God's grace is at work in so many ways

  • March 5, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) March 14 (Joshua 5:9, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

It was a new day for the people of Israel. After 40 long and hard years of wandering in the arid wilderness, they had finally crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land — the land “flowing with milk and honey.” They were provided with manna to eat during their journey through the desert but that now ceases. They eat from the produce of the land and they will have to walk on their own feet now. 

But first there is business to attend to: The entrance into the land and its conquest was a fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and was reflected in the covenant Israel had made with God at Sinai. Therefore, as a sign of the covenant and their new status, all of the males born in the wilderness had to be circumcised before their journey could proceed any further. God has rolled away the disgrace of Egypt for they are no longer a slave people, either in their physical circumstances or their mentality. They are new people: lean, tough and well-formed in their covenantal faith. It will no longer be business as usual — they must leave behind their own way of life and the psychological and spiritual baggage that they brought with them from Egypt. They are beginning a new life in a new land and must conduct themselves accordingly. We all reach transition points in our lives — experiences, events and insights that signal to us that we can never go back.

Newness was at the heart of the message Paul preached continually to his communities. Far too many of them viewed Christianity as merely another mystery religion or social group and were all too happy to drag in the values and practices of the surrounding culture. But for those who are “in Christ” there is a second chance and a clean break with the past — a new life as a gift from God. An encounter with Christ and a commitment to Him means no turning back. This “new creation” is the continual creative work of God and it is all about reconciliation of people and the entire world to God. Reconciliation is another word for wholeness and completeness and does not allow of divisions. Misuse of our faith in this regard undermines the work and the will of God.

But some must learn the hard way. The parable of the prodigal son is deeply imprinted on our spiritual and cultural traditions and is well-represented in the art of the masters. But it is a subtle story and a superficial reading does not do it justice. The impatient and restless younger son demands his share of the inheritance immediately — in effect, he wishes his father dead. Amazingly, the father complies without a word of protest or argument and the jubilant son sets off for the bright lights and good times of a distant land. But self-indulgence and irresponsibility do not last very long. Before long he is broke, down-and-out, frightened and miserable. It is this humiliation that opens his eyes to his situation and jogs his memory of his home and his father.

Rough experiences can often be real blessings — sometimes it is the only message that gets through. As he rushes home, his prepared self-abasing speech of apology and repentance is brushed aside by his overjoyed father who asks no questions and sets no conditions. His father greets him and treats him with the honour due to someone who has accomplished something of note — and he has. He has learned life’s wisdom and has returned to his true home.

His outraged and resentful older brother is like so many people — very fearful and protective of what he deems to be his rightful due and resentful of anyone who seems to outdo him. His own “goodness” and “obedience” is nothing more than a calculating game designed to ensure that he gets what he thinks he deserves. The younger son had to learn through his own experiences that fullness of life can only be bound in the Father’s house and God gave him that freedom. The older son must grow in trust, generosity and freedom.

We can never judge the life of another for we are ignorant of the many and hidden ways that God’s grace is at work in their life.

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