lent The Sánchez Archives

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Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

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Joshua 5:9, 10-12
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Guilt is never easy to admit, but when the guilty one knows that a loving Father with open arms waits to welcome him home, the road to repentance becomes easier and shorter (Luke). Repentance can be thought of as the only worthy response to the wondrous gift of reconciliation wrought by God in Christ (2 Corinthians). Such a gift of freedom and life should be celebrated often and joyfully (Joshua).

Joshua 5:9, 10-12.

Traditionally known as Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent marks the midpoint in the Lenten preparation for the resurrection feast. Appropriately, each of the three readings characterizes one of the many facets of Easter joy. In the first reading from Joshua, the people of God are portrayed as celebrating for the first time the feast of their freedom in their own land; the joy is one of promises fulfilled. In the second text from Paul, the apostle joyfully proclaims the effects of Jesus’ saving act, i.e., the reconciliation of all peoples to the Father. In the gospel, the joy is that of “coming home” and rediscovering a father’s forgiving and gratuitous love. Although Lent is a season of penance, it must necessarily be marked by the joyful enthusiasm and confidence today’s readings communicate.

The book of Joshua purports to be an historical account of the conquest and division of Canaan among the 12 tribes under the leadership of Joshua who had been Moses’ aide-de-camp. The taking of the land was regarded as the sacred fulfillment of the divine promises to Abraham; and the author(s) of Joshua accordingly presented the infiltration and conquest in quasi-cultic terms. Instead of sieges, skirmishes and armed attacks, the author describes processions, liturgical music and religious rites.

Today’s first reading is from a longer section that described the period of rest at Gilgal before the siege of Jericho. While the verses of explanation were not included in today’s pericope (vv. 2-8), the rest was necessary because the people had been circumcised in accordance with the law. A very ancient practice that predated the Bronze Age (3000-1200 B.C.E.), circumcision was a rite of initiation, a quasi-sacrificial offering of the person to the gods, not through the actual self-sacrifice but by the symbolic offering of the foreskin. Since the Egyptians practiced circumcision, we do not know why the Hebrews would not have been circumcised while they were slaves in Egypt. Nor do we know for certain when the rite acquired religious significance for Israel as a sign of the covenant with Yahweh (Genesis 17:8-14, Exodus 12:43-48, Leviticus 12:13).

Some have interpreted the “reproach” God removed (v. 9) as the failure of his people to be circumcised in Egypt. Others have understood the “reproach of Egypt” as a reference to the ritual uncleanness of a foreign land, but this would certainly be an anachronism. Still others (more correctly) have suggested that the “reproach” now removed was a reference to the slavery endured by God’s people.

The remainder of the text, which shows definite signs of priestly editing, concerns the first observance of Passover, the feast that celebrated the end of the reproach of slavery in Egypt. Gilgal (literally, “circle of stones”) was an important sanctuary up until the time of David.

M. Noth has suggested that this story is an etiological one that explained the origin of the shrine and the feast. With the arrival of God’s people in the promised land, a new way of life was initiated. Those who had been a bedouin, pastoral people, on the move from oasis to oasis, making their way through the wilderness, would thenceforth be a settled people.

This process of settling or sedentarization is signified by the ceasing of the manna. An established population could grow its own food and provide for its own needs. A new stage in Israel’s development, their increased independence in Canaan was not a lessening of their need for God but an opportunity for more active cooperation with his blessings. They were no longer pilgrims and wanderers but children of their Father, at home in their own land.

In Israel’s historical development, the modem believer can find an analogous understanding of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Like the manna, the eucharistic bread of life sustains the faithful on life’s journey until the ultimate Passover from life through death to fuller, everlasting life.

2 Corinthians 5:17-21.

“Before-and-after” pictures are a common advertising technique used by manufacturers of diet, health and beauty aids in order to boost sales for their products. So different and so much more attractive, the “after” picture is intended to provide the incentive to buy the product so as to experience a similar improvement. In a sense, Paul understood his life before and after meeting Christ in a similar way. “In Christ” (v. 17) was a typical Pauline term for explaining the difference between life “before” and life “after.” By “in Christ,” Paul meant the radical, i.e., from the roots (radix = root), and continuing process of transformation the life of faith entailed. But even more than a transformation or an evolving of the same being to a better being, Paul understood his life “in Christ” as a new creation. The passing of the old order (death, sin and darkness) and the creation of a new order (life, holiness and light) are made possible only by God who has reconciled humanity to himself “in Christ.”

One of the most important New Testament passages on the subject of reconciliation, the present pericope is all the more poignant since it is part of Paul’s personal witness as an apostle for Christ. Excerpted from a longer section (3:16:10) in which he described the rigors of the apostolate, it shows that Paul regarded the ministry of reconciliation as one of his foremost privileges. As a preacher of the gospel and a teacher of Christian values, and by virtue of his personal conversion, Paul had become an “ambassador” (v. 20) of God’s reconciliation. His life and his mission were “sacramental,” i.e., a living signification of what God had done for all peoples in Christ. Paul believed that all believers were honored to be charged with the same mission--that of being living sacraments of God’s reconciliation.

Jesus had achieved the reconciliation or restoration of all peoples to God by “becoming sin.” Actually, the term hamartia, translated “to be sin” (v. 21), would be better rendered “to be a sin-sacrifice.” Although Christ did not know sin, that is, by way of personal experience, he embraced the contradiction and alienation of sin in order to make holy all who had been enslaved by it. For Paul, the sin-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was the dividing point between the old and the new orders, between the “before” and “after,” the starting point of the new creation.

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.

At the heart of today’s gospel pericope is the joyful news of reconciliation. Where Paul had explained reconciliation in a doctrinal and theological manner, Luke conveyed a similar message in the moving and eloquent story of the father and his two sons. Because the bulk of the narrative centered on the younger son, the fact that the story was actually a double-edged parable has sometimes been overlooked. In the father’s treatment of the younger son, the lesson of divine mercy offered reassurance to sinners. in the interchange between the older brother and the father, a stem warning was issued to the self-righteous whose resentment hardened them against the joy of God’s magnanimous goodness.

In its original setting, Jesus may have told the story to defend his attitude toward sinners and toll collectors (vv. I3). Annoyed at what they thought to be reprehensible behavior, the Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus because, in their estimation, the sinners and toll collectors were outcasts. That Jesus ate with such people and then proceeded to associate with the “righteous” was considered a personal affront by the Pharisees and scribes. By his parable, Jesus (or Luke) not only illustrated God’s special and unconditional love for the wretched who repent but also the correct attitude of the community toward them.

In accordance with the law and customs in ancient Palestine, a father could dispose of his property by making a will that would be executed when he died (Numbers 36:7-9) or he could give his possessions to his children while still alive. Usually the eldest son received a double share or twice the amount that each of the other sons would receive. Since the Lucan parable mentioned only two sons, the younger son would have received a third of his father’s property. Evidently he converted his share into cash and departed for a “distant land”(v. 12), probably part of the diaspora.

According to the parable, he soon squandered his money, his morals and even his Jewish religious heritage. These last losses were borne out by the fact that he had to find employment on a farm as a swineherd. Obviously, the environment was a gentile one, because pigs were unclean for Jews (Leviticus 11:7). So desperate was the son’s situation that he had set aside his traditional beliefs and values.

Unable to eat the husks (literally: carob pods, v. 16), he eventually “came to his senses.” Literally, this phrase (v. V) is “he entered into himself” and was an expression in both Hebrew and Aramaic for repentance. In a sincere self-examination the son admitted his guilt. He no longer had any legal claim upon his father; those rights had ceased when tie demanded his inheritance. Therefore, the son’s resolve to return home indicated that he was totally reliant on his father’s mercy and goodness. How moving is the scene that follows! Apparently, the father had been waiting for the wayward son because, while he was “still far off,” the father ran to meet him. Without waiting for the son’s confession of wrongdoing, the father embraced him in warm welcome. Even when the son tried to admit his guilt, the father interrupted his recitation to order that a party be prepared.

The robe and ring and shoes were a sign that the son would not be received into the house as a servant (slaves did not wear shoes, robes or finger rings) but in his former status as son. A fatted calf was an indication of an extravagant feast in a land where meat was eaten rarely and only on great occasions. The father’s joyful comment, “Let us eat ... this son of mine was dead and has come back to life ... was lost and is found,” reaches out beyond the storysetting to those who heard Jesus and read Luke. The joy of the father over his returned son taught the lesson of God’s love and merciful forgiveness.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story, even more pitiable than the prodigal son, was the resentful and arrogant older brother who refused to enter into the joy of the occasion. Sounding very much like the Pharisee (Luke 18) who despised the sinful publican and proudly recounted his good deeds before the Lord, the elder son catalogued his virtues before his father. But this was not the point. The father did not compare his sons to one another or measure one’s goodness against the other. Instead, he wholeheartedly gave his love to each according to their need. By calling the older son to rejoice in his brother’s return, the parable challenged those who thought themselves righteous and upright to look upon those less sure of themselves with compassion.

As T. W. Manson has observed, “The parable probes the human psyche and touches it deeply. It lays down the fundamental principle of God’s relation to sinful men; that God loves the sinner while he is still a sinner, before he repents, and that somehow, it is this divine love that makes the sinner’s repentance possible.”

1. Celebration of gratitude to God should mark all of the special moments of life,; these are the mileposts on the journey home (Joshua).

2. As ministers of reconciliation, believers have already shared in the service they render (2 Corinthians).

3. “How very rarely does the administration of the sacrament (of reconciliation) give a real impression of introducing someone to the joy of the Father,” notes T. Maertens (Luke).

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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