Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C 2019
God’s love is reckless. He loves without limits, and nothing can deter Him from loving us. In Romans 8:35, St. Paul asked, “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” The answer is nothing and no one. Not even our sins. For no sin is too grave for God to forgive out of His love for us. St. John said, “God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son…” (John 3:16). And in another text, he said, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). So, it is in God’s Nature to love.
Today, the word “love” can mean anything. As a result, it may be difficult to appreciate what God’s love means. Biblically, God’s love is the gratuitous gift of Himself to us without the expectation of anything in return. For Thomas Aquinas, “it is God willing our good solely for our good”. It is unconditional. It is always seeking the good of the other without calculating the cost. It takes pleasure in seeing the other alive and happy even when it isn’t acknowledged.
It is this understanding of love that runs through Luke 15:11-32. But to appreciate the text, it is good to read it in context. The proximate context reveals that Jesus was being fiercely criticised by the Scribes and the Pharisees. They called Him the friend of sinners. In verse 3, Luke said, “This man’, they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them”’. Now, one would have expected the Scribes and the Pharisees to be happy that Christ was close to sinners.
But they were not. Rather, they were angry and envious of the tax-collectors and sinners. “Envy” in this context, isn’t just about wanting to have what the other has, but according to Dante it also means “resenting the good the other has”. Again, there is still that puzzling why. Why would the Scribes and the Pharisees be so envious of the sinners? For Archbishop Fulton Sheen, it is because “they were the ‘nice people’ who can’t stand the ‘awful mob’” – sinners.
They couldn’t understand why Christ, the Perfect One would mingle with the imperfect mob. For them, Christ must be a jester. The Messiah is meant to be up there, some abstract deity that only they, the righteous few can access, and not someone who would stoop so low as to befriend and eat with sinners. They couldn’t understand the saying “what I want is mercy” – to give to the other the good they don’t deserve and take away from them the evil they deserve.
For them, it has to be black or white. You sin, you are punished. You do good, you are rewarded. So, there was something wrong, something lacking in them – the good, mercy, love. In a way, they were right, and they were receiving the judgement they had passed on others. Since mercy was lacking in them, they couldn’t receive mercy from Christ. The elder son in the story couldn’t also receive mercy because He couldn’t see his brother. He only saw his sins.
So, while the younger son returned home, accepted his father’s forgiveness, celebrated with him and assumed his position as son; the elder son stayed outside, rejected his father’s offer of grace – “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours”, resented him and caved into himself in self-pity. Poor me, he cried. My father isn’t fair to me. He doesn’t love me. This attitude isn’t uncommon. Many of us aren’t different from the elder son. We can’t accept God’s reckless love.
It is too good to be true. So, we reject His love. For how can the Just God be good to sinners? Friends, the parable we have just heard says that God is just, He is the Good, He is love. He doesn’t know how to give any other thing than love and good things. Besides, who are we to judge God, to render Him to be accountable to us? This is the arrogance of the self-righteous. They feel because they have done X, Y, Z therefore they know God better than God Himself.
To conclude, we can draw from Hans Urs von Balthazar’s imagery of the Ego-Drama and the Theo-Drama another perspective of the two sons. The elder son is a good example of the Ego-Drama. It was all about how it affected him, how it affected his own plans – “I have been slaving for my father so that he can notice me and reward me”. He was so preoccupied with himself that he couldn’t even hear what his brother has gone through. See what self-centredness can do!
It dehumanises us. It robs us of the joy of brotherhood. It exiles us from our loved ones. It makes us miss our way – hamartia, sin in Greek. And in sin, we stop worshipping God and start worshipping ourselves. Then pride and arrogance set in, and we begin to deny the existence of God and all values that reveal God. We become desperate, anxious and depressed. Doesn’t that sound familiar? I bet it does. It describes in a way the reality of many of us around the world.
But the Theo-Drama is different. It is the drama that begins with the appreciation of the “Other” - God. It has a memory and it recalls all that God has done, is doing and can still do despite our waywardness. It isn’t dark and twisted, but it is hope filled and takes delight in the good of the other. The younger son acted the Theo-Drama. He knew his father was a good man and because he was able to recognise that, he became humble and humane. See what selflessness can do!
It humanises us. It enables us to fulfil our vocation that according to N. T. Wright is “God-Image-Bearer”. A vocation that leads us to enter the Sabbath rest, to worship God and be transformed so that we can love recklessly like God loves. For the father of the sons is a good example. See how reckless he was in welcoming his son home! He ran to him, which was unheard of for a patriarch. But he ran to welcome a wayward son who not only wished him dead, but also publicly shamed him. This is the beauty of true worship of God.
Fr. Francis Afu