There's a story about an artist who wanted to paint a picture of the prodigal son. He saw an unkempt, sloppy beggar on the street and asked him to come to his studio and pose. The man showed up the next day, but he was neatly shaven and clean. When the artist saw him, he exclaimed, "Oh no, I can't use you as you are now!"
This is perhaps the basic message of this parable which we have just heard. God is not choosy. He loves you just as you are. Everyone loves you when you measure up to their standards and despise you when you do not. God no. He loves you. Period. This parable, called "the Gospel within the Gospel" and "the crown and pearl of all parables" cries out that God's fundamental purpose is to recover men and women from the guilt and power of sin - regardless of how far they have fallen, regardless whether their sin is obvious or hidden. AND help them discover His everlasting Love. If "prodigal" means extravagantly reckless, then God is prodigal indeed!
A flaky son and a prodigal Father
There are three protagonists in this story - the Father and his two sons. One decides to leave home because he believes that outside there is more fun. The Father, respecting his liberty, lets him go. Not only that but he gives him his share of the inheritance. Perhaps some of us can identify ourselves easily with this son. We also thought that life away from God may be fun.
Many leave the Church. Many leave God. The dollar, life without rules, freedom, autonomy become a real powerful magnet which seduces many. The problem is one. The world promises you a lot but it delivers very little. It squeezes you like a lemon and then it throws you away. It feeds you too much husk, too much swine pod. No nourishment. Only frustration and anger. If sin really makes people happy, many of us would be ecstatic! It is all a lie. Sin promises freedom, but brings slavery. It promises success, but brings failure. It promises friends, but brings loneliness. What is worse, it promises life, but gives you death.
This is the reason why the Father keeps scanning the horizon, waiting for the son to come to his senses. Even more. The moment he sees the son, he runs, yes, he sprints towards his son. I find this amazing. Why should he run? The wayward boy had brought nothing but disgrace to the family and village. And yet this old man runs. Why? Because the Father understands so well the suffering of his son. Sin only provokes pain and a lot of ache. He feels for us!
And so he does not greet the son with the standard : "See, I was right! I said that you would be back! I told you so, I told you so!" On the contrary, the word the Gospel uses, compassion, speaks of a yearning with pity, a feeling concern all the way down to the bowels - the bowels were thought to be the seat of human love and pity. Empathy. Crying with and for the one who has erred!
The Father had no problem in giving the son that which he did not deserve nor had any right to expect. This is God.
The moment you make a step forward, he rushes towards you, he hugs you, he kisses you, he makes a feast. The words of the Gospel are so expressive : "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him..." The son started his confession, but the father did not even let him finish speaking; he already had forgiven and forgotten everything, and he welcomes the dissolute and starving swineherd as a beloved son. Because that is what he was, is and always be in the eyes of the Father. His beloved Son!
We take this forgiveness for granted. But forgiveness is always a gift. Just this week this woman burst out crying and when I asked her why?, she was telling me how apparently she had left home when her son was still small, and this son cannot or does not want to forgive her for all the pain her action had caused him. The only thing she desires in life is that her son forgives her. But he says no. She is at his mercy. Forgiveness is always a bonus which we do not merit.
This forgiveness of the Father is very special. People forgive, but don't forget. So when you get in a heated argument, they're apt to throw your past mistakes in your face to gain a strategic advantage. God no - He "remembers your sins no more" Isaiah 43:25. People may forgive one or two mistakes, but then they'll draw the line and say, "That's it, no more." God no; he forgives seven times seventy and more. Psalms 103:10-13 fits so well here, "He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him...."
Even a wasteful, rebellious, ungrateful, woman-chasing, wine-drinking, pleasure-seeking, pig-feeding, death-deserving, cursed wanderer CAN RETURN and can find a waiting, loving father. God's children get themselves into some unusual places and unhappy circumstances. Jonah found himself in a fish's belly, running from God. Once David found himself in enemy territory, acting insane - afraid of Achish king of Gath, he started playing the crazy dude, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard - see 1 Sam. 21:10-15. When Abram emigrated to Egypt, he started lying about his wife to avoid being killed. Lot found himself in Sodom, living with the wicked. Elijah, the might prophet found himself in the desert, wallowing in self-pity. Peter, a big friend of Jesus, in the courtyard denied repeatedly his Master.... God's children should not be found in such circumstances, but all too often they are. But this is not a problem for God. No place is beyond the reach of God's grace.
Forgiveness is always IMMEDIATE AND COMPLETE! St. Isaac the Syrian says, "Don't ever say God is just, only say that He is merciful."
One simple thing is required. The realization that sin does not pay! Walking past a barn one day, I heard a frantic chirping inside. When I investigated, I found a poor blue jay beating its wings against the window. Had it not cried and chirped, I would not have heard, but it's cry for help prompted me to come, open the door wide, and allow it to fly out to freedom. If today you are in a place you should not be, if today you are far from the Lord, feeling defeated, trapped, and unhappy. Here is your chance. Cry out. And the big feast will be launched just for you... the best robe, the ring, the sandals, the fatted calf...
The desert Fathers phrase it very powerfully. A monk came to Venerable Anthony and began to ask that he forgive and have mercy on him. Anthony replied to him: "Neither I, nor God will have mercy on you, if you will not have mercy on yourself". At first glance, the response seems strange. But this is the greatest truth. Until I myself discover the image of God in myself; until I myself have mercy on the inner man who is in the abyss of sin, but possesses the image of God; until I myself have mercy on God's creation in myself; until in my conscience I have mercy on myself, who am sinful, defiled and prodigal, that is, until I take pity on my immortal soul - until then, God also will not have mercy on me; until then, my entreaty will also be in vain. Fear of God.
The healing journey of the prodigal son is our own journey. It is the process of becoming fully aware again of what we already are, have always been, and will forever be. It is the dawning upon our minds of the truth that God's love for us has not changed, that our home with Him has not been destroyed, and that our Self is still His child, His Beloved - despite all that we may have believed to the contrary. We are eternally loved and wholly blessed. The spiritual journey is a journey of remembering. We reawaken to the truth of who we are, who we have always been, and who we will forever be. We come home to the reality that we are wholly lovable, wholly loving, and wholly loved. Beloved of God, we are wholly, and eternally, blessed.
A subdued son and a prodigal Father
The big problem is the other son. In fact the parable is addressed to the scribes and Pharisees who were scrupulous law keepers. They thought God was pleased with them because they were all "cleaned up." So when they saw Jesus eating with people who had bad reputations, they complained. On the outside they looked great, so proper, so right with God! But on the inside, they were being eaten alive with envy and jealousy. Many attitudinal problems.
This other son may be more near us. We have been most of the time in the Father's House. We have not done big sins. We have been to mass regularly. We try to be faithful with our offerings. We feel deep down good, anyway better than those who squander their money away, those who go out to bars, those who are unfaithful constantly in their marriages... We are reasonably ok.
The problem with the ok people is that many times that they remain in the Father's house with a bad spirit. Since they also believe that fun is outside, deep down they feel they have been cheated out of life. Life inside is a drudgery. No thrill. No enjoyment. Like that tombstone which I was saw on the grave of Mrs. Jones : Here lies the bones of Nancy Jones, For her life held no terrors She loved an old maid. She died an old maid. No hits. No runs. No errors... So sad. Many remain inside basically because they are afraid to risk. Better this chore than go to hell for ever. A father who goes every Sunday to mass will never say to his son : "Listen, Son , look for the Kingdom of God, and everything will be given to you." No, probably he will tell him : "Study son, study hard! Because this is what you really need in life." God can wait! This father will go to the 11.30 mass every Sunday but basically considers the Gospel as an utopia, an unrealizable dream... 'what do you mean, turn the cheek the other way around.. am I crazy?... Look at the birds of the sky, they neither reap nor harvest... what do you mean? I am not that reckless...' Everything is so hard for him. 'Oh, it is so difficult to be a Christian.' The march is hard! And if something goes bad, not according to her plans... gosh, poor God, poor everyone.. "How is it that everything goes so bad for me! It would have been better if I was not such a good woman...' Wallowing in self pity...
We serve the Father with forced obedience, like a slave, and not with love. No joyful service. We do not realize how lucky we are to have been chosen to be with such a good Father. Such a good Church. Always doing the right thing but never became the right thing! We even believe that we have earned the father's favor. Yes, we deserve what we are getting. And since it has cost us so much to earn what we got, we instantly get mad at this Father who forgives and jealous at the brother's 'good luck'.
"It's not fair! How come this rotten kid gets to go off and do anything he wants to do, and he comes home, and you welcome him, and you have a party, and you give him gifts? That's not fair! How come he gets away with anything? I've stayed home, and I've done everything for you. Anything you wanted me to do, I was here for you. You take me for granted, but you take him and you celebrate, and he's done all these awful things."
He believes that the brother had the best of both lives. The cheek of it! First he enjoys prostitutes. And now he is enjoying a feast with his dad. This is not fair! He fails to understand what perhaps many of us fail to understand. That one, it is a privilege, a grace, an enormous favor to be with the Father. Not a sweat. Not a law. Not a burden! There is no need to look beyond the fence! And two, to live a life of sin is inferno, agony, anguish, a nightmare.
But even for us there is hope. Because the Father comes out also for the other son. And he reasons with him. He reaches out to him. He is as patient with the older son as he was with the younger. Although the older boy feels put upon and unappreciated, the father refrains from condemning and lecturing him for his misunderstanding of the truth. He tries instead to communicate and share with him something of his own joy at what has happened. And this happiness is not meant to take anything way from his appreciation of the older boy's faithfulness, or from the fact that all that the father now possesses finally belongs to him. And at the same time, he gently insists upon reminding him that the prodigal is nonetheless still his brother. He tries to explain that his brother had already suffered enough . His running away was not joy but torture.
Many times the Father tries to explain to us. The book God's Little Devotional Book carries a story which is very fitting : A boy once said to God : " I've been thinking, and I know what I want when I become a man." He proceeded to give God his list : to live in a big house with two Saint Bernard's and a garden ... marry a blue-eyed, tall beautiful woman... have three sons - one will be a senator, one a scientist, and one a quarterback. He also wanted to be an adventurer who climbed tall mountains.. and to drive a red Ferrari. As it turned out, the boy hurt his knee one day while playing football. He no longer could climb trees, much less mountains. He married a beautiful and kind woman, who was short with brown eyes. Because of his business, he lived in a city apartment, took cabs, and rode subways. He had three loving daughters, and they adopted a fluffy cat. One daughter became a nurse, another an artist, and the third a music teacher. One morning the man awoke and remembered his boyhood dream. He became extremely depressed, so depressed that he became very ill. Close to death, from a broken heart he called to God : "Remember when I was a boy and told You all the things I wanted? Why didn't you give me those things?" "I could have", said God, " but I wanted to make you happy."
We are all prodigals in own way. But we all have a Father who constantly tells us in one way or another : "I love you deeply." And sincerely I hope that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. May these words reverberate in every corner of your being : "I love you. Really. Completely. Wherever you have been, whatever you have done. My love defies all human standards."
You are invited to a party.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.