Today’s Parable of the “Prodigal Son” is sometimes known as the greatest short story ever told. This parable is more about “God’s Unconditional Love” than about the sins of the two sons in the story. The younger son’s sin could be described as a “self-centred shameless arrogance” while the elder’s son’s sin could be described as a “self-righteous anger.”
Let us begin our reflection with the younger son. Why did I chose to describe his sin as a “self-centred shameless arrogance”? Under Jewish law a father is meant to divide 2/3 of his property to his elder son and only 1/3 to the younger son, and he should not distribute any of his property while he is still alive.
However, in the parable, in effect the younger son is saying to his father, “Father, give me now, my share of the property which I will get any way when you are dead and I will leave home and not bother you anymore!” Is this not a display of a self-centred shameless arrogance, especially so when his father is still alive? And what was the Father’s response, which symbolises God the Father’s Love? – The Father responded with an unconditional love that is infinitely merciful.
There are precious lessons we can learn from this parable. Let us first note the difference between human reconciliation and divine reconciliation. The Oxford dictionary’s defines “reconciliation” as “to make friendly again after an estrangement; to harmonize and make compatible again.”
I am sure at different times and in different ways, we have each experienced such human reconciliation before. However, our human tendency is that when someone hurts us deeply, we seek justice; we want to get even and even consider revenge. God the Father as symbolised in today’s Gospel tells us clearly that this should never happen to us.
When East Timor gained independence after experiencing many years of suffering and pain, President Xanana pleaded for his people to seek for lasting peace through reconciliation and healing; not revenge. That was very difficult for them, especially for those who had their families brutally killed.
The first thing we can learn from the parable is that while human love is always partial and conditional. But, God’s Love is always total and unconditional, and we are each called to draw strength from God to forgive, even if this seems impossible, for Jesus in today’s parable reminds us that with God’s forgiving graces, nothing is impossible.
When the Father allowed his younger son to take his share of the property, even though he has no right to it, He knew what would probably happen, yet his deep love for his son also meant that he had to respect his son’s freedom. True enough his son squandered his wealth on wine, women and song and suffered severely from his lifestyle.
But, when he “came to his senses” and thus experienced a conversion of heart, his father forgave him unconditionally. We can easily imagine how day and night, his father would be looking into the horizon and longing for the day when his son would return home. And when he did see his son’s silhouette in a long distance away, the Gospel tells us that, he “was moved with pity,” and “ran out to the boy and clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.”
Let us notice that before his son could even tell his father that “he had sinned against heaven and against him and no longer deserve to be called his son, but as a paid servant, he did not give his son a chance. Instead, filled with an overwhelming joy he told his servants to bring his son the “best robe” symbolising his restoration of his son’s honour, and a ring symbolising his rightful authority as his son, and also sandals for his feet, symbolising his sonship and freedom, instead of him being a slave or hired servant, and also a grand feast to celebrate the happy occasion of his son’s return home; a home where he belongs, and where he is truly loved with great dignity and honour, instead of being lost in a strange world that is far from home, far from being his true self and far from God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, when we go for “Confession” or rather when we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this is precisely also what happens to us. Our Loving God whose Love for us unconditional and whose Mercy is infinite waits for our return so that He can embrace us with His Compassionate Heart. Spiritually all that we described in the Parable takes effect in our souls when the Priest-Confessor absolves us of our sins, in the person of Christ during the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
But, in-so-far as we keep our distance in our relationship with God, we are never discover our true self. Like the younger son, we are all called today to return to God to seek His forgiveness for the times when we were “shamelessly self-centred and arrogant” towards Him in different ways.
In this context of God’s Unconditional Love for His younger son, the elder son enters into the picture. His attitude towards his younger brother is typical of a self-righteous Pharisee. First, he refuses to enter the banquet hall; his father in humility had to come out to plead for him to enter saying “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But, it is only right we should celebrate and rejoice for your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”
However, the elder brother was furious at his father because in his heart he demanded justice. So, in his fury, he tells his father off by saying, “Why should your son be let off so easily?! Do you think he would learn his lesson . . . should he not be taught a painful lesson and be made to serve as a hired servant for some years so that he can earn back his dignity as son. . .?” “Do these harsh judgments of the elder brother ring a bell within us? Have we also found it difficult to forgive when people hurt us deeply?
There is a poem by Judith Mammay that I have adapted and think it is appropriate to share here:
Forgiveness is letting go of the pain
and accepting that what has happened
cannot be changed.
Forgiveness is dismissing the blame,
but looking at the pain
and learning from the lessons we can gain.
Forgiveness is moving on
and knowing that love, God’s love,
God’s unconditional love
is the answer
for nowhere else can find such love
except in God
and through God, who is our constant love.
As I conclude, let us first, remind ourselves that as we all know this Parable well, there is a temptation for us to brush it aside and not allow God’s unconditional Love to sink into our hearts. So, I urge us to spend some time to reflect on this parable of the “Loving Father” during this week of Lent.
Second, God our Father is challenging us to bring our human level of forgiveness for each other to a higher level of the unconditional love that Jesus is showing us daily and on countless times in our lives.
Third, that regardless of how we have sinned and failed God, as in the younger son, God is daily longing for our conversion of heart and return to His Loving embrace.
Fourth and finally, if we cannot forgive, we destroy the very bridge over which we ourselves need to pass. However, if we are living a good Christian life, then we are called to deepen our love for God in genuine and grateful ways, and never to be self-righteous towards others, like the elder son. Instead, be compassionate as God is infinitely compassionate to us daily. . . God will surely give us the strength to live it in His ways.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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