Commentary on the Readings
5th Sunday of Lent – Year C
Whoever is in Christ is a new creature
JThe church’s days are numbered—some say—because she is old, does not know how to renew herself, repeats old formulas instead of responding to new questions, stubbornly restates obsolete rituals and unintelligible dogmas while today’s people are looking for a new equilibrium, a new way of life, a less distant God.
There is a growing desire for spirituality. Adhesion to new faiths called reiki, channeling, crystal therapy and dianetics is increasing. The do-it-yourself religion spreads. It disdains the dogmas and churches, a religion in which often Eastern techniques with esoteric interpretations of Christ blend. It equates meditation on the word of God in a monastery with the emotion felt in the depths of a forest while in colloquy with an angel-guide. The New Age that promises a utopian vision of an era of peace, harmony and progress is an expression of this new search.
To confuse loyalty to Tradition (with a capital letter) with the falling back on what is old and worn, with the closing to the Spirit who “renews the face of the earth” is one of the most pernicious misunderstandings in which the Church can fall. Often unjust and unjustified accusations of poor modernity that are trashed on her should still make the church think. The church is the repository of the “new heavens and new earth” of the proposed “new man,” the “new commandment,” a “new song.” Whoever dreams of a new world must instinctively turn to her.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I will sing to the Lord a new song, for he daily renews my youth.”
A certain “religious individualism” that preaches the salvation of one’s own soul, disappeared in many place but still survives in some. Of course, the baptized are interested about the soul of the others. They pray that all go to heaven, but the idea that, at the time of reckoning, all friendships will not function and everyone will have to deal alone with God is still deeply rooted. This conception leads to exasperation of the religion of merits: everyone brings his or her own good works and we should not delude ourselves that, in the end, there may be some transactions.
If things are in these terms we ask: what is the use of the community if then, at the decisive moment, everyone has to fend for himself? Jesus’ disciples are one body, and the individual members cannot live one without the other. They are a people, a family in which everyone is, in some way, responsible for what others do.
The reading develops this theme of community life. Paul and Barnabas are about to conclude their first missionary journey. They crossed many regions, announced the good news in many towns. Before returning to the community of Antioch, from which they were sent and to whom they are accountable for their work, they decide to review the young community that they founded. They want them to be fortified in the faith and helped to organize themselves, and for this they establish a group of elders in each of them.
One cannot conceive of an individualistic Christian life; who does not relate to the others, who live alone, who thinks only of himself and to his spiritual progress. He or she can be a good, pious, religious person, but not a Christian. That’s why, from the beginning, the apostles feel the need to put up everywhere “centers of fraternity” led by “elders.”
Missionary work is not finished when people embrace the faith and are baptized. It is necessary that believers become a “community” in which each member feels alive, active, co-responsible.
The term “new” is often used in the Bible: 347 times in the Old Testament and 44 in the New Testament. This adjective means a radical change compared with what existed before. The new performed by God is something unexpected, unimaginable, amazing. When, for example, he promises a “new law” (Jer 31:31-34), it does not refer to a new set of requirements, an “update” of the Decalogue, but to the gift of a radically different law, the inner dynamism that leads to doing good, to the law put in the heart, not written on stone.
Many new realities that the Lord will implement are announced in the old Testament: a new alliance, a new spirit, a new heart and a new creation: “I now create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind again. Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create; for I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight” (Is 65:17-18).
The first creation was good. All that God had done (Gen 1:31) was “very good,” but man, in his freedom, introduced sin. He used creatures for evil and led them to corruption. The consequences of his foolish choices are before our eyes: wars, violence, oppression, injustice… Is the plan of God therefore a hopeless failure? Has creation gone out of the Lord of the universe’s control?
No—the seer of Revelation replied. God controls the destinies of the world, no event takes him by surprise, he is making all things new (v. 5). He does not destroy the first creation, but is preparing a new heaven and a new earth. Only the sea—a symbol of all that is against life (Rev 13:1)—will be made to disappear forever; it will evaporate until the last drop (v. 1).
The vision continues: “I saw the new Jerusalem, the holy city coming down from God, adorned as a bride prepared for her husband” (v. 2). In no day of her life will the woman look charming as on the day of the wedding. She is young, there is no spot or wrinkle in her face, all people admire her. The reality of the world that we can see is exactly the opposite, and the outlook is bleak. Nothing heralds a so amazing transformation. It is like watching a caterpillar: we never thought that it would give rise to a butterfly.
The conclusion of the world’s story is a dream: God will dwell forever with people “and will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death or mourning or crying out or pain, for the world that was has passed away” (vv. 3-4).
This is the message of joy and hope that John addresses to the Christians of his community, tempted to be disheartened at the apparent and unstoppable triumph of evil. Eventually they find out—says the seer—that the game has always been led to God.
For us, the heirs of the Greek thought, glorification is the achievement of the approval and the praise of people. It is equivalent to fame, obtained by whoever reaches a prestigious position. All desire it, crave for and fight for it and that is why we turn away from God. The Jews who “seek praise from one another, instead of seeking the glory which comes from the only God” (Jn 5:44), who “preferred the favorable opinion of people, rather than God’s approval” (Jn 12:43) cannot believe in Jesus in whom the “glory” that attracts the eyes and the attention of people is not manifested. In him the glory of God becomes visible, since its first appearance in the world: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14).
God is glorified when he deploys his force and performs deeds of salvation, when he shows his love for people. In the Old Testament his glory was manifested when he freed his people from slavery. “My people will see his glory—promises the prophet—because God comes to save them” (Is 35:2.4).
In the first verses of today’s Gospel (vv. 31-32) the verb “glorify” appears five times: The Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him; if God is glorified in him, in turn he will glorify him and will glorify him at once. A redundancy, a verbosity that almost annoy; a solemnity that seems excessive and out of place in the context in which these words are spoken by Jesus. We are in the Upper Room and a few hours is missing to his capture and his death sentence.
Who does not know in advance how the events took place is inclined to think that God is about to amaze everyone with a prodigy, is going to give a demonstration of his power by humiliating his enemies.
None of this. Jesus is glorified because Judas left to reach an agreement with the high priests on how to stop the master (v. 31). Something unheard of, outrageous and incomprehensible to people happen: in Jesus who journeys towards his passion and death, who delivers himself into the hands of the executioners and is nailed to the cross, the “glory” of God is manifested.
A few days before Jesus made it clear in what consists his glory: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it will produce much fruit” (Jn 12: 23-24). The glory that awaits him is the moment when, giving his life, he will reveal to the world how great God’s love for man is. This is the only glory he also promises to his disciples.
The passage continues with the presentation of the new commandment, prefaced by a surprising phrase: little children… (v. 33). The disciples are not children, but Jesus’ brothers. Why call them this way? To understand the meaning of his words, the time when they are pronounced should be kept in mind. At the Last Supper, Jesus realized that he only has a few hours of life and feels the need to dictate his will. As the children considered sacred words spoken by the father on his deathbed, so Jesus wants his disciples to imprint in their mind and heart what he is going to say.
Here is his testament: “I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you!” (v. 34). To underline the importance he will repeat two more times before walking to the Gethsemane: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:17). He speaks like someone who wants to leave an inheritance: I give—he says (v. 34). We ourselves could have chosen a gift among many that he possessed, all—I think—could have asked the power to work miracles. He offered instead a new commandment.
Commandment for us is tantamount to taxation, heavy commitment to fulfill, weight to bear. Some believe that happiness is attained by those who are smart, who enjoy life in contravention of the “ten words” of God. Others are convinced that those who manage to keep the Ten Commandments deserve paradise while the unfaithful ones must be severely punished. This is a still widespread conviction and must be urgently corrected because it is extremely pernicious; it is a fruit of a disfigured image of God.
A simple example: If a doctor insists that his patient stops smoking, he does not do so to restrict his freedom, to deprive him of a pleasure, to test him, but because he wants his own good. Secretly, trying not to get noticed, the patient can continue to smoke only to find himself later with damaged lungs. The doctor does not punish him for this (did not hurt him, but he did it to himself). He will always try to have him recover. And God—by the way—is a good doctor, heals all sickness (Ps 103:3). Giving us his commandment Jesus shows himself as an unparalleled friend. He has shown us, not with words, but with the gift of life, how to realize the fullness of our existence in this world.
It is a new commandment. In what sense? Is it not already written in the Old Testament: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18)? Let us grasp where the novelty is.
Regarding what the Old Testament recommended the second part is certainly new: “as I have loved you, you also must love one another” (v. 34). The measure of love proposed to us by Jesus is not the one we use for ourselves, but what he has had for us.
It is not said that we love ourselves: we cannot stand our limits, faults, and miseries. If we make a mistake, a bad impression, a gesture of which we should be ashamed of, we even get to punish ourselves. Then the commandment is new because it is not spontaneous for people to love who does not deserve it or cannot reciprocate. It is not normal to do good to one’s own enemies.
Jesus reveals a new love: he loved those who needed his love to be happy. He loved the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the wicked, the corrupt, his executioners because only loving them he could get them out of their condition of meanness, misery and sin.
It is the gratuitous and unmotivated love of which God has given proof in the Old Testament when he chose his people: “The Lord—says Moses to the Israelites—has bound himself to you and has chosen you, not because you are the most numerous among all the peoples (on the contrary you are the least) but because of his love for you” (Dt 7:7-8). This is why John says: “I am not writing you a new commandment, but reminding you of an old one… if you love your brother you remain in the light” (1 Jn 2:7-10).
But the great novelty of this commandment is another one. It is the fact that no one before Jesus has ever attempted to build a society based on a love like his. The Christian community is set as an alternative, as a new proposal to all the old societies of the world, to those based on competition, meritocracy, money and power. It is this love that must “glorify” the disciples of Christ.
By the mouth of Jeremiah, God announced: “The time is coming when I will forge a new covenant with the people of Israel” (Jer 31:31). The old covenant was drawn up on the basis of the Ten Commandments. The new alliance is linked to the compliance with a unique, new commandment: love to the brother, such as that Jesus was capable.
Jesus concludes his “testament” by saying: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (v. 35). We know that the fruits do not make the tree alive, however, they are signs that the tree is alive. Good works do not make our communities Christian, but these works give evidence that our communities are animated by the Spirit of the Risen One.
Christians are not people different from others; they do not wear badges, do not live out of the world. What distinguishes them is the logic of the gratuitous love, that of Jesus, that of the Father. understand that he loves all freely and before him they cannot claim merits.
In the last chapter Jesus is presented at the table of one of the leading Pharisees (Lk 14:1). Now he has considerably changed company: he is with all the publicans and sinners, indeed, he seems to have invited them to his house. A scandalous choice that causes the indignation of the righteous who cannot but conclude that this man who frequents the company of the impure cannot come from God. To justify his behavior Jesus tells the parable. It is therefore in the second part of the story that the main lesson is found. It is there that the older brother who clearly represents the Pharisees enters the scene. They are the blameless observants of the commandments and of the precepts of the law. They are the ones who need to change their way of thinking if they don’t want to remain excluded in the banquet of the kingdom announced by the prophets (Is 25:6-8).
After this introduction we come to the parable.
One day the younger son of a wealthy landowner comes to his father and asks for his inheritance. The wise Sirach does not recommend to adhere to such a request. He would say to the father: “It is preferable for your children to be dependent on you. Wait until the end of your days, until death is near, to distribute your inheritance” (Sir 33:22-24). But the father in the parable does not put up any resistance. He silently divides his wealth between his two sons, in accordance with what the law establishes.
This father’s behavior indicates the respect of God for the choices of man. He exhorts, educates, advises, accompanies, but always leaves freedom also to make mistakes.
Why does the younger son hurriedly decide to leave the family? The first reason is that he sees in his father a kind of tyrant who imposes his will and does not allow him to do what he wants. The years of youth are few, pass like a breath and one runs the danger of losing the best opportunities and the most precious time to enjoy life. It draws on the reasoning of the insane: “Our days are like the passing of a shadow. Come then, and enjoy all the good things; let us use creation with the zest of youth and not passing any flower of spring. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they fade; let everyone take part in our orgy” (Wis 2:5-9).
However, it is perhaps unfair to think that the faults are only his. Soon we will know his brother and we will immediately sense what kind of guy he is, how he thinks, reasons, how proud he is of his perfection, moral integrity and intolerant with whoever does not share his convictions, duties, frenetic rhythm of his work. We will realize that living beside such a type is not easy or rewarding.
The goal of the young is “a far country.” He breaks with his family, his people, the religious traditions of his homeland and goes to settle among the heathens, breeders of pigs, unclean animals par excellence (Lev 11:7). It is the image of alienation from God, rejection of all moral principles, the choice of a dissolute and uninhibited life.
Far from the house of the Father, however, joy and peace are wanting. The pursuit of pleasure, drugs, false friends, the sexual aberrations end up to nauseate. The adventures do not fill; man needs an inner balance otherwise he feels “starved”. The scene of the young man forced to put himself at the service of a pagan and to keep his pigs very effectively represents the desperate condition and degradation of one who turns away from God. The rabbis said: “Cursed be the man who rears pigs.”
The experience of disappointment is providential, it drops in themselves. The rabbis still said: “When the Israelites were forced to eat carob, they convert.” But this guy was he sorry or not?
The answer to this question is of paramount importance for understanding the parable. If we read carefully verses 17-19, we note that the concern of the younger son is not the pain caused to the father, but hunger. The case would be different if he “fell in himself” and say: “Look where I am! I was a degenerate son. I ruined my life, but before I die I want to apologize to my father, I want to embrace him. Then I will leave again, without accepting even a cup of coffee, because I do not deserve it.” If he speaks in this way, then yes it would give signs of repentance. Instead he makes no mention of the pain caused to his father. His only concern is to find a piece of bread. The nice little speech he prepares and intends to recite upon arrival at home has one purpose: to move the father and convince him to feed him.
The conclusion that imposes itself then cannot be but this: there is no evidence that militates in favor of his repentance.
He leaves anyway and implements, in every detail, the project outlined in his soliloquy (v. 20). Now the father returns to the scene. He does not say a word. His reaction to the returning son is described with five verbs which alone are sufficient to consider this verse as one of the most beautiful of the whole Bible.
– He saw him a long way off. He sees him first because he has always been waiting for him.
– He was deeply moved with compassion. The Greek verb splagknizomai indicates a very intense and so profound emotion as to be perceived physically in the “bowels.” It is the feeling that a mother experiences towards the child she is carrying. One cannot imagine a more intimate and stronger emotion. In the New Testament this verb appears only in the Gospels (twelve times) and is always referred to God or Jesus, as if to say that only God is able to feel this form of love.
– He ran out. An instinctive but careless gesture for an old man. It is also undignified for a person of his rank. The emotion has clearly caused the father to lose control of his reactions. He acts just by listening to the heart.
– He threw his arms around his neck. Literally he fell on the neck which is much more than to embrace. We find this expression only one more time in the New Testament. It is used to express the feelings of the Ephesian elders when they greet Paul, knowing that they would no longer see his face: “They all began to weep and threw their arms around him and kissed him” (Acts 20:37).
– He did not stop to kiss him. It is not the traditional kiss of greeting given to the host, but is a sign of welcome; it is the expression of joy and forgiveness. The father does not allow his son to kneel.
Faced with the reaction of the father, the prodigal son—whose repentance we have already expressed reservations—takes the floor and “recites” his confession. He cannot finish it. When he is about to add: “treat me then as one of your hired servants,” the father cuts him off and starts to give orders (vv. 21-22). His dispositions have a meaning and a symbolic reference.
– The son must be given the best long robe—the one used for feasts, for respected guests, the same one that, according to the seer of the Apocalypse, is worn by the elect in heaven “who stand before the throne and the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). God restores in his family, with all the honors, the one who returns.
– The ring on his finger. It’s not the marital ring, but the one with the seal. The authority upon the servants and the power over the assets of the father are given back to the young man. Strangely it is as if nothing had been squandered. He can still dispose of all the inheritance that seems (and is) inexhaustible.
– The sandals on his feet are the mark of a free man. The slaves went barefoot.
In his house God does not want slaves, but free people (Jn 15:15). For this—note the details—the father interrupts the son’s confession before he declared his willingness to become an employee, then ordered that he be given the robe, not the short one, used by servants on weekdays. Finally the sandals: we do not present ourselves barefooted before God. The trembling barefoot servants expect to receive orders or reprimands. He is not a master; he wants to be loved, not feared or served.
A feast concludes the path to the Father’s house.
Judaism taught that God granted his pardon to those who had sincerely repented and expressed their desire to be converted through fasting, penance, tattered clothes, prostrations. The first part of the parable ends instead so outrageous and the Pharisees who are listening begin to understand. The God announced by Jesus is very different from how they imagined: he organizes a banquet for those who do not deserve it, introduces in his feast sinners without checking if they are repentant, if they are sincerely determined to change their life. He embraces them without asking them any questions.
It is the point of friction between Jesus and the spiritual leaders of Israel. His welcoming repentant sinners would not provoke any reaction. Even the scribes and Pharisees forgive those who recognize their mistake and promise to reform. Their irritation stems from the fact that Jesus is a friend of publicans who continue to do their job, frequenting the houses of sinners who have not converted. In his behavior God reveals his feelings: he does not only loves the righteous and repentant sinners; He loves everyone, always and without conditions. He asks us to “love even those who do us harm.” He does not tell us to love our enemies who repent and apologize, but to do good to them even if they continue to haunt us. He demands this behavior because the Father in heaven gives us the example: he makes his sun rise on the just and the wicked (not upon the repentant wicked! [Mt 5:44-48]). If he would build barriers between good and bad, if he would love some and hate others, how could he require us to do otherwise?
It is inevitable that, in the face of this gratuitous love of God, a question arises: if God loves also the wicked why strive to behave well? It is to answer this question that Jesus, in the second part of the parable (vv. 25-32), introduces the eldest son. Let’s see what kind of person he is and whom does he represent.
He comes from the fields, exhausted, perhaps even tense and worried. He is always the one who has to solve all the problems and finds a surprise: a feast, music, dancing … He is neither invited nor notified. He calls one of the servants and inquires about what is happening. The original text has the verb in the imperfect (was informing) that indicates a prolonged action. He is so stunned and shocked that, even after the repeated explanations of the servant, he remains incredulous. He is indignant and his anger is more than justified: it is the logical reaction of the faithful and irreproachable person before an obvious injustice.
The father who goes to beg him (again, the verb is in the imperfect: was continuing to beg him insistently) asking him to enter, he lists his merits: I have not transgressed any command, I have always served faithfully … It is the perfect portrait of the observant and careful Pharisee who in the temple can say to the Lord: “I am not like other people, grasping crooked, adulterous. I fast twice a week and give the tenth of all my income” (Lk 18:11-12).
The words he speaks are a bit ill-bred, it is true, but they are all correct. Who among us would not share them? That was how the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time reasoned and that is how many believer today reason. Theoretically we admit that God is right to do what he wants (Mt 20:15), we recognize that from him we receive everything for free, but basically we continue to think that the righteous are in credit before him, that paradise has to be earned, and that those who do not earn are kicked out.
The anticipation of the condemnation of one who does evil stems from the belief that whoever commits sin is a clever guy that enjoys it; for this he is envied, arouses jealousy and is expected to be punished. He does not realize that his life is a great tragedy. The unbridled pursuit of pleasure leads to despair, not joy. The prodigal son, disgusted by sexual aberrations and debauchery, concludes: “I perish with hunger.”
This blameless older brother did not understand that the father at home does not want servants but children. In the parable, the younger son uses five times the word “father” because for him the father is really a “Father.” He knows he cannot make claims in his regard, is convinced to have received all free, not deserving anything. On the lips of the eldest son instead the word “father” never appears. He shows of being not a son but a servant; the father for him is only a master. The consequence of this wrong relationship with the father is the refusal of the brother who is called: “this son of yours” (v. 30). Immediately, however, the father, with great finesse, corrects him: “this brother of yours …” (v. 32). Since this is the inner disposition of the older brother, it is easy to imagine what would happen if the younger son, on his arrival, found him at home instead of the father. The parable is not completed. It remains to know if the oldest son joined the party and if the younger son wised up or, in a few days, acted like a fool.
As the parable tells our story—and in each of us there are two children—it is not difficult to imagine what happened. The eldest son came to the party, for sure. Someone like him cannot be left out: he is too accustomed to obey. He is unable to oppose his father’s wishes, even though in his heart carries the secret hope that soon everything will return as before. He lives in tension because on the one hand he realizes that he lived for many years next to his father and does not quite understand him. On the other hand he cannot accept the novelty, cannot renounce his ideas, his beliefs, his complacency for his merits … He will continue “going to church,” “will not lose a Mass,” but always harshly criticize those preachers who speak of the gratuitous love of God, the salvation of all people, of an empty hell …
The younger son? One day he will stay inside and on another outside, always regarded with contempt and arrogance by his older brother, but always received with tenderness by his father. They began the feast—says the text—not made merry (v. 24). They began only because every time one of the children goes out, the feast stops. It will be final and without end only when the door will be closed and all, when all the children will be inside.