Lent 04, Year C-2010

From Vincentian Encyclopedia
For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross (Heb. 12: 2)

“We must celebrate and rejoice,” explains the prodigal father—generous and forgiving beyond belief—to the older son, “because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” And with that the story ends. Hence, we do not know whether or not the older son accepted the explanation and went inside to join the celebration or stayed outside nursing his anger.

We do not know either if any of those who had objected to Jesus’ welcoming sinners and eating with them had a change of heart and came around to Jesus’ point of view. I have no reason not to think that some of them eventually became his followers. Nicodemus could be one of them, and Joseph of Arimathea, another. The possibility of reversing course, of conversion, is reason enough not to give up on anyone.

It is not unimaginable that the lost or the strayed is found, that the last becomes first, or that one outside is suddenly inside. Saul of Tarsus, along with the many Gentiles who positively responded to his subsequent outreach as the apostle Paul, is an unambiguous testimony to God being a merciful and gracious Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness (Ps. 103:8). Little wonder, then, that Paul insisted that “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rom. 5:20). It was all—he acknowledged—a matter of grace that the least of the apostles, a former persecutor of the church, ended up toiling harder than all the others (1 Cor. 15:9-10). By the same grace, folly is turned into wisdom, weakness into strength, the cross into glory, powerlessness into power (1 Cor.1:18-25; 2 Cor. 12: 10). The same grace also makes possible what is impossible for human beings, namely, salvation even when it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Lk. 18:24-27). By God’s grace alone is removed from us the reproaches to which we are subjected. By sheer grace are we made into a new creation in Christ and reconciled to God in Christ.

Hence, one is to rejoice in God’s grace and boast only in the Lord and glory in the cross (see 1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:18; Gal. 6:14). One ought to rejoice, like the apostle Paul, even when one finds oneself in such straits as imprisonment (Phil. 1:7; 2:18; 3:1; 4:4). One—especially the last of the last and the least of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters—finds strength in rejoicing in the Lord and in his grace (see Neh. 8:10).

And really, if the older son is any indication, strength is not found in rejoicing in what one can do to gain merit. The older son’s accomplishments hardly made for joy, in the first place. Focused on himself, on his own sufficiency and righteousness, the older son’s energy got zapped by frustration, bitterness and anger. He could not get past his not getting what he thought he deserved because of his faithfulness, while the unworthy one he called “this son of yours,” who squandered his inheritance on harlots, was warmly welcomed and feasted. The older son was too self-consumed and self-absorbed to recognize his own brother, be part of a family or community and be caught up in joy (see Darrell L. Bock’s commentary at [1]).

The poor, however, those who are marginalized and ostracized and condemned as lawbreakers for failing to register duly with immigration offices, rejoice and celebrate. That is because they recognize their insufficiency, poverty and sinfulness; they are ever grateful for God’s gifts, his grace (see H.J.M. Nouwen as cited by Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., in The Way of Vincent de Paul [New York: New City Press, 1992] 59). The poor—the last, the least—as well as their friends and servants who perform works of mercy with cheerfulness in a variety of ways (see the non-biblical reading, taken from a sermon from St. Gregory of Nazianzen, in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent), all join joyfully the celebration of God’s mercy and partake of the feast of the fattened lamb who takes away the sins of the world.