The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most beautiful and most well known stories in the Bible. However, it seems to me it is also one of the most difficult stories to appreciate fully and integrate into our lives. This is not so much because we do not understand the story line, but because we allow our limited human experiences of what love, forgiveness and mercy is to limit our appreciation of what God’s Mercy and Love is for us.
Let us ask ourselves a few questions, “How many of us think that when we sin something bad will happen to us?” Have we not heard that because so and so treated his parents badly or was cruel to his workers, that he met with an accident? How many of us agree that because Pol Pot murdered millions of people during his regime, that he deserved to die a miserable death, alone in the jungle? All these are different distortions of what God’s Mercy and Love is.
How many of us still believe that when we commit serious sins, God will punish us? Thus, some of us think that our present sufferings are due to the sins we have committed in the past or the sins our ancestors have committed.
How many of us also believe that it is only when we first repent of our sins, confess and seek God’s forgiveness, that only then will God in turn forgive us and take us back? Such views make God’s Love for us to be conditional; God is not like that, as we will discover if we reflect more deeply on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
One of the main reasons why we find it so difficult to understand and appreciate what God’s Mercy and Love is for us, is because our views of God is distorted and our human experiences of what is mercy and love is very limited and limiting.
What happens when someone hurts us, or cause us harm, or spread rumours and tarnish our reputation, or is very ungrateful to us for the many good that we have done for the person and the like? The tendency of most people would be to react strongly, retaliate or worse still – do the most unchristian deed; to seek revenge. Are these not the content of what Hollywood drama and movies are generally all about? Are these not what rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in box offices, just to feed our human tendencies?
However the truth of what Jesus is proclaiming to us in today’s Gospel of God’s mercy and forgiveness is totally different; different from our narrow perceptions of what God’s Mercy and Love is and different from what we experience mercy, love and forgiveness to be. First, we have the younger son experiencing a conversion of heart because his sufferings. The pain and suffering that he experiences have shocked him into realising that as he was dying of hunger, and would willingly feed on the husks of pigs, while his father’s paid servants have more food than what they want. So, he decided to return to his father to be hired as a servant; not as a son, as he realised that he does not deserve to be treated as a son by his father.
Actually, up to this part of the story, all of us would understand, sympathise and in fact, probably without deeper reflection, agree with the younger son’s logic of what justice is. If this is our view, then what is happening is that we are seeing God as a punishing God and a God who demands that we “earn” and be deserving of His love. And that is precisely why many of us also tend to agree with the younger son that he has disqualified himself from being a son through his sinful ways.
So, let us look at the story more closely. God’s Mercy and Love begins to unfold when we see the father, even as his son was a long way off, was moved with pity and forgetting his age and frailty rushes to him, embraces and kisses him tenderly. And as his younger son is trying to say how unworthy he is of being his son, the father, brushes it aside and immediately instructs his servants quickly to put the best robe on him, a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet and also to kill the fattened calf for a big celebration. Why all these? This very simply is because “His son was lost, and has now returned home.”
It is good for us to reflect on the infinite Mercy of God and His unconditional love. Far from even considering punishing His son, the Father, puts on the best robe on His son, symbolising not only His total acceptance, but that he is to be treated as an honoured guest of the celebration. Even as His son has just squandered his money, the father puts a ring on him to symbolise that He continues to trust in him, and has reinstated his full authority as son. The sandals on his feet further re-emphasises that he is not a slave, but a free man, and the fatted calf is killed indicating that the celebration would be a grand celebration for all the villages and the whole community.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is not easy to fully appreciate and allow the truth of God’s Mercy and Love to penetrate our hearts primarily because our experiences of human mercy and love is often at best conditional, and at worst, revengeful. How many of us can say that our love for someone is total and unconditional? Is it not more common to find that we seek justice, demand apologies, expects change within a short-time, harbour hurts and pains for years after years, and sadly for some, a life-time, if the sins against us are serious? In this context, is it not surprising, if we find ourselves drawn into behaving and rationalising like the elder son when we are being hurt?
We know that the elder son was furious when he found out what his father had done to welcome and celebrate his brother’s return. He could not accept how his younger brother could get away with such sinful behaviour without being first punished. If the older brother was given his way, he would have demanded that his younger brother be punished severely as a hired worker, and then serve till he proves clearly and without doubt that his repentance is sincere and deep. Otherwise, he would consider it a serious violation of justice .Why? It is because he has been labouring or as he would call it “slaving” all these years, without any grand celebrations and recognition from his father.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, to understand where God’s love is coming from, it is good to see that while there is such a value as God’s justice, we can only understand God’s divine justice in the light of God filling His justice with His deep compassion. And most importantly always having God’s infinite desire to save us and grant us eternal life. This is the Good News of salvation that Jesus is offering us. And, that’s precisely why the Father said, “your brother was dead (in sin) and has come back to life; he was lost (in sin) and is found. . . should we then not celebrate?”
God’s Love for us is shown powerfully through His Mercy and Compassion for us. His heart, as shown in the Prodigal Father is filled with overwhelming joy, just because His son has returned; it is having him home again that matters most. In God’s compassionate mercy, He distinguishes clearly between the sin and the sinner. He constantly forgives our sins, because His Mercy for us is infinite and His Love for us is unconditional. The problem is not God; our problem is that our human experiences and view of sin is finite and conditional.
I would like to conclude by first reminding ourselves that it is not easy for us to understand how in God’s unconditional Love for us, He continues to show us His infinite Mercy, as Jesus has illustrated through the Parable of the Prodigal Son. However, we should also note that as Jesus teaches us to live in this way, He too Himself lived fully what He taught. And so as He was hanging on His Cross, instead of seeking Justice, He looked at the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Roman soldiers in the eyes and found the strength to pray, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
This is the type of divine love and mercy that you and I, and all children of God are experiencing from God daily. Are we not truly so blessed to have such a Compassionate God? We are all called, with God’s strength to do the same and to show the unconditional Mercy and forgiveness and love for one another, regardless of how trying this may be
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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