Allow the Father to love us

The Prodigal Son comes home to us once again on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. If ever there was a poster for the Year of Mercy it is this extraordinary display of Reconciliation and forgiveness. This story is a living testament to the organic nature of the Gospels; for they continue to have relevance today even in a world that thinks it has evolved beyond the message. 

The world is filled with lives that parallel the characters in this story. There is no shortage of people who squander the inheritance of their relationship with God, pursuing that which can never bring true happiness. The world is also filled with its share of older brothers who believe they must safeguard God’s mercy. 

In the few months since we opened this Jubilee year we have already heard multiple interpretations of what it means to be merciful and who deserves to receive it. Some have voiced concern that people will get the wrong idea about what Pope Francis had in mind when he asked the Church to “show her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded.” Maybe they fear that the wounded will bring their festering wounds into their pristine Church and infect everyone else.

The title of the story may distract us from its most important message, for the son is not the only prodigal in the plot. Prodigal is defined as being extravagant to a degree bordering on recklessness. When we look closely at the story it becomes clear that it is about the father, not the sons. When the younger son chooses to leave, he lands the first slap by asking for his inheritance, essentially saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” His disgrace was deepened when he wasted his money on debauchery, but then he hits rock bottom when he was forced to work among the pigs. 

Jesus was over the top with this story because His peasant audience would have been shocked and scandalized by this tale. He doesn’t stop there, but further subjects the father to more humiliation by having him run to meet the returning son, something that an elder of the time would never do. His embrace of the returning son is not a private affair, for the father welcomes him home with a very public celebration for the entire community. One does not slaughter a fattened calf for a quiet family dinner! The shame deepens for the father when the older son publicly quarrels with him at the feast. Yet through it all the father never gives his sons the treatment they deserve. Instead, he lavishes them with mercy. This is really the story of the Prodigal Father, who pours out his love and forgiveness in an embarrassing display of generosity.

Mercy was the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. He ate with sinners to seal their return home with as lavish a feast as awaited the Prodigal Son. Sinners did not have to pass any special test to prove they were worthy of being members of the community; they simply had to accept the welcome of Jesus. The Jubilee Year of Mercy is not new, but a rededication to Jesus’ central message. It is an opportunity for the Church to examine ways in which she can broadcast an invitation to return to God or get out of the way and let God run out to meet the returning penitent. 

But mercy is fragile and vulnerable, for it begins with a shattered heart. It is the cry from the depths of the pig sties of our lives that only the Father knows. It is the invitation to return that is initiated by the Father, not by us. It is not our Confession of sin that brings reconciliation, but God’s confession of love and forgiveness. It is not our choice to come to the Eucharistic feast, but God’s preparation of the celebratory feast that draws us near. 

When Pope Francis declared the Year of Mercy he did not forge new ground, but hoped to guide the Church toward its primary responsibility to be an agent of mercy in a concrete way. He points out that we live in a time when people do not believe that redemption is possible. Rather than fear the return of the sinner, Pope Francis says that “the place where an encounter with Jesus occurs is in our sin.” The gift of grace is indeed so overabundant that it seems unfair. The greatest act of mercy we can perform is to allow the Prodigal Father to wastefully lavish His love on an undeserving world, to restore and resurrect. “Your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and now he is found.” 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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