A homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday)—March 27, 2022.
On my way home from an appointment the other day, I was listening to the Spotify All Out 90’s playlist, as one does, when an old favorite that I hadn’t heard in years came on: “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. If you don’t remember the song, it is—as the kids say—a banger.
Don’t you know? Don’t you know, things can change
Things’ll go your way
If you hold on for one more day
Whether it’s Wilson Phillips or some other artist, the theme is a familiar one. We hear it across all forms of human expression. “Things may be bad, but better days are ahead.” This hope for a brighter future is finally realized in our first reading as Joshua and the tribes cross the Jordan River and celebrate Passover, echoing the event that began their 40-year journey out of slavery. They have arrived in the Promised Land; the longed-for better days have finally come.
I’m thankful for the providential timing of my reacquaintance with Wilson Phillips alongside this reading from Joshua because both provided me with a new context in which to read the famous story of the prodigal son. This parable is deeply personal and emotional, one that resonates for us in different ways during different times in our lives. We have all at some point needed fatherly reassurance like the younger son, while at other times have felt the twinge of resentment that typifies the older son. However, I would like to suggest that we take a moment to think of the story not through the eyes of either son, but through the eyes of the father.
The Old Testament is full of not-so-great relationships between father and son. From Isaac to Eli to King Ahaz, there are not a lot of well-adjusted households from which to choose. Perhaps no father-son story from the Hebrew scriptures is more gut-wrenching, more exemplary of the failed and broken relationships that litter our lives than that of David and his third-oldest son Absalom. Let me briefly recap the narrative for a moment:
When presented with a very legitimate grievance, Absalom directly disobeys his father and, fearing his wrath, goes into exile. After five years without seeing each other, Absalom returns to his father, and there appears to be a reconciliation. In the meantime, harboring resentment in his heart, Absalom takes up arms against his father to seize his crown. King David, unwilling to give up on his son and at significant risk to himself, instructs his generals not to harm Absalom during battle, even as he takes up arms against his father and king. David’s generals disregard his orders and kill Absalom. When confronted with the horrible news of his son’s death, David breaks down. In one of the most tragically moving scenes in the entire Hebrew scripture, he weeps and cries out:
O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son! (2 Samuel 18:33)
David loves his son despite his evident and significant failings as a father. He attempts to spare his life at considerable risk to himself and longs for nothing more than complete reconciliation. He does not get it. David prays and weeps that he may exchange his own life for that of his son. He cannot. He longs for a better future, a “Promised Land” relationship where father and son live in peace and harmony. Sadly, that future eludes him.
With the story of a tragically failed father-son relationship in mind, we turn our attention to the story of the generous father and his prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. Like Absalom, the prodigal son abandons his father and sins. Like Absalom, the prodigal son desires to take what his father possesses for himself. Like David, the generous father is willing to reach out to his son at significant risk and personal cost. Like David, the generous father wants nothing more than to reconcile with his son. Like David, the generous father prays that his son, who is dead, may come to life again.
The difference, of course, is that this time it happens. In the story of the prodigal son, there is reconciliation. Death does give way to life. The better days have arrived, the Promised Land has been reached, the longed-for glorious future has come. When viewed in this light, the story becomes not simply one of comfort for the lost or correction for the bitter, but an announcement of the final arrival in the Promised Land foreshadowed in Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan. With the coming of Christ, there is finally hope for ultimate reconciliation not only between fathers and sons but in all relationships, especially with God. No power, not even death, can bar us from a glorious future.
We should all take heart in the parable of the prodigal son. Amid substance abuse, failed relationships, past hurts, or even death, we should remember that nothing needs to prevent us from entry into the Promised Land. Nothing needs to stop us from reconciliation, reunion, and new life with one another and our God. We must not become bitter or cynical like the older son in the story, who resents his father’s benevolence. Instead, we should run to the new future we are promised. We can reconcile. We can have new life. We are promised a better future. The thing we have been longing for our entire lives, throughout all of history, has come to us in the reconciling and life-giving grace of Jesus Christ. We have arrived in the Promised Land.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.