Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 32:7-11 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-32
The Gospel for this day emphasizes three parables, each focusing on loss and restoration. For this reflection, concentration is given to the “prodigal” a concept that embodies a particular response to life. This parable is known and classified in most circles as a priceless pearl because it highlights the limitless love of God through the eyes of a father and his two sons. Its value cannot be fully comprehended because it is a story of uncompromising reconciliation and love, one that forgets past wrongs and focuses upon mercy and redemption. It is no wonder that persons from every venue and through every form of expression viewed the content of this story as an allegory expressing the unparalleled beauty of the human spirit. It captures all the nuances of ageless cultures, contemporary, ancient and medieval, and is certainly riveted in Christ’s 2000 + years of recorded history. The story has evoked beautiful commentaries; it is expressed in all modes of human significance highlighting the depth of God’s unrelenting love for us. The impact that this parable has had lays its handprint on the human heart. It has been called the “Gospel of the Gospels,” the “Gospel of the Outcasts,” “the Gospel of Forgiveness,” and the “Gospel of a Compassionate Father’s Welcome.”
The youngest son, known as the prodigal, depicts the reality of the selfish and grasping person of every age; he sought his independence and demanded freedom to pursue his own interests beyond the vigilant eye of his father. He had no desire to live in the father’s house lest he feel obligated to the reality of such magnanimous love. He only wanted what that love could give him; material wealth beyond his imaginings, half the inheritance so generously bestowed without ties or restraints. This is not a story about someone else; it is a snapshot of you and of me when we look at life through the prism of our own misguided certainties of entitlement rather than through the window of souls rooted in God and dependent upon God. It illustrates what we value as we move through the seasons of our individual and collective lives and it highlights our relation to the God Who gifts us with everything we need for our journey. The scripture passage tells us that this younger son having taken half the inheritance and squandered it, was left destitute without home or possessions. And yet, despite his shame, his loneliness, his fear of the price he surely might be asked to pay, he knew, as Robert Frost wrote in his “Death of the Hired Man,” “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The father in the story represents our God. He promptly gave a share of the inheritance when asked, extended a fond farewell to his younger son and yearned every moment of every day for his return. Finally, when the boy arrived in rags, confessing his sins, the father forgave him, kissed him and healed their broken relationship. He gave him new garments (a sign of honor) and a golden signet ring (sign of authority and trust). By ordering sandals for the feet of his son, the father reinstated him as a member of the family since house slaves would usually be barefoot. Killing the fatted calf, specially raised for the Passover feast meant that the entire village was invited to the celebration. When the elder brother refused to acknowledge his sibling’s homecoming, the father begged him to be reconciled and to share his joy. He assured the elder son of his constant love and of the son’s secure inheritance by saying, “All I have is yours.” Thus, the father symbolizes the unconditionally forgiving Heavenly Father who is extravagant, rich in love and mercy. Would that we could have such generosity of heart and always forgive completely from the heart! When we try to place ourselves within the shadow of either son, we soon come to realize that we are a combination of them both. This then, is really the Parable of the Forgiving Father, the central figure in the drama, symbolizing the personal Presence of our God now hidden in the Eucharist. “You are ever watching under the sacramental veil and in Your love You never sleep and are never weary of Your vigil for sinners. Watch Sacramental Sentinel; watch for the weary world, for the erring soul and for Your poor lonely child.” We need to accept the fact that we are all prodigal children who have squandered our inheritance in one way or another when we refuse to internalize that God is God and we are not.
Dark and dangerous realities of promiscuity, self justification, self-aggrandizement, betrayal of the dignity of human life, pornography, violence, child abuse, desecration of this world’s ordered beauty, wars and hatred play havoc on the human spirit; in our scope of memory, we vividly recall the crushing death of so many on that other fateful day of September 11, 2001, a day that will never be forgotten. All manner of depravity is loathsome but God stands in the shadows waiting to be welcomed that we might join Him in the light. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You; say but the word and my soul shall be healed.” The prodigal had become so disconnected from all that gives life meaning; faith, family, and friends. The depth of his alienation was profound and marked him with an overwhelming sense of loss. It robbed him of the truth that he had been made to shine like the sun and was engraved in the hollow of God’s Hand. The invitation to “return” is clearly offered to the elder brother too and yet he stands apart, unwilling or unable to rejoice that his brother “has been lost and now is found.” In the context of the parable, the older son reflects the anger of the scribes and Pharisees. These are the religious people of Jesus’ time who worked hard to live righteous lives obeying the Law, but perhaps never seeing themselves in a loving relationship with God. They resent Jesus’ welcome of sinners, whom they believe do not deserve to be loved by God. They have not realized that no-one deserves God’s love – it is a free and lavish gift. And so, this parable highlights the fact that there is room at Jesus’ table for the Pharisees as well as sinners. All are welcome, but it means accepting the table companions of Jesus simply because we are all sinners.
Robert Millet, a professor of ancient scripture writes: “Unlike a fairy tale, the parable provides no happy ending. Instead, it leaves us face to face with one of life’s hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not to trust in God’s forgiving love.” The beloved author Henri Nouwen captures the essence of the parable when he writes: “The pearl-drop tears of reconciliation flowing freely from the father’s eyes will cleanse our hearts, and wash our sins away. Only he who has experienced such love can recognize it as it is.…” The father’s love is offered to both sons and he very clearly manifests the depth of his love. He embraces the ‘prodigal’ and reminds the ‘faithful’ with the words: “My son, my child, you are with me always and all I have is yours, but this brother of yours was dead and has now come to life; was lost and is found.” Perhaps this musing may be a source of “returning” in whatever way we may need to come home, (now or in the future) always remembering that “everything God has is ours” if only we will ask. His love never fails and His compassionate mercy is an ever present reality that lasts a lifetime and beyond.
Sr. Anne Daniel, Young OP