Fourth Sunday of Lent: Joy in the Desert

Third Sunday of Lent: Rejoicing to be On Our Way

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

This Sunday is the pink Sunday of Lent, the day the priest wears joyful vestments to remind us that there is happiness even here. (I know they insist the vestments are “rose.” But rosa is just the Latin word for pink.)

Our first reading is a commentary on that joy in the desert.  Joshua and the Israelites are camped “on the plains of Jericho”: that means they just crossed the Jordan, after forty years of Exodus, and are beginning to claim the Promised Land.  They celebrate the Passover, and the next day they eat “unleavened cakes” (since Passover is observed for a week) and “parched grain.” “Parched” is a funny translation; what it means is that they roasted the fresh local grain on their campfires. 

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Now, on the one hand, it’s nice that they’re finally eating fresh grain, instead of manna.  They have come to a place where good food actually grows.  But it’s cooked on the camp fire—just as the Passover lamb must be roasted over fire, not in an oven or a pot—because they are still on the move.

I imagine our own campfire meals.  Even canned stuff tastes good over a campfire, because you’re thankful to be eating, a special thankfulness because you can’t prepare a feast. 

And that’s the pink vestments of Lent: not the settled joy of a feast day, but the joy of being on the road, on our way, moving forward toward the Resurrection.  Even a fast can be a feast.


Our reading from Second Corinthians talks about “reconciliation,” or maybe it should be translated, “exchange.”  “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”  We are “in Christ a new creation,” and that’s something to celebrate.  But we celebrate that new creation in and through Lent.  It’s not that everything is fine; it’s that we are in the process of transformation, on the road to the Resurrection, passing through Good Friday.


And so we come to the Prodigal Son.  Above all what marks Luke is his eye for these stories—also the Good Samaritan, the place of honor at the wedding feast, the rich man and Lazaurs, the persistent widow: the touching stories are mostly unique to Luke. 

So many rich details.  I love this book.  I wish I could write my own. 

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The story, of course, is not about the Prodigal Son, but about the Father and the Elder Brother.  The Lectionary sets the theme: “the Pharisees and scribes began to complain,” the Elder Brother, “saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,’” like the Father in the story.  Then it skips the two introductory parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke alone adds the widow and her coin), which tell the same story more briefly.

But though the main point is about the Father and the Elder Son, Jesus and the Pharisees, Luke gives us brilliant details about the Prodigal. 

The Prodigal is clearly at fault: “Father give me the share of your estate . . . So the father divided the property,” literally his “life.”  What a lout.  “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.”  But “when he had freely spent everything,” we feel almost bad for him, because “a severe famine struck,” not his fault.  Few stories in world literature make our eyes roll like this one. 

But what does he do?  “He hired himself out?”  Literally, he glued

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himself to a local, adhered, sucked up.  And it must be said, when he “comes to his senses,” he doesn’t say, “what a jerk I’ve been,” he says, “how many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough.”  It’s pure calculation and manipulation: sucking up to this guy hasn’t worked out, maybe I’ll suck up to my father.

Meanwhile, “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody game him any.”  We groan again: he’s feeding the swine, he doesn’t need anyone to give him “the pods” (literally, “the hard stuff,” from the same word as keratin).  But he wants more gifts, like he took from his father.  And going home, he’s not looking for hard keratin “pods,” he’s looking for “food”: he knows how they eat at his father’s house. 

But his father is utterly unlike him, catching sight of him a long way off, filled with compassion, running to meet him, giving him what he doesn’t deserve.  He goes out to the Elder, too, who refuses to come in.


The Elder Son’s objections are totally reasonable.  The Prodigal is a real jerk, one of the greatest jerks in all literature.  And the Prodigal in this story is us.  This isn’t a story about how great we are.  Our new creation, our entrance into the Promised Land, isn’t about how we’ve really cleaned up our act and done the right thing.  It’s about the sheer goodness of the Father, in his Son Jesus Christ. 

The Elder Son, of course, is also us, rejecting the Father’s way of mercy, insistent on merit. 

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But the real celebration, the pink vestments of Lent and the fresh grain roasted on the fires of the Promised Land, is that somehow he can bring us from death to life, from being lost to being found.  We rejoice not in our goodness, but in his, and in the process of our redemption, which is still under way.

In what parts of your life should you be rejoicing more at the Father’s mercy?

Third Sunday of Lent: Get Moving

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

The first Sunday of Lent, the reading has always been about Jesus’ fast of forty days, and the second Sunday, his Transfiguration.  The sixth Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we read the Passion from our Gospel for the year (with John’s version on Good Friday).  In this year of Luke, the fourth Sunday will be the Prodigal Son, and the fifth will be the woman caught in adultery, from John.  (You have probably noticed that parishes with RCIA have the option to use the same readings every year.)

The Lectionary tells us, with good reason, that these middle Sundays are “about conversion.” 

But this third Sunday the reading is obscure.  First Jesus talks about some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”  Then he talks about a fig tree that bears no fruit—you can get an idea of how weird that parable is if you look at the different treatments Matthew, Mark, and Luke give it: a rich but confusing episode in the life and preaching of Jesus.

The theme that will emerge, a central theme of Luke, is that we are on our way.  Christianity is not about where you are, but where you are going, and the progress you make on the road.  Lent is a time to remember that we have not yet arrived.


The first three readings are a complicated web.  The Lectionary says the Old Testament readings of Lent aim to give us a tour of the Old Testament, while the Epistle ties together the first reading and the Gospel.  In every season, the Psalm brings out the central theme of the Old Testament reading.

This Sunday, the Epistle is from 1 Corinthians 10.  It says that everything that happens in the Old Testament “happened as examples for us.”  And it says, particularly, that the Exodus is about us.  We skip some verses about the idolatry and porneia of the people of the Exodus, but skip to the central point: God provided, and the people grumbled.  They did not receive what he offered.  It’s not good enough to be one of the people, if you do not let God’s presence transform you in thanksgiving.

The Psalm says the Lord is kind and merciful.  The Hebrew words speak of God caressing us, bending down in acknowledgement of us. One of its central words is hesed, which means loving kindness but literally that he bows his head to us, shows us reverence.

The Old Testament reading these all spell out is Moses and the Burning Bush.  There God says he hears his people’s cry, witnesses their affliction: he bows his head to them.  Then it says who he is: he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he is the great “I am.”  Let us just say that God’s hesed is not a sign of his weakness, but of his awesomeness.  He is the God of life, of superabundance, the God who saves and is the source of all being.  As at the Transfiguration, we should be overawed at his goodness—and moved by it.


In our Gospel, Jesus calls us to move. 

In the first half, “some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate” had shed, in their place of sacrifice.  Now, this is Luke 13.  In Luke 9, the turning point, Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem; people recognize him, fear him, as one whose “face is set for Jerusalem” (9:53).  But in chapter 17, he will still be “between Samaria and Galilee.”  So at this point, he is in Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem. 

So first he speaks of Galileans: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?  . . . If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”  To the Galileans, he says, it’s not about what happens to you or where you’re from: it’s about repentance.

Then he speaks of his destination, “Or those eighteen people were were killed when the tower at Siloam [near Jerusalem] fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?”  It’s not about being a Jerusalemite either.  All will perish.  But God calls us to repentance.

Lent reminds us: it’s not about being “a Catholic.”  It’s about repentance, about being moved by the awesome God.


So then he tells the parable of the fig gree.  “For three years now”—we are in the third year of Jesus’s ministry—“I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none.”  But the gardener begs one more chance: “Leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.  If not you can cut it down.”

The gardener, too, wants the fruit of repentance.  It’s not good enough to be “his” tree—unless the fertilizer he pours on us moves us and transforms us.  Not good enough to put up tents and get cozy on Mount Tabor.  Not good enough to be a Catholic without Lent, or the Cross, or the hard journey. 

Jesus calls us to move.

What complacency does Jesus want to work out of you?

Second Sunday of Lent: Called Out of this World

Genesis 15:5–12, 17–18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17–4:1, Luke 9:28-36

The first Sunday of Lent, we battled the temptations of the flesh (bread), the eye (miracles), and pride (the kingdoms of the earth). The second Sunday, we see the goal of this battle: Jesus transfigured.  Jesus shows us God’s power by leading us in the fight against temptation, and he shows us God’s glory in the Transfiguration.  And so the reading concludes, “Jesus was found alone,” or “there was found Jesus only.”  Only Jesus.



Our readings rise to the theme.  In the first, Abraham walks by faith.  God promises him descendants as numerous as the stars; Abraham’s believes; and it is credited to him as righteousness.  It all begins with trusting in the Lord.

Already this reading develops things a step further.  Abraham believes the promise about children, but when God promises him a land for them, he questions.  That question drives him to sacrifice—the strange sacrifice of animals split in two, with the appearance of a flaming torch passing between them. 

There are two levels of faith.  One is pure faith in God’s plan for his people.  But then that faith has to take flesh: to believe that God will actually give us a place for those children requires trusting God with our stuff, and so Abraham’s sacrifice.  The highest faith sees Jesus alone—but for that faith to take flesh, we must set aside other things, so that Jesus is alone.


Our reading from Philippians raises the stakes.  For the enemies of the cross, Paul says, “their end is destruction.”  That’s ironic: the Cross seems like destruction.  We say, “God wants me to be joyful!”  And Jesus says, “only through the Cross.”

So too those who make their stomach their God and shameful things their glory.  If we live for this life alone, we live for destruction.  If we live beyond this life—and offer this life in sacrifice, even embracing the Cross—than beyond destruction we find God.

But only because he is our savior, who can “change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”  Only Jesus can carry us through.  That’s what we profess in our Lenten fasting.


I’m sorry this is the first reflection I’ve been able to publish this year of Luke, because I’ve been trying to watch Luke’s themes.  His Gospel is the most complicated of the four.  Somehow it focuses on the power of grace, the power of God’s mercy, the change God brings about in the worldly order.

In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

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In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he adds some details.  Moses and Elijah were talking to him—about “his exodus,” Luke adds, “that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  In fact, Luke’s Gospel quickly moves to that final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus heads for Jerusalem in chapter twenty of Matthew, six chapters before the Cross; and chapter ten of Mark, four chapters before the Cross; but in Luke it’s in chapter nine, thirteen chapters before the Cross.  (In John he heads for Jerusalem in chapter 12, but John skips right over the journey, and spends 13-17 at the Last Supper.)  Luke is all about that exodus up to, and through, Jerusalem.  And the Transfiguration is just a few verses before that.

In Luke alone, the disciples are falling asleep.  Jesus must escape out of a world where the flesh triumphs over the Spirit.  And though Matthew calls the cloud bright, and Mark only says there is a cloud, Luke says the cloud causes fear.  The disciples are being called beyond themselves.


And so Luke frames a little differently the words from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”  (Many translations say “chosen,” but the Greek is “agapatos”: agape-d, beloved.) 

We are called to a profound conversion.  We follow the ways of the world.  Peter wants to build by his own strength and initiative, instead of listening to Jesus and being filled with the divine light.  And Peter’s plans are to stay put: he wants to build tents, but Luke adds that he says this that Moses and Eijah “were about to part from him,” and that Jesus is beginning his exodus.  Luke emphasizes the contrast.

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Jesus is leading us upward.  The Transfiguration is a funny mix, because on the one hand, we need to look at nothing but him, a kind of contemplative stillness.  But to look to him is to be called out of ourselves, to follow him in his exodus, into the Cross, out of the ways of this world, out of our comfortable tents. 

Thus the traditional Lectionary gives us the Transfiguration this second Sunday of Lent, a sign of the glorious culmination, almost more glorious than Easter itself—but in a key that calls us to conversion, out of our comfortable worldly calculations, up the mountain of the Cross to the heavenly Jerusalem.  For, says our epistle, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” not in earthly tents.

How are your calculations too worldly?