In Jesus’ three parables that we just heard on the “Lost sheep, the lost coin and the Lost son,” He is trying to teach how God’s Compassionate Love is shown in Forgiveness. These three parables of first, losing an animal, and then a coin, climaxes in the losing of the most precious possession of a son.
Due to time constraints, we will reflect on the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” in this homily, which we will call the “Parable of the Prodigal Father” because of the Father’s overwhelming compassion and unconditional willingness to forgive His youngest son.
Elsa Joseph was a Jewish woman who was cut off from both her daughters during the Second World War. Years later she discovered that they were both gassed in Auschwitz. Being a former concert violinist, Elsa responded to the tragic news by picking up her violin and performing at a concert hall in Germany, where it was packed with people of the homeland who murdered her daughters, she said, “If, I a Jewish mother can forgive what had happened to my daughters, then why can’t you overcome our differences and be reconciled with one another?” Elsa, proclaimed the message of reconciliation in a similar way in Northern Island, Lebanon and Israel.
Then there was an Anglican Bishop Tafi, who when he heard the news that his son, a university student at Teheran, had been shot to death, he immediately fell to his knees and prayed, as Christ on His Cross prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
When Archbishop Oscar Romero heard rumours that the San Salvador death squads were out to kill him, he wrote a note in advance to pardon and bless his killers. Our late Pope John Paul II too, we know forgave Mahmet Ali, who attempted to assassinate him. Furthermore, we have the case of Fr James Carney, and American priest in Honduras who prayed for his murderers before they threw him out of the helicopter to his death below.
Compassion, as we can see from all these examples is a virtue of forgiving someone who has harmed, wronged or even planned to kill us. We will not be able to forgive someone unless we can find a place in our hearts to value the people who harmed or wronged us as more important than the pain we are suffering. If we can transcend our pains and hurts, as Christ has shown us, then we will be living out what Jesus is trying to preach in today’s three parables.
All of us here today have probably experienced some form of hurts and pains in life. This could come in strained and broken relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, or from friends betraying us, or neighbours falsely accusing us. This could easily happen too when we are fired without notice by our employers because of the company’s internal politics or the so-called “right sizing” policies even though we have served it faithfully for many years.
While it is a common experience in human relationships to hurt one another, as Christians we are challenged to forgive more willingly and more wholeheartedly as Christ taught when He said we are to “forgive seventy times seven times” which is all the time!
We all know that “forgiveness is never easy”; the deeper the hurts and the longer we have harboured them, the more difficult it is to forgive someone. While this is true, “What about Jesus looking down on the Chief Priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Roman soldiers while He was hanging on the Cross, as an innocent victim, but crucified as a criminal, when in fact, He is the Son of God, coming to save us and offer us eternal happiness? Do we for a moment think that it was easy for Jesus to forgive all His murderers? Yet, Jesus gathered his last ounce of energy and breath to pray, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
In today’s Gospel of the “Prodigal Father,” we see the loving and compassionate father forgiving his son unconditionally. He literally rushes out and runs to meet his son who has returned. Moreover, the father by running out to meet his son at the far end of the village is ensuring that he could accompany him through the village as his son, and not allow his son to be humiliated by the villagers.
The father then hugged his son firmly and kissed him tenderly; thereby showing publicly his forgiveness and the reconciliation he has with his son. The father too orders his servants immediately put on the “best robe” on his son to symbolise to the servants also to accept him as their master and show him the respect he deserves as his son and as an honoured guest for the banquet without reservation. The son is also to have put on him a ring, to symbolise the Father’s trust and reinstatement of authority, and new sandles to replace his worn out sandals so that he is no longer considered a slave, but a free man. Finally, the father orders that the fattened calf be slaughtered for the celebration, symbolising that he is going to throw a grand feast to invite all the villagers so that his son too can be reconciled with everyone.
While the father, symbolising God, shows unconditional love for his youngest son, the elder son, was in contrast, furious as what had happened, and opposes his father’s forgiving love and challenges him disrespectfully and quarrels with him in public. He furthermore, asserts that he wants to have nothing to do with “this son of yours” who has “swallowing up his property on he and his women on debauchery.”
Instead of getting angry for being insulted and disrespected, the forgiving Father in deep humility pleads with his elder son to see that what is really important is not so much that his “younger brother had sinned,” but that he has returned home; that “that he was dead and has come to life, and he was lost and is found.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, in this parable, what finally happens to the elder brother and the youngest son are left open ended. This is very profound because Jesus wants you and I to complete the story through our own lives. We are then each challenged to reflect on our lives and ask ourselves, “Do we identify more with the younger son of living irresponsibly and have not yet completely returned home to our Loving and Forgiving father? Or do we identify more with the elder son, who worked for his father more to fulfil his rigid obligations, like a slave, instead of labouring out of his love for his father and brother.
It is also good to know that while the younger son may be wearing the robe, shoes and ring that his father has lavished on him, to welcome him home as son, nevertheless, it is possible that deep within him, he is still living in guilt and as such may still consider himself as a paid worker in his father’s business. Likewise, we may call ourselves Baptised Christians, but “What do we find deep in our hearts?” Do we love God deeply enough to consider ourselves as truly sons and daughters of God the Father who is offering us the gift of the Good News of Salvation? OR are we more like the elder brother who works obediently like a slave in his father’s business without love, but always filled with anger and self-righteousness?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to admit that it is not easy to forgive others: especially when our hurts are so deep, complex and long drawn. However, let us also not forget how blessed we are to have a God who loves us so unconditionally that He is constantly forgiving us, like the younger son, in spite of the many sins that we have committed.
Let us also not forget that this God constantly tries understands and accept us as we are as He did to the elder son, and humbly pleads that we be more loving towards one another, in spite of our rigid and unforgiving ways towards people who may have hurt us.
Our God does not demand the impossible from us. He only pleads, for our sake and for our happiness; that we learn to forgive in unconditional ways as He has shown us through the Parable of the Prodigal Father, and more specifically, through the witness of His Son, who forgave unconditionally when He was hanging and dying on His Cross.
We have seen it is possible to forgive unconditionally like Christ in the examples of: Elsa Joseph, the Jewish woman, Archbishop Tafi, Archbishop Osca Romero, Pope John Paul II and Fr James Carney. They were all able to do so because they were able to find strength in God to go beyond their hurts, harm, and even the death that people threaten to inflict on them. It is now up to us to cooperate with God’s graces to complete the open ended parable of the Prodigal Son in our daily living
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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