4th Sunday of Lent (C) – 2007
March 18, 2007

See also

Readings: Jos 5:9a, 10-12 / 2 Cor 5:17-21 / Lk 15:1-3, 11-32


By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

We started our Sunday Lenten reflections around the ideas of desert and desolation. The Israelites’ wandering in the desert for all of 40 years and Jesus’ own desert experience where he was tempted to the hilt, both led to discovery, to a more intense devotion and attachment to the God of promises. On the second Sunday of Lent, we reflected on the need for us to be awake, aware, and alive with and for God, to enable us to see for ourselves the unfolding glory of the Lord in his Transfiguration – a foretaste of good and better things to come. Last Sunday, we spoke of a love of this God of promises and fulfillment as, at one and the same time, tender, tough, and true. His is a love that is compassionate, but His, too, is a love that demands, a love that commands a loving response in return. But behind the image of a father giving “tough love,” the egregious truth stands out: “The Lord is kind and merciful” (Responsorial Psalm, 3rd Sunday of Lent).

Today, fourth Sunday, our thoughts move over to the idea of deliverance, not dependency. The chosen people finally made it across the river Jordan, as our first reading tells us (Jos 5:9a, 10-12). They no longer depend on manna from above, but from what they work for from below – on the fertile ground of Canaan. “No longer was there manna for the Israelites, who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.” Dependent no more, they nevertheless still had to work for their keeps. They tilled the soil. They toiled hard. But their journey from dependence to deliverance enabled them to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Responsorial Psalm) who proved Himself not only a God of promises, but also a God of fulfillment.

New life was in the offing for the chosen people. Their deliverance spelled newness, not in terms of shallow novelties, but a deep form of newness that seeps to the very core of their personhood – a foretaste and foreshadowing of the total newness that St. Paul speaks of: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2nd Reading). Deliverance is like being in a fertile, well hydrated Canaan. It is in not being dependent like the Jews of old, waiting each day for manna to fall down from heaven. It is in being like the Jews after the crossing over of the Jordan river … They were free … free to develop and make fruitful their newfound deep inner freedom in “a land flowing with milk and honey.” But for all that milk and honey to flow, they first had to get their creative juices flowing through hard work, fervent hope, and deep, creative love. “On that same day after the Passover, they ate of the produce of the land in the form of unleavened cakes and parched grain” (1st Reading).

This idea of new life contrasts with the death-dealing and disabling attitudes of the notorious Pharisees and Scribes of today’s gospel. They block the newness behind the never-heard-of-before behavior of Jesus who “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Gospel). They “take offense” at the Lord allowing “tax collectors and sinners to draw near to listen to Jesus.” They get scandalized that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ Jesus” (2nd Reading). Masters of deceit and hypocrisy, they missed the truth about the God of deliverance in action in and through Jesus, there and then.

This occasioned the SETUP of a realistic story (called a parable) about a son, his elder brother, and their father. Their old, apparently wonderful and ideal, routine was UPSET by an over-eager-beaver-of-a-younger-son, who elbowed his way to get a third of the father’s property. One upset led to another upset, and yet other upsets in his – and the whole family’s life. He goes not only into penury. He goes down to the nadir of debauchery. Sin is a cauldron of double-trouble. It is a brew that upsets not only relationships, but a whole lot more – including people’s objective sense of justice and fairness. That brew of double-trouble superficially “brings him to his pragmatic senses.” The younger son, inappropriately referred to by tradition as the “prodigal son,” thinks of a bright idea. Remorse did not make him rise up from his fall. Hunger and utter penury did. He set his eyes on his father’s servants and their relative good fortune. “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.”

The disturbed SETUP goes into further UPSET mode. Sin, as alienation from self and others, brings about a new and further alienation. The younger son’s dysfunctionality now transfers to the older son’s intractability. The elder son complains: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet, you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” The plot thickens. The older son’s anger glistens. The original UPSET now drives a dividing wedge between the father and the older son. Sin’s double-trouble affects the once ideal and peaceful relationship. The objective sense of justice and fairness is now colored by suspicion and recrimination. The past is now called to the fore, brought about as a noisy witness to the unfairness and injustice of it all. Anger that is originally meant for the younger brother is become anger directed at the father. The father becomes the scapegoat of all the older son’s pent-up resentment and negativity. Not only the plot thickens. Anger becomes the older brother with resentment so thick one could cut it with a knife.

Murray Bowen, the famous family therapist, proposed the theory of the concept of “societal regression.” By that he meant that if a given society is exposed continually to stimuli of violence and anger, the whole society regresses to a lower level of humanity and a higher level of violence. The society, simply put, becomes less human. In Catholic theology, this concept has an equivalent in what Pope John Paul II calls “sinful solidarity,” “solidarity in evil,” or a “culture of sin” or a “culture of death.” Sin is a brew of double trouble that affects not only oneself, but also others. Every act of personal sin has a social dimension. The UPSET caused by the greed and selfishness of the younger son affected the relationship within the family system. The UPSETS we cause by our personal sins affect the whole of humanity, and afflict wounds on the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

Such is the warp and woof of the fabric of corruption. Such is the nature of the interlocking web of personal and social sins that make up sinful structures in our society. And such, too, is the nature of broken relationships and the upsets behind our terror-filled, and violence-prone world.

But my job is to preach good news to a broken world. This news, by the way, is not mine, but God’s and God’s alone. Yes … “we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2nd Reading). And the Good News is simply this … beyond the SETUP, despite the UPSET, God wills and wants us to RESET.

Yes … the story of the prodigal son is a misnomer. It ought to have been the story of the PRODIGAL FATHER. Despite the upsets caused by the son, despite the obviously upset and angry elder son, the father tries to reset relationships. And to reset means to re-boot. It means starting on a clean slate. It means shutting down one’s memory bank, erasing the past, and starting on a push from a renewed and reset operating system. He focuses not on the resentment of the elder son, and definitely not on the stupid indiscretions of the younger son, but takes three different steps to fulfill the illogicality and prodigality of God who is kind and merciful. He runs to his son. He embraces his son tightly. And he kisses him.

Sin’s double trouble is replaced, rewritten, and reset by a love that comes in bundles of threes!

In case you missed it, we prayed in bundles of threes at the start of this Mass …
“Teach us, the people who bear his name, to follow the example he gave us: may our FAITH, HOPE, and CHARITY turn HATRED to LOVE, CONFLICT to PEACE, and DEATH to ETERNAL LIFE.” FOR YOU ARE GOD … FATHER, SON, & HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN. AMEN. AMEN!

* I borrow liberally from Peter Kreeft and used his famous three words: Setup, Upset, Reset.

[Paranaque City – March 14, 2007]


[Dundalk, MD – March 21, 2004]

One is hard pressed to proclaim glad tidings at a time when the whole civilized world, in solidarity with Spain, mourns not only the death and gruesome dismemberment of 200 innocent people, (and more than 1500 seriously hurt), but the more serious trampling to the ground of what, among others, sets us apart as human beings from all the rest of living creation.

No … I am not referring to the more obvious human capacity to think and to act willfully. Whoever did that dastardly act definitely is good at both. The perpetrators thought well and planned well what they did. And the meticulous details that went into such a complex plan that was, by any standard successful, showed even more that they all acted willfully, knowingly and deliberately, with a very disturbing attitude of sinful nonchalance and callous sang froid!

But those people who have shown so much genius in planning and in the execution of their well-thought out plan, definitely lack one thing that ordinarily makes human beings worthy of the name – the capacity for empathy, the ability to “feel with,” and to stand in the shoes of so many innocent people; the capacity for human compassion, and the ability to stand in solidarity with others’ pain, misfortune or suffering.

It is bad enough for anyone not to be bothered, nor affected by the massive suffering of so many people. But the mere thought of anyone willfully and deliberately inflicting untold suffering and horrific sudden death to hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people boggles the imagination and disturbs one’s faith in humanity.

For many survivors and relatives, faced as they are with something that is basically unacceptable owing to the suddenness, senselessness and injustice of it all, faith in God may also be in a crucible. How can one understand, let alone accept the reality of the millions killed by a Hitler, or the hundreds of thousands made to suffer due to the dictatorial policies of a Ceausescu, or a Marcos, or a Duvalier, or the hundreds whose lives were forever changed or snuffed out by selfish and unrepentant coup plotters in certain countries (like the Philippines), or the blood baths caused by ethnic and religious strifes in certain other countries (like Rwanda) in recent history?

Today, I offer no answers. Today, as priest and prophet, I offer neither solutions, nor a tirade of interdicts against those men guilty of so much inhumanity to other men. I only modestly offer what today’s liturgy offers – an alternative view of things and events, in the hope that we all can imbibe an equally alternative way of acting and behaving, thus becoming what Christ was, what Christ is, to all suffering humanity. All I hope to do is to offer what Christ offers humanity today – an image of his God and Father who is good to both the bad and the good, the saints and sinners, who makes His sun to shine on all sinful humanity.

Together with the whole Church, I only offer good news in the midst of all sorts of bad news.

Today, you would remember, being the fourth Sunday of Lent, is also known as Laetare Sunday. Midway through our supposed protracted Lenten retreat, the liturgy tells us not to lose heart, but to persevere. We are told to do some rejoicing. And the readings themselves tell us wherefore rejoice: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” Make no mistake about it … we rejoice not just because of God’s goodness, but owing to God’s profligate goodness. In the first reading, God’s people are reminded of the big change that took place in their lives: “Today, I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” The shame and utter humiliation associated with being slaves in a foreign land were lifted from their hearts. The Lord showed Himself, indeed, a deliverer, a savior.

In the second reading, rejoicing ought to come for “the old things have passed away; new things have come” for us all – epitomized by the new life that was wrought in Christ.

The Gospel of Luke clinches the good news of God’s overflowing mercy and goodness. The context is just as important as the more obvious message. The story of the “prodigal father” is told in the presence of “tax collectors and sinners.” God’s goodness is made to stand in stark contrast to the evil machinations of tax collectors and public sinners. God’s compassion and empathetic reaching out to repentant sinners symbolized by the father who welcomes, instead of condemns, his mortified returnee of a once sinful and disobedient son, sharply contrasts with the close mindedness and rigidity of the Pharisees and publicans who always felt self-righteous and who thought of themselves as faithful to the law.

The Pharisees and Publicans’ self-righteousness is behind their lack of empathy and lack of solidarity that stand in contrast with God’s gracious and profligate goodness. The same lack of empathy and brotherly solidarity seems to have been manifested by the older son, who, instead of rejoicing at the sight of a long lost brother, lost no time in counting what was not given him by the same father, and began remonstrating with the older man. His rigid, if immature, sense of justice prevented him from appreciating the presence of his sorrowing and repentant younger brother.

The world as we know it, steeped yet in rigidity and the unbending attitude of “tit-for-tat,” the modern version of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (lex talionis) could use a bit more of reflection on today’s good news. A world steeped in bad news could not afford to wallow in more bad news. For centuries, going to war has been conveniently justified. For centuries, “godly” men have maimed, crippled and killed one another “in the name of God.” For so long, even Catholic theologians have subscribed to the tenets of the so-called “just war” theory, a theory that officially, the Church’s magisterium has quoted less and less and veered away from in the recent decades since Vatican II.

History teaches us, to our shame, that wars solve no problem. The lessons of history ought to be clear enough if only we were less rigid and more open to solidarity and compassion, both products of the ability to empathize with others, to see others from the vantage point of Christ who suffered and died unjustly – and painfully – in the worst kind of death ever invented by mankind, the crucifixion. And that all too clear lesson is simply this: war and violence make for a never-ending spiral, a cycle that must stop where it begins – in the heart of each one of us.

The Pharisees and the publicans, so sure of themselves and so protective of their position, so disdainful of the tax collectors and sinners … the elder son who was so protective of his rightful share, so taken up by his “obedience” to his father and so indignant about the apparent “injustice” done to him … this is the story of all of us. This is no different from the utter lack of empathy that we manifest when we think that violence and force done to those who do violence and unjust force, are the right and proper things to do.

Millions of Spaniards, who went out all over their major cities in the aftermath of Marzo Once, almost a quarter of the total population of Spain, including the very people from the Basque secessionist region, perhaps could teach us an important lesson. In their pain and sorrow, in their righteous anger, they cried not for vengeance, but for peace. 911 days after 9/11, the Lord seems to tell them and His beloved people all over the world, that the cycle of violence must not be allowed to get a life of its own.

God’s unparalleled goodness is what we are faced with today. The breadth, the depth and the intensity of His love is unmistakable …no ifs and buts … just love and forgiveness and understanding from the world’s profligate, prodigal and tremendous lover!

Fr. Vitaliano Chito Dimaranan, SDB