The Return of the Prodigal Son, Murillo 1682, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
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[He said] ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ Luke 15:21.
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Undoubtedly one of the most famous parables of all. I’m pretty sure it would be correct to claim that just about everyone has heard about the son whose prodigal misuse of his money brought him disaster, and back he went to his roots for forgiveness and re-acceptance. But first, just consider several significant points in this story, some of which might be new to you:
- His father was apparently willing to give his son the share of the property that would normally come to him upon his father’s death; a very generous father!
- The younger son “squandered his inheritance” (verse 13), an action not untypical of a young person, unaware that care with money is one of the first things which must be learned.
- This happened in “a distant country” where eventually he was reduced to taking care of the pigs on a farm. There is a Jewish kosher law forbidding Jews to eat pork (Leviticus 11). So this represented the depth of his desperation; nothing worse could be considered for a Jewish man. So this distant land had to be pagan, not Jewish, pagan and unclean.
- He came to his senses, a key moment in just about anyone’s life where disaster has stared them in the face. He had reached that moment of utter degradation and humiliation. It was the moment when the alcoholic is lying in the gutter unable to get up, when the drug addict has run out of his last penny. It is the moment of self-realization: what am I doing with my life? And you then say “Help me Lord. Then, at last, you say, “Thanks be to God”.
- His decision was to return home, say what he planned to say, asking forgiveness, and beg to be taken back in any capacity.
- On returning, his father saw him before he saw his father. His father had not given up on him, awaiting his return no matter the odds, never giving up hope.
- The son started to say his planned speech begging for forgiveness, but was unable to complete it before his father, overcome with joy, set about celebrating the return of his son.
- His older brother, learning of this event, refused to go into the house, so angry was he at the reception his brother had received.
- Instead, his father came out to him…
- This older brother used deliberately offensive words: “When your son returns…” (verse 30), consciously rejecting his relationship with the returning man, his own younger brother.
- Then his father’s anguished response, “we must celebrate and rejoice”, acknowledging that this young man “was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (verse 32).
Quite a number of important elements which might well get overlooked simply because of the older brother’s response – and I wonder how many of us would totally understand his fury, and perhaps sympathize with it. But if you look at all of the above, perhaps a better title to this parable would be that of the Forgiving, Merciful Father; and remember one of the best definitions of mercy: “compassion on someone who does not deserve it”. The whole story hinges on the old man’s unconditional acceptance and forgiveness of his errant son. It went without saying that this prodigal wastrel had to be accepted, completely forgiven, and welcomed back into the bosom of the family because he requested it amid anguish and infinite regret and sorrow. Note that Jesus does not tell us what reaction the older son gave to his father, perhaps because each of us is either the prodigal son or the furious son, when of course we are to be as like the forgiving father as possible! Only you can answer that question. It is clear what Jesus wants – he is the forgiving, merciful father of course. Jesus requires and gives forgiveness which is central to his message. Remember those memorable words of his uttered from the cross itself….
Today’s first reading is an example of forgiveness in the Old Testament. Moses had died before entering the Promised Land. God had appointed Joshua to undertake that task. The Hebrews had been condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, the length of a generation, for doubting God’s word and not trusting in God for their welfare. Now they were ready to move into that Promised Land, and no longer needed to be supported by the manna God had sent to them every day to sustain them in their punishment. The second reading sums up today’s whole message, one of forgiveness, no matter what. Jesus has taken all sin to himself on the cross; in fact, St. Paul actually says Jesus became sin… (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that we could be forgiven. That means that we should accept the fact of God’s forgiveness of us, no matter how difficult that might be for us to accept! We have to believe in a God of Forgiveness! We will always be welcomed back by God should we take that first step back, as we are free to do that or not. In other words, we are, each one of us, the prodigal son (and that includes those of us who side with the older son and should not) We can be forever sure that if we come to our senses, then we will be taken back, forgiven and made new. What a joyful message, on this Laetare Sunday, a Latin word meaning “Rejoice” (the girl’s name Letitia (“Joy”) may be linked to it), as we have every reason to do so. It signals we are half way through Lent, we have been forgiven should we so ask. We have time left to make sure we take the right steps to stand with the Lord before we rejoice in the remembrance of his Resurrection, the conquest of all sin and death. And the priest today has the option of celebrating in rose vestments to signify joy, one of only two Sundays in the year to do so, the other being Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent.
Laetare Sunday, Catholics at Work.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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