4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) (C)
Picture: cc Gustavo Montes de Oca
My dear friends, have you ever had to move to a foreign country? Do you know what it feels like? Even for those who like to travel, relocating can still be very challenging, right? To settle in a new place, I have to let go of many of the conveniences back home, which I so often take for granted, and adapt to unfamiliar conditions and people. Often, I also have to change my diet. For even if I may be able to find similar kinds of food in the new place, they don’t usually taste exactly the same as they do back home. For example, doesn’t fried Hokkien Mee look and taste quite different up north in Kuala Lumpur as compared to down here in Singapore?
But if it’s such a hassle to move, then why do people do it? Why not just stay put? Keep enjoying the comforts of home? Of course, people move for different reasons. But there are two in particular that are perhaps more common. The first applies as much to a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, as to an expatriate taking up an overseas posting. It is the hope of securing a better life, for oneself and for one’s family. The second reason is why many spouses move. They willingly uproot themselves from familiar surroundings, and heroically endure the struggles of living in a strange new place, all for the sake of being with the one whom they love.
To live a better life, and to be with the ones we love. These are two reasons why perfectly sensible people decide to change not just where they live, but also what they eat. And it’s helpful to keep this in mind, not just because our parish includes a good number of foreigners, but also because this is what we find in our Mass readings on this 4th Sunday in Lent.
The first reading describes that moment when the Israelites get their first taste of food from the land of Canaan. For more than forty long years, they have been constantly on the move. From Egypt into the wilderness, and from the wilderness into the Promised Land. And with each move there has been a corresponding change in diet. From the fleshpots of Egypt (Ex 16:3) to the manna in the desert, and now the unleavened bread and roasted corn of Canaan. This change both in location and diet has not been easy. Why have they subjected themselves to it? Like refugees and expatriates, is it not in the hope of securing a better life for themselves? And not just a better material life but, more importantly, a fuller spiritual one?
The change in the Israelites’ physical location and diet signals a deeper interior movement. A shift from slavery and idolatry in Egypt, to freedom and the worship of the one true God in Canaan. A change from feeding only on what their slave-drivers provide, to gradually learning to eat from out of the hand of the Lord. To trust in and rely totally on God alone. In the words of the psalm, to taste and see that the Lord is good.
Isn’t this also what happens to the younger son in the gospel parable? Like the Israelites, he too is on the move. From his father’s house to a distant country, and then back again. And this change in physical location signals a shift in the boy’s spiritual home, indicated by his modified diet. The greed and lust that fuel his move to a foreign land, leave him so hungry that he longs to be given what pigs eat. Just as the mercy and compassion he receives in his father’s warm embrace is as appetising to him as a tender calf fattened on grain. Like the Israelites, the younger son moves for the sake of a better life. And Jesus uses this experience to illustrate that of the tax collectors and sinners who seek out his company. Like the younger son, they too wish to change their location and their diet in order to enjoy a fuller spiritual life.
But sinners are not the only ones relocating in our readings. Isn’t it striking that, in the parable, the father too is constantly on the move? Repeatedly running out of his house to meet and speak with first one son and then the other. To reassure both of their father’s undying love for them. Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him… My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours… Why does the father do this? Isn’t it for the same reason that many spouses choose to relocate? In order to be with those he loves. And to ensure that each one eventually enjoys a fuller life.
Just as selfish sinners move, first in rebellion, and then in repentance, so too does our loving and merciful God match their movement in order to bring about reconciliation. And how does God reconcile, if not through the Mysteries we celebrate at this Mass? Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Who humbly passes over from heaven to earth, from earth to cross, from cross to grave, and from grave to sky. All for the sake of enfolding us in his Father’s embrace. To make us realise just how much we are loved.
All of which presents a fuller picture of what the great season of Lent is meant to foster in us. Not only are we sinners invited to turn back to God in repentance but, having experienced God’s mercy, we are also called to follow Christ in facilitating reconciliation. As the second reading tells us, It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation…. So we are ambassadors for Christ.… And, as you know, ambassadors relocate not just for themselves, but also to build better relations among others.
And isn’t this kind of reconciling movement so very important today? When so many of us often choose to remain stubbornly locked in our own comfortable ways of looking at and relating to the world? Using technology not so much to engage those who may be different from us, but instead to keep them at bay. Or, worse, to ridicule and bully them. And, in extreme cases, even to terrorise and to exterminate them. Sometimes under religious pretexts.
Like the Pharisees and the scribes in today’s gospel, are we not being called to leave behind the deadly comfort of our prejudices, in order to experience and to share God’s love with others? Like the older son in the gospel parable, is not the invitation to enter the Father’s house of mercy and reconciliation also extended to us as well?
My dear brothers and sisters, as we continue preparing to celebrate the joys of Easter, how are you being invited to relocate, to change your spiritual position, today?