The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Return,
James Tissot, c. 1882, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes
(About this Image)
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fourth Sunday of Lent
2 Corinthians 5:17–21
March 27, 2022
We return to Corinth this week about a year after the events spoken
of last week (57 AD). The first letter to the Corinthians shows that
Paul left Corinth feeling that he had successfully addressed the
divisions in the community. He has since heard that people from outside
Corinth have come and created even greater dissension than before. It is
uncertain who they were or what they held but this may not be especially
important. They seem to have tailored the good news of Jesus to be good
business for them and presented a slick package. In our own terms, they
would be like TV health-and-wealth preachers as opposed to an evangelist
like Bishop Barron. Paul is so hurt that this is often called the
“letter of sorrow.”
The section we read today does not directly address these specific
tensions but reading between the lines is interesting. First, we noticed
in 1 Corinthians that the Corinthians were easily influenced by flashy
rhetoric. Paul uses in the few lines we read today many literary
techniques which would have caught his audience’s interest and given him
great credibility. Second, Paul will remind the Corinthians that
reconciliation is a Christian ministry and division is not of God.
The wider section of which this is the conclusion does reflect Paul’s
hurt and anger:
We are not commending ourselves to you again
but giving you an opportunity to boast of us,
so that you may have something to say to those
who boast of external appearance rather than of the heart.
(2 Co 5:12)
This is a not-so-subtle dig on the “flashy” preachers who have tried
to take his place. Paul was if nothing else a man of substance.
Following Jesus has practical consequences:
For the love of Christ impels us,
once we have come to the conviction that one died for all;
therefore, all have died.
He indeed died for all,
so that those who live might no longer live for themselves
but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
(2 Co 5:14–15)
The first change that his requires is “to view each other from now on
we regard no one according to the flesh.” (2 Co 5:16) This includes both
Christ and our neighbor.
We begin today with the most important change:
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
(2 Co 5:17)
The LORD promised a new creation through the Prophets most clearly in
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them
(Is 42:9, also 43:18-19 and 48:6)
It may also be found in Jeremiah and Ezekial. This being made new is
experienced as reconciliation. He immediately states this is the
restoration of the divine human relationship and that is from God:
And all this is from God,
who has reconciled us to himself
(2 Co 5:18a)
The reality of reconciliation does not end with Jesus’ death and
resurrection. It must be continued by his disciples:
and given us the ministry of reconciliation,
(2 Co 5:18b)
This is not only for Paul but for all Christians:
namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting their trespasses against them
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
(2 Co 5:19)
Jesus’ death and resurrection offered reconciliation to the world—all
people—to him. Paul uses an accounting term for counting: those who
accept this have their debt to God cleared. In more familiar terms, our
sins are forgiven. Thus we, the church, are given the ministry of
reconciliation. Often Catholics will interpret this as the Sacrament of
Reconciliation (Penance). This is the clearest example and I hope that
everyone will take advantage of it this season, but it is wider and is
the responsibility of all of us. Remember that Paul is writing to a
bitterly divided community. He asks if those who have come from outside
Corinth have brought reconciliation and if not, can they be considered
Christian leaders? Also, why were the leaders Paul left in Corinth not
working for reconciliation in the community?
His language in the next line is interesting:
So we are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
(2 Co 5:20)
An ambassador is like an apostle: a person commissioned to represent
another. Paul is telling the people that God himself is appealing to
them through Paul to accept reconciliation and return to friendship with
Again, Paul wishes to show that this is not a simple way of washing
away distinct and individual sins but a total change of life.
The verse that follows, although strange to our ears, brings this out
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.
(2 Co 5:21)
Paul is using a play on the word sin, in Greek hamartia.
When he says that Jesus did not know sin; he is using sin in the usual
sense of the word: transgression of God’s law. He never broke his own
law. However, hamartia can be used in another sense “sin offering.” This
was the offering of an unblemished animal in reparation for
transgressions of God’s law. Jesus did precisely this on Calvery, “for
This is a call for all of us. We see this is the fourth suffering
servant song in Isaiah (42:13–43:12) It is the quintessential Lenten
poem. It speaks of one whose appearance was so disfigured, (that he was)
beyond human semblance, (Is 52:14) and “He was despised and rejected by
others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” (Is 53:3)
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
But most importantly for Paul:
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Paul would have identified the suffering servant not only as Jesus
but as himself. He can truly identify with Jesus’ sense of betrayal.
What had Paul learned from this? We become “the righteousness of
Reconciliation and forgiveness make new because it makes a person
righteous. The expression righteous of God, dikaiosynē theou,
can refer to both God’s faithfulness to the covenant or his
gift—grace—for humans to act in this way. Paul means this in other
God was faithful to his covenant when the people were not. Paul had
been faithful to his covenant with the Corinthians when they were not
faithful to him. His suffering taught him the meaning of righteousness.
He has experienced it as gift from God and has acted on it. He knows in
his very bones that this change was caused by God’s intervention, grace,
and that it can be given to the Corinthians as well. Notice that we
become the very righteousness of God. Righteousness, as Paul
discovered, requires time and usually suffering.
Both are experienced by being ambassadors for Christ. They are all
around us. We know them not so much by what they do but how they do it.
Our food pantry is a good example. It differs from others not only
because St. Charles provides a balanced diet but because our volunteers
know our clients’ names and histories and can give them personal and not
merely generic smiles.
Righteousness is a call to all and the work of a lifetime but one
with an eternal reward.