For anyone following the presidential debates, the point of today’s readings couldn’t come at a better time. If you’re old enough, you might even remember when “Friday Night Smackdown” referred to staged wrestling matches.
Appropriately enough for readings that focus on the theme of reconciliation, two tell us about feasts of joy. In former times, today was even known as Laetare Sunday, from the first Latin word of the entrance hymn, “Rejoice O Jerusalem and all you that love her!” [Isaiah 66:10-11] And since the joyful aspect of the Lenten season is especially felt today, the violet hues of penance have been lightened to rose. No, it’s not pink.
The reading from the Book of Joshua describes the first meal the Israelites’ enjoyed after they entered Canaan and God no longer provided the manna and quails that had sustained them for forty years in the desert. Recalling that joyful Passover reminds us that own forty-day pilgrimage is about to end with the paschal feast of Easter. One can get tired of anything, I suppose, even quail, but the Hebrews celebrated because they had matured through testing and trial and they were ready to begin a new life. They had come to the land God had promised them and they had once glimpsed from a distance. And it is this return that links the first reading with the Gospel, a return celebrated by feasting.
The theme of reconciliation first surfaces in the reading from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Christians in Corinth. Paul tells us that it is a fundamental trait of a mature Christian community and that provides a perfect link with today’s Gospel.
Although we use the term reconciliation in labor disputes and marriage counseling, we probably don’t reflect on it much. But not long ago it was especially significant in South Africa, where for years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Government of National Unity sought to heal the wounds of apartheid. Similar bodies were set up in Rwanda and other parts of Africa as well as in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and many places in the world where people suffered terrible injuries in conflicts with each other. Think of Syria, Iraq, and the Holy Land, Macedonia, Spain, El Salvador, Colombia, Argentina, Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines. And then think of our own families and communities.
The fact is, without reconciliation there can be no real justice, no lasting peace. And no true community. In Christian scripture, the words for reconciliation all mean “to change mutually … and thoroughly.” Today dictionaries tell us that reconciliation means “to make friendly after estrangement [Concise Oxford Dictionary]. It also means to harmonize something discordant, like your bank statements and your checkbook. The word “conciliate,” which is hidden within it, means “to gain esteem or good will, to pacify.” So “reconcile” means to regain harmony and peaceful relations by making changes on both sides.
Jesus set great store by reconciliation, as when he demands that his followers leave their gifts before the altar and become reconciled with their sister or brother so that their offering will be acceptable to God [Matt 5:23-24; see Matt 18:15-22. Luke 17:3-4]. Paul, who suffered so much from factions and disunity, especially urges reconciliation [Rom 5:11, 11:15; 2 Cor. 5: 18-20; Eph 2:16; Col. 1:20-21]. For him, it is a ministry in itself. But for Paul reconciliation is not achieved primarily by human effort, but by God’s grace. Like forgiveness, we first receive reconciliation…. and then give it to others [Rom 5:10, 1 Cor 7:11]. And because our reconciliation with God was achieved through the blood of the cross [Col 1:21-22], through the ministry of reconciliation we become ambassadors of Christ.
How we are to be ministers of reconciliation, ambassadors of Christ in our divided and hostile world, is spelled out for us in the most famous of all Jesus’ parables.
Luke prefaces it with two shorter stories, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost penny. Then we hear about a lost child, a young man who tries to lose himself. We call him “prodigal,” a word that means “recklessly wasteful.” How the younger son wasted his fortune is not important. But how he came to his senses is. The word Christians use for that is metanoia. The Prodigal Son begins a moral ascent by changing his way of thinking: he recognizes the true nature of his selfishness and changes his attitude. He resolves to return home and beg forgiveness. But reconciliation, when it comes, is a gift from his father. The son has merely to present himself. It is the father who is prodigal with his love and mercy.
So outlandish is the old man’s forgiveness that the elder brother is miffed. He not only wants credit for being good all these years, but one gets the feeling he’d like to see his young brother humiliated a bit. Quite a bit, in fact. But the father’s explanation reveals the foolishness of God, before whom no one has to grovel. Nor should anyone be out of sorts because God is generous with forgiveness. God doesn’t keep a moral ledger. The message is plain, despite our inability to hear it: Just recognize who you are and be honest about what you have done. I’ll do the rest. I’ll wash away the dirt, I’ll throw you a party, and I’ll make it all right again.
There is a final point to be made about the central character in the gospel story. In one sense, it is the younger son. The elder sibling is only a foil who reveals the huge scope of God’s forgiveness. But there is a more subtle message. We shouldn’t identify with either of the sons, who may or may not have become reconciled to each other, but with their parent, who waits patiently, mourning the loss of a beloved child, hoping, praying, and keeping watch. Like him, we are to run out to greet the wayward on their return, to stoop down, lift them up, embrace them, see they get a good bath, fine new clothes, and a party. That’s how things change, both in us and in them. And that’s how we grow into the likeness of God through the imitation of Christ. How we live the ministry and mystery of reconciliation.
Jesus doesn’t tell us how the story ends, whether the father reconciles his sons. He doesn’t have to. We know how it should end. That part is up to us. So let us pray that our Lenten observance will open our hearts to the wonder of the mystery of true forgiveness and reconciliation, that we, too, will become children of the God who wills not the death or even the humiliation of the sinner, but life in abundance for all, especially the ones that try to get away.