’s not go down that road, opting out, upset because no one affirms our self-importance, angry because others get what we consider they do not deserve. Were we to get what we deserved, most of us, in fact would be in trouble.
The parable’s purpose is to explain that in the Lord’s providence nothing is deserved; all is grace, thank God. Grace is offered us all; but in order to receive it, we must be made gracious. That involves letting go of the illusion that life ought to respond to our demands. If we do let go, we shall slowly but surely notice the growth within us of a deep, pure joy. It expresses certainty that God is our Father who loves us in our poverty with unconditional love. Only then shall we have an idea of what Easter stands for. And we shall do all we can to live in a way that reflects the liberating mystery of grace.
Caravaggio’s account of the story conveys the eldest son’s suspicion — and what fine feathers he carries in his cap even though he has spent the day ‘out in the field’.