The 4th Sunday of Lent is known as Laetare Sunday – a Latin word meaning “rejoice”. It is meant to be a little festive compared to the rest of Lent. The most obvious difference is the color of the priest’s vestments, the color rose which signifies rejoicing versus the color purple which signifies penitence. That’s because this Sunday more or less marks the half-way point in Lent: we are half-way through this penitential season on our way to the celebration of Easter. So today can be a day to relax one’s Lenten penances a little bit.
Lent itself also signifies a little version of our entire lives here on earth, which is a journey through a world which is beautiful but also imperfect and in which sometimes there are periods of real sorrow and pain. It’s a journey on our way to the next life, to a new creation, where there will be no more sorrow or pain. So today is meant to remind us that we are people on our way to a new creation. We make this journey through this life in the hope of our own resurrection to new life.
And our first reading from the Book of Joshua reflects that. It talks about the end of the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. They celebrate the final Passover meal of their journey. And the next day, they eat of the produce of the land that the Lord is giving to them. That day, there was no more manna, the miracle food which they had eaten during their desert wandering. It was no longer needed.
The manna which they ate is like the Eucharist, the spiritual food the Lord gives us for our journey through the desert of this life. For those who have entered into the new promised land of heaven, the new creation, there will be no more need for the Eucharist. The sacrament will be replaced by the reality – for the saints see God face to face.
And it’s interesting to note that it is Joshua, not Moses, who leads the Israelites into the Promised Land. Although Moses was the one who led the Israelites for the 40 years in the desert, he dies just before they enter it. He is not given that privilege of leading them into it, of making the triumphal entry. This is a reminder to us: sometimes one person puts in the work and another one sees the fruits. We don’t always see the fruits of our labors, but we are still called to be faithful.
Also, Moses signifies the Old Covenant, the Jewish Law, which as St. Paul reminds us, is incapable of saving us. It is not through the Old Covenant that we can enter into the new creation. It is only through Jesus Christ – and Joshua, the one who leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, is a type or a foreshadowing of Christ. In fact, they share the same name – the Hebrew name Yeshua is Joshua in English, and in Greek it is Iesous – Jesus.
St. Paul also talks about the new creation in our second reading, which he describes as life in Christ. He says, “The old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” And he goes on to say that this new creation comes about because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ. So this new creation comes about through reconciliation – through our repentance and God’s forgiveness of our sins.
Which leads us to our Gospel reading, in which Jesus gives us perhaps his most well-known parable: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But it’s actually a story of two sons. And both of them in their own way reject their Father. The first son mentioned is the younger one, who asks his father to give him his share of the inheritance. This was a huge insult: it was in effect saying that he wished that his father was dead so that he could enjoy his father’s possessions. It was like saying, I want your money, not you. And he leaves his father’s house and goes off to a foreign land. Away from his father, he squanders the entire inheritance and is left with nothing to show for it. When a severe famine strikes the land, he is reduced to the lowest of the low: he is living with pigs, which for Jews were considered an unclean animal, and not only that, he’s so hungry he even hungers for the pigs’ food!
This points to some basic truths: God is the father in this story, and the Prodigal Son is one who rejects God through sin. For a time, the pleasures of this world can keep us going and make us feel happy, but eventually they will run out. Misfortune will strike. And the further we go from God, the more degraded we become. Like the Prodigal Son who ended up living among pigs and longing for their food, sin dehumanizes.
But all is not lost for this son: he remembers his father and how good he had it when we was with him. He resolves to go back and even rehearses the apology he will give to his father. And what happens? Does his father reject him? Does he tell the young man that what he did was unforgivable, that he burned that bridge, that he should get out? No, instead the Gospel says that, “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.” His father was outside, scanning the horizon, waiting for his son in the hopes that he would return. And when he saw his son, he even ran to him – something that would have been considered very undignified for an elderly man to do. But the father doesn’t care about that, because he is overjoyed to see his son again. And even before his son can finish the apology that he has rehearsed, he orders his servants to get him the finest robe, and sandals, and put a ring on his finger – he is restoring his son to his place in the home. And he proclaims a celebration for his son’s return.
This is how God sees each one of us. Even though we sin, and reject him, and turn away from him, and wander far away from him, he is always watching and waiting for us to return. He wants us back. And he always forgives us, no matter what we’ve done, or how far we’ve gone from him, or how long we’ve been gone. And he restores to a place in his home.
Of course, there’s another son in the story – the older one, the one who stayed behind. And the Gospel says that the older son is out working in the fields when he learns that his brother has returned and his father has ordered a huge feast in celebration. Rather than rejoicing, he is angry and resentful. And he refuses to enter his father’s house! So his father comes out to him to plead with him. The older son complains that all these years he has labored for his father – he sees himself as just a thankless servant, not as a beloved son. Even though he has worked all these years in his father’s fields, he hasn’t done so out of love. Rather, he has let the resentment build up. “You never even gave me a young goat to feast on with my friends,” he says. Note: not to feast on with his father but with his friends. And unlike the younger son, who was repentant and returned to his father’s house, there’s no indication that the older son reconciles himself with his father. Pride, not love, has filled his heart, and has alienated him from his father.
Sometimes we might also be like the older son: we grudgingly keep the commandments, maybe even showing up at mass because we should, but wishing we could just live like everyone else. We don’t serve the Lord and others out of love but with pride and resentment. And we forget about our most important identity as God’s beloved children.
The glaring difference between the two sons is that one recognized that he had done wrong and returned to his father to ask for forgiveness, and the other failed to recognize his own need for repentance. The lesson for all of us here is this: let us follow the Lord and serve him, out of a sense of duty, sure, but even better than that out of love. Let us reject the pride that convinces us we are not in need of God’s forgiveness. Let us rather be like the younger son who was sorry and came back.
No matter what you’ve done, how far you’ve gone, or how long you’ve been away, return to the Father and say to him, “Daddy, I’m sorry.” And know that God will forgive you. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been to confession, I urge you to take advantage of this beautiful sacrament, and receive your heavenly Father’s loving embrace. When we turn back to the Lord, we prepare ourselves to enter into God’s new creation.