The Return of the Prodigal Son, Murillo, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.
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[His father said] ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ Luke 15:31-32.
Well this has to be one of the most famous stories ever told. The fellow who ran off to enjoy the good life, only to find it hollow and destructive, who returns home in desperation and, is welcomed by his father as if nothing had happened. And then the reaction of his brother, fury and anger at both him and his father. And the father goes out to him also… But how did this second brother react? Who knows, as each of us really stands in for him I think. It is our reaction which counts! The 1977 TV movie Jesus of Nazareth adapted this parable brilliantly. It involves Matthew, a Jewish man who has collaborated with the pagan Romans and collects taxes for them. As a consequence he was shunned by his Jewish neighbors, thrown out of the community, excommunicated. However, Jesus asks him if he can come round for dinner….. Shock and disbelief resulted, both from Jesus’ followers, and from Matthew himself. It was unheard of to do that. If he did, Jesus would surely suffer the same fate as Matthew. But Jesus goes. The disciples follow, but only so far:
Jesus’ Disciples at Matthew’s House, Zeffirelli, Jesus of Nazareth, ITC Films 1977.
As you can see in this still from the movie, they would not set one foot inside Matthew’s house as they too would be contaminated and excommunicated. It is in this situation that Zeffirelli placed today’s parable, with Jesus clearly and pointedly aligning Matthew as the prodigal son, and Peter as his brother. The joining of the parable and the event is pure genius, as it brings Jesus’ message to vivid life. Matthew in fact changed his whole life and became a disciple of Jesus himself (and is the supposed author of the gospel carrying his name). Peter, confused and bewildered, also accepted Jesus’ message of utter forgiveness and welcome. Each of us is also asked by this parable what our reaction is. Would we or wouldn’t we forgive our prodigal brother? Why?
Now this parable seems to have been deliberately placed in the middle of Lent. Indeed, today is Laetare Sunday, which can be translated as “Be Happy Sunday”, in the middle of the Lenten season. Indeed, the priest is entitled to wear the happier rose vestments today in place of the more sombre purple. So what is there to be happy about? Well, Lent is half over, and perhaps we should take stock of how far we have come. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, the greatest Christian feast, when Jesus conquered sin and death. Have we managed to do that too? Remember we are Christ to the world, our sacred vocation given to us at baptism. And so, have we conquered the sin that we carry in our hearts? If we have given a heartwarming “Yes” to the parable question above, then we are on the way. Forgiveness is so close to God’s heart. Jesus forgave his unjust executioners. Lack of forgiveness suggests simmering hatred, cast iron grievance, something ice-cold in our hearts, the opposite of happiness or joy. It has no place in a Christian life. Look at today’s second reading, stating there must be reconciliation in our hearts. Jesus took the sin of the world on himself so that we could be free of it. If there is such unforgiveness in our hearts, give the whole thing over to Christ. Let Jesus destroy it, and let his warmth and light penetrate the darkness there. The relief should be enormous. Hatred and resentment are chains which shackle us. God is a God of freedom (see last week’s reflection) and wants us to be utterly free of such a killing burden. Remember the last line of today’s gospel: Your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found. We are all that brother, Jesus the father, and we can reap the freedom of forgiveness he happily gives to us.
Pope Francis in Rose Vestments, 2017.