Fear not, for God is mercy

  • February 25, 2016

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) March 6 (Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

Liberation is a long and painful process. Being set free from a negative situation is merely the first step in a continuing journey.

The Israelites had passed many generations in captivity as slaves, and this experience had left a very deep and negative scar on their collective psyche. They had the mentality of slaves, lacking a sense of self-worth, inner strength or independence. This was evident during the exodus journey out of Egypt. Despite the many signs and wonders that God had shown during the liberation, their faith was very weak. They were ruled by fear and an overpowering feeling of vulnerability. As they faced hunger, thirst and the dangers of the desert, doubt and fear made them question God’s presence and care. They even rose in rebellion, desiring to return to slavery in Egypt.

Their selective and romanticized memories glossed over the misery and oppression. God repeatedly provided for their needs and demonstrated fidelity to divine promise and committed relationship with Israel. They even retreated in cowardice when God brought them to the Promised Land. As a result, they had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. The older generation that had experienced slavery would die off, and the younger generation would be toughened and prepared by God. God’s many saving acts of kindness and mercy had to be kept continually in mind as they learned the lesson of trust and obedience.

In today’s reading, they had finally entered into the Promised Land, and all the external props — manna and so on — were brought to a close. From then on they would have to stand on their own feet and make their own way, leaving the past behind. Their disgrace — that is, negative baggage — had been stripped away. They were new people, confident, strong and looking towards the future. Often we can be stuck in the past, reliving old behavioural patterns and responding to life in ways governed by our negative experiences. A conscious effort has to be made to learn new ways of thinking and acting that allow us to leave the past behind. The process can be difficult and painful, but well worth the effort. God intends new life and happiness for us, but we have our critical part to play. We must not return to slavery, but move forward to the future God intends for us.

Paul’s teaching was in the same vein. To be in Christ is to be something completely new, not just a continuation of one’s previous life. Being in Christ is far more than merely assenting to a particular creed or attending church.

Living in Christ in heart and mind allows the Lord to transform us into His likeness. We become reconciled to ourselves, to creation and to God. Only then can we be a true ambassador of Christ and continue the process of reconciling the world to God.

The story of the prodigal son is probably the most beloved story in the Christian tradition. There are many lessons embedded in the story, but just as in the Exodus story, trust and remembrance play a prominent role. The most powerful conversions are the result of remembrance. As the Israelites remembered God’s merciful care in the desert, so the younger son in the story remembered his home and his loving father. With that remembrance, his false identity, self-delusion, fear and selfishness were stripped away. As far as he had strayed from his father, he trusted that he would be accepted and welcomed by him. To the son’s surprise, his father was not even interested in his self-punishing repentance speech — his only response was pure joy at his safe return.

The elder son’s “obedience” and “fidelity” were based on fear and calculation. He did not ask his father for anything because he did not really understand his compassionate and generous nature. Like many people, his hopes rested on a rigid adherence to a tightrope of rules and expectations. The younger son paid dearly for his foolishness in the form of suffering and alienation, but he grew mightily in humility, life wisdom and an appreciation of compassionate mercy.

Jesus told the parable to teach us that God is not like our fears and does not mirror expected patterns of human behaviour. God is mercy, and that is what we must become.

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