4th Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9, 10–12; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21; Luke 15:1–3, 11–32*
Dig two graves
The sword of hatred which we use to kill our enemies must first pass through our own body.
The singing career of Grammy award winner Marvin Gaye
ended in tragedy on April 1, 1983. He was shot to death by his own father.
Gaye’s close friend David Ritz wrote Gaye’s biography a year later. He called it Divided Soul.
Gaye was indeed a divided soul. He was part artist and part entertainer, part sinner and part saint, part macho man and part gentleman.
Gaye’s childhood was tormented by cruelty inflicted upon him by his father. Commenting on the effect this had on Gaye,
Ritz says of his friend:
“He really believed in Jesus a lot, but he could never apply the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness to his own father. In the end it destroyed them both.’’
That story of an unforgiving father and son contrasts sharply with the story of the forgiving father and son, which Jesus tells in today’s gospel.
And the contrast between the two stories spotlights a growing problem in modern society. It is the inability or unwillingness of people to forgive one another.
One of the biggest areas where this inability or unwillingness to forgive manifests itself is in the area of divorce, which involves half of our married population.
In the book How to Forgive Your Ex-Husband, Marcia Hootman and Patt Perkins describe their extensive research
on the anger of women going through divorce.
From their research they draw two conclusions:
1. An appalling amount of energy and money is wasted by women trying to get even with their ex-husbands.
2. Many of these women are now hurting themselves more by their anger than they were hurt by their former spouses.
Explaining their reason for writing the book, Ms. Hootman says:
“We hope it will help’’ women get “rid of the anger, which is so destructive,’’ and “get on with their lives.’’
An insight into how destructive this anger can be
comes from an unexpected source: the American Medical Association.
It surveyed several thousand general practitioners, asking them:
“What percentage of people that you see in a week have needs that you are qualified to treat with your medical skills?’’
The answers to that question were amazing. The doctors responded that they felt qualified to treat only about 10 percent of their patients.
When questioned about the other 90 percent, the doctors said
that the patients suffered from real pain. But their problem
was not a chemical or physical one; it was psychological.
In other words, it was a “life problem’’ that defied normal medical treatment.
* RCIA directives call for the Year A readings for the Scrutinies
on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent. The Ordo also
offers this option. Hence the use of Year A readings here.
The real causes of their illness were things like anger, pent-up hostilities, negative feelings, and negative attitudes. These are problems the normal doctor is not trained or equipped to handle. Commenting on the effect these things have on health, Bruce Larson writes:
“Our feelings about ourselves and others and the quality of our relationships may have more to do with how often we get sick, than our genes, chemistry, diet, or environment.
“Doctors are quick to admit that there is little in their
medical training to equip them to help patients with these life problems.’’
The point is that when we hold a grudge, refuse to forgive, or seek revenge,we hurt ourselves as much as we hurt our enemy.
To put it in a dramatic and vivid way, the sword we use to hurt our enemy must first pass through our own body.
Another way to portray the destructive power of hate or revenge occurs in the film The Karate Kid.
In one scene, Mr.Miyagi asks Daniel if he has a good reason
for wanting to learn karate. Daniel responds, “Is revenge a good enough reason?’’
To this, Mr.Miyagi responds, “Whoever pursues revenge
should dig two graves.’’ One for his enemy and one for himself.
All of this adds up to one thing. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is a message that our modern world needs to take to heart.
It’s a message each one of us needs to take to heart. We
need to ask ourselves, “What are we doing about the anger, bitterness, or resentment that is present in our life?’’
Some time ago a woman wrote a letter to Ann Landers
describing the terrible relationship that once existed between her and her brother. It took the death of their father to get her to forgive him and to treat him as a brother again.
Some time after their reconciliation, her brother had a heart attack and died in her arms. She ends her letter with this moving paragraph:
“I am grateful for the years we had together, but I could scream when I think of all the years we missed because we were too bullheaded and shortsighted to try to get along.
Now he is gone and I am heartsick.’’
Today’s gospel is an invitation to review the relationships
in our lives and to bring them into line with Jesus’ teaching
when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . . pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6:27–28
Let’s close with the prayer of St. Francis:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
“Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
“Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that
we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.’’
4th Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9, 10–12; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21; Luke 15:1–3, 11–32
Be merciful to me!
Like the father of the prodigal son, God longs to welcome us home.
Afew years ago, Father John Powell wrote a best-selling book entitled Happiness Is an Inside Job. In it, he tells the story of a woman who came from a poor economic background.
One day she met the man of her dreams. He was not only a tremendous person but also a man of considerable wealth.
And so she could not believe her ears when he asked her to marry him.
After the wedding, they moved to a beautiful suburban residence. There she lived in surroundings that she had
never even dreamed of.
Then tragedy struck. One day she began to feel extremely ill. It was a feeling that she had never experienced before.
To make a long story short, she went to the hospital, where the doctors diagnosed her illness as terminal. Father Powell describes the impact that the diagnosis had on her. Let me share his exact words with you. He writes:
“She felt a fire of anger ignite inside her. In her fury she wanted to tell God off. So, in her hospital gown and robe,
she struggled through the corridors on her way to the chapel.
“It was to be a face-to-face confrontation. She felt so weak, she had to support herself by bracing against the wall as she moved along.
“When she entered the chapel, it was dark. No one else was there. So she proceeded up the center aisle on her way to the altar. Through what seemed like an endless journey from her room to the chapel, she had been preparing a speech:
“ ‘Oh God, you are a fraud, a real phony. You have been passing yourself off as love for two thousand years. But every time anyone finds a little happiness, you pull out the rug from under her feet. Well, I just want you to know that I have had it. I see through you.’
“In the center aisle and near the front of the chapel, she fell.
She was so weak, she could hardly see. Her eyes could barely read the words woven into the carpet at the step into the sanctuary. She read and then repeated the words:
‘LORD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME, A SINNER.’
“Suddenly, all the angry words,
all the desire to tell God off was gone. All that was left was:
‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’
“Then she put her tired head down over her crossed arms, and listened. Deep within herself she heard: ‘All of this is a simple invitation to ask you to turn your life over to me.
You have never done that, you know. The doctors here do their best to treat you, but I alone can cure you.’
“In the silence and darkness of that night, she turned her life over to God. She signed her blank check and turned it over to [God] to fill in all the amounts. It was the hour of God. It was the moment of her surrender.
“Finding her way back to her room in the hospital, she slipped off into a deep sleep.’’*
* John Powell, Happiness Is an Inside Job (Allen, Texas: Tabor Publishing, 1989), p. 137.
That story has a happy ending. The woman’s illness took a miraculous turn, leaving her healthy once again.
That beautiful story is a kind of modern-day version of the beautiful parable we read in today’s gospel.
It is the story of a woman who, like the prodigal son, enjoyed great material blessings. It is the story of a woman who, like the prodigal son, turned against her loving Father when things didn’t work out the way that she thought they should.
It is the story of a woman who, like the prodigal son,
turned back to her loving Father when she came to her senses.
It is a story of someone we can all relate to at least to some extent. For we have all duplicated in our own lives the story of the prodigal son or daughter.
But here, we need to say something very important. Perhaps our story has not yet turned out as beautifully as did
the parable of the prodigal son or the story of the woman.
Perhaps we are still in a state of anger with God over some misfortune that has befallen us.
Perhaps we are still at the stage where the woman was as she struggled through the hospital corridors on her way to the chapel, preparing her speech to “tell God off.’’
Or perhaps we are like the prodigal son, who had wrecked his life but had not yet mustered up the courage to return home and ask his father’s forgiveness.
Regardless of our situation, the message in today’s gospel
is the same for us as it was for the prodigal son and for the woman.
The famous British poet Francis Thompson expresses the message beautifully in his classic poem, “The Hound of Heaven.’’
In the poem, the poet has been fleeing God because he feels that God has been treating him badly. When God finally catches the poet as a hound catches a prey God says to him:
“All which I took from thee I did but take not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
“All which thy child’s mistake Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home.
“Rise, clasp My hand, and come.’’
4th Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9a, 10–12; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21; Luke 15:1–3, 11–32
We do what the prodigal son did.
Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone,
the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
Psychologists talk about the persona and the shadow. The persona is that part of ourselves that we like and show to others. For example, we are kind and forgiving.
The shadow is that part of ourselves that we don’t like and try to hide from others. For example, we tend to be judgmental
But no matter how hard we try to hide our shadow, it
refuses to stay hidden. With annoying regularity, it pops
out unexpectedly to embarrass us in front of other people.
The key to controlling our shadow is to admit to it and
to confess it. This is the secret behind the highly successful
12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step 5 of the program reads, “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
The AA manual, entitled Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, says of Step 5, “Few steps are harder to take and scarcely any step is more necessary.”
Why is Step 5 so important? The AA manual says that,
for one thing, it helps rid us of the unhealthy isolation that secrecy breeds.
Another important benefit is humility. We finally see ourselves as we really are, and, hopefully, we will want
Still many people shy away from Step 5. They say, “God gave us our lives. Why can’t we confess directly to God? Why bring a third party into this?”
The manual explains why. Being alone with God isn’t as
embarrassing as facing another person.
“When we are honest with another person,” the manual
says, “it confirms we have been honest with ourselves and with God.”
The manual concludes, saying, “Many an AA, once agnostic or atheist, tells us that it was during Step 5 that he first felt the presence of God.”
This brings us to the sacrament of Reconciliation. Step 5 of the AA program is modeled after the sacrament of Reconciliation.
The sacrament, on the other hand, is modeled after the parable of the prodigal son.
Recall how the son left home, spent all his money, was starving, and decided to return home.
In the parable, the son does the same four things that we do
in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
First, he examines the situation created by his sin, saying,
“Here I am, dying from hunger.”
Second, he repents what he has done. Swallowing his pride, he says, “I shall go back to my father.”
Third, he confesses his sins, saying, “Father, I have sinned.”
Finally, he makes amends for his sins, saying, “Treat me as a hired worker.”
That mirrors exactly what we do in the sacrament of Reconciliation: We examine our conscience, repent our
sins, confess them, and amend our lives.
Next, take the father in the parable. He does what the priest does in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
First, the father welcomes his son back. He does not stand at the door and glare at his son as he walks up. He runs out and hugs him.
Second, he orders shoes put on his feet. They were a symbol of forgiveness. Servants went barefoot; sons wore shoes.
Third, he puts a ring on his finger, probably a signet ring, symbolizing his reunion with his family. The seal on the ring empowers him to do business in the family name.
Finally, the father celebrates his son’s safe return home with a banquet.
These four things are exactly what the priest does in the sacrament: He welcomes us, forgives us, reconciles us, and invites us to celebrate the Eucharist again with the community.
Let’s now take a brief look at how all this plays out in an actual, true case.
Paul Moore was attending a prep boarding school in New Hampshire. He had drifted away from his faith. Just before Christmas break, the school held its annual retreat.
During the retreat, Paul happened to mention his situation to the retreat master. The retreat master gave Paul a sheet of
paper to help him prepare for confession. Paul returned to his room. He wrote later:
I knelt down and prayed that I would do this thing right. . . .
Then I began to read through the sins listed on the paper.
After each one was a blank for me to write in how many times
I did it.
Even though it was embarrassing, I filled out everything.
Then, I went back to the retreat master. He put on a purple stole.
As I read down the list of sins, I was amazed that he wasn’t shocked at them or at the number of times I did them.
He ended by making some suggestions. Then he praised me for my courage to confess so straightforwardly. He ended by giving me absolution.
Then something incredible happened.A mysterious, beautiful feeling flooded my entire being. I was filled with deep peace and joy. I felt the way the boy in the parable of the prodigal son must have felt when his father hugged him.
Although this feeling gradually wore off, my life was never the same after it. God had touched me, forgiven me, and made me a totally new person. . . .
When I went home for Christmas I wanted to attend a midnight Mass, but couldn’t find any nearby.
Since I longed to be with Christ right then, rather than wait for morning, I put on my coat and walked outside. The night was cold and clear.
I walked to a nearby woods, knelt down in the snow, looked up at the stars,and prayed to the newborn Christ. From that time on, I knew my faith would stay with me wherever I found myself. Adapted from Presences: A Bishop’s Life in the City
Let us close with these words from today’s second reading.
They sum up what Paul experienced that Christmas Eve after his retreat.
Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone,
the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
4th Sunday of Lent