by Fr Duncan McVicar on 01/05/2016 -
Without doubt, one of the most powerful images of God’s mercy is the parable of the Lost Son – sometimes called, the parable of the Merciful Father. We see here how God’s love and mercy is something that you cannot earn or deserve. And even if we haven’t merited mercy, God still pours out his love in our lives anyway. We see this in how the merciful Father deals with his son. He doesn’t turn him away, he doesn’t even scold him. He waits for him, he hopes for him and when his son finally returns, he celebrates with his son. We have here the most tremendous example of God’s amazing and endless mercy. We have here the faithful love of a father for his lost son. The son did not only leave his father’s house, he also left his father’s heart. However, the father never gives up. In the parable of the merciful Father, we see–in such a powerful way–the essential attribute of God–mercy. This parable is like a “pearl” amongst all the various parables that Jesus taught. It is often called the “gospel within the gospel”, because it is the most beautiful parable of the love of Jesus to the sinner. The love of God and the mercy of God, which is already proclaimed in the Old Testament – for example in the Prophet Hosea – becomes real and concrete again in this parable of Jesus. The parable of the merciful Father is preceded by two other stories, which express the joy of finding what was lost: we can read about the parable of the lost sheep and also the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10). God rejoices when the lost are found. This theme, and this important message, goes through all these parables. The two sons, that are presented to us in the parable, represent two different types of people. The youngest son runs away from the house of his father, and he goes to a strange land – without the father. The older son remains at home, outwardly with the father, but his heart is not with his father – his heart has another agenda, namely, how can you get the most out of his father for his own life and his own enjoyment. Jesus directs our gaze firstly towards the younger son. He asked his father for his inheritance. It is interesting, that the younger son excepts the inheritance as something self-understood, and at least in the telling of the parable, the younger son never expresses any gratitude towards his father. He takes the generosity of his father for granted. The father, at the beginning of the story, says absolutely nothing. He remains silent and offers no comment. The son finds refuge with the pagans, and after a time of pleasure and plenty, he is forced to look after the impure animals, the pigs, in order to survive. These two details of the younger son’s predicament represent symptoms of his distancing from faith, and the religion of his ancestors. However, his misery brings him to a new realization, that he discovers in a kind of conversation with himself. In verse 17, it says that the younger son “came to himself” and realized that even the servants of his father were having a much better life than he was. It is interesting that the son does not complain or point the finger at his friends, or the owner of the pigs, or even his own father; he points the finger at himself and he gives himself the blame. Behind the outward sign of misery and need lies hidden the drama of the lost dignity of the younger son, and how he has allowed his relationship to his father to wither away, because of his own search for independence and pleasure. The lost son experiences in himself remorse for what he has done, however, the remorse is not because of the boundless and forgiving love of his father. It is much more remorse based on his own advantage, and how he can get out of this terrible predicament – in other words, it is a means to survive. However, at the same time this “conversion” is a healing one because one word is said that makes all the difference. This word is “father”. In the short conversation with himself, the son expresses how he wants to declare before his father and before heaven that he has sinned. He makes a distinction here between God – in heaven – and his earthly father. In other words, the lost son wants to make it right with his earthly father, but also wants to make it right with God, and renounce his sin. As the younger son is still quite far away, the parable continues, the father sees him coming (verse 20). It is clear, that the father doesn’t coincidentally see the son, he has waited for him, he has been looking for him. This waiting and this looking of the father from a distance is the proof again that God’s boundless love for us will always be there, and how he waits for us and looks out for us. It even says, that the father runs towards his son – even though you would expect the son to run towards his father – as he is the one who bears the burden and has to make things right. In those days, for the listeners of Jesus, the fact that the father runs towards his son would have sounded very exceptional and would have been to the astonishment of the listeners of Jesus. The father embraces him, kisses him, even though he has become impure through working with pigs. He greets his son with all his heart. In this greeting, we see symbolized the complete forgiveness of the father and their relationship which is beginning again. Jesus portrays the father, in a powerful way, as the one who cannot do anything else but love, and cannot do anything else but be merciful. The father accepts his son as he is. After the father has given his forgiveness and the price he is prepared to pay for love, the son is then able to make his declaration of guilt, and he brings his confession to his father. Forgiveness does not demand any preconditions, forgiveness just asks for a conversion of heart. God looks out for those who are lost, and wants them to have life in abundance. The confession of the son towards his father is a sign of a change in his heart. It is a sign of inner transformation. The love and the compassion of the father is so overwhelming, that the lost son doesn’t even finish his speech, saying that he is willing to be treated as one of the servants. He cannot get the words out, because the father has overwhelmed him with acts of kindness and love. The father, who at the beginning of the story was silent, now starts to speak. He gives the servants instructions to prepare the table for the celebration. His son should receive the best cloak and sandals should be put on his feet, and a ring should be placed on his finger. These objects are all symbols of how the father fully accepts his son back. He is made whole again. The parable expresses, in such a beautiful way, that remorse is necessary so that we can receive the gift of forgiveness. God is the passionate lover, but he is able to pour out his love in its fullness, when we come back to him, when we confess our sins, and when we are willing to be transformed. The son experiences in the embrace of his father what a joy it is to be the son of this father, and what a gift it is that he has received the dignity of being a son again. The father, through his forgiveness, gives his son and his dignity back. That is why the father rejoices so much, because in the conversion of his son his dignity is restored to him. The son has not earned this gift, and he hasn’t done anything to justify this gift. However, the father gives the gift freely and without conditions simply because he is his son. The love that the father has for his son, the love which comes forth from the essence of fatherhood, lifts up the son and restores his dignity. The father is portrayed by Jesus as one who forgives generously. The remorse of his son, and the fact that he has come back to him, opens the floodgates of mercy of the father. Jesus, in this parable, tells the story of an earthly father, however, it becomes more and more evident that he uses this story to “paint a picture” of his Father in heaven. Jesus is saying to us in such a min- boggling simple way: “This is who God is – so tender, so compassionate, so full of mercy and so boundless in the power of love. The inner attitude of the father in the story and the way he acts towards his son is a reflection of God’s relationship to us. There is a second highpoint in this parable that we should also consider. And that is the relationship between the father and his older son, who remains at home. The older son lives at home, but it is not an expression of a sound relationship, it’s an outward, external sign, an objective fact. The older son gives the impression that he is “squeaky clean”: he is obedient, he follows the law, he is hard-working and he is very aware of his duty. However, as he notices the joy and the rejoicing over the return of his younger brother, different and more negative traits in him become more evident. He becomes proud and selfish. He reacts with anger and bitterness at the news that his younger brother has returned. His egoism makes him jealous, and turns his heart to stone. He is blind to what is happening around him. He closes in on himself and separates himself from the people around him and also from God. The goodness and the mercy of his father angers him and the contentment and gratitude of his brother is for him a “bitter pill” to swallow. The older son refuses to come back into the house. The father has to come out of the house again to find his older son and speak to him. He listens to the accusations of the older son. It is interesting that the older brother never says the word “father” and never refers to the younger son as his brother, even though the father comes to him and says: “Son, you are always with me” (verse 31). The parable ends, without Jesus actually telling us what the older son decides and how he finally reacts to the pleading of his father. The older son also needs to go through a healing conversion and a transformation in his own heart, so that he too can encounter and discover for himself the mercy of the father, and in so doing, overcome the tension with his younger brother. It is as if Jesus is inviting us, to put ourselves in the shoes of the older brother, and decide what we would do in this situation. Everyone, in the end, has to decide for himself. Without any doubt, when we allow the message of this parable to work on us, we quickly realize that the story is more about the merciful Father than it is about the behaviour of his sons. The father of the lost sons remains faithful to his fatherhood, he remains faithful to love. The love that he gave his sons from the beginning, is the same love with which he now receives and embraces him. This parable also gives us a glimpse into the quality of God’s mercy. His forgiveness and mercy doesn’t just mean happiness and rejoicing, that the lost son has finally returned home. Something much deeper is happening. It is also the joy that comes from knowing that a wonderful gift has been restored: namely, the gift of the son’s humanity and his dignity. In his hunger and misery in a far-off land, he discovered something more than despair: he rediscovered his dignity and how much he had lost that dignity through his own fault and choices. In other words, he rediscovered the truth about himself, in fact, the deepest truth, namely that he is a “son”, and he belongs to the father. His misery comes from the fact that he betrayed that dignity and threw it away. This is so important, because it means, when we receive God’s mercy, it never implies some kind of humiliation that brings us to our knees, it is a gift which raises us up. In the parable, it become so obvious that the dignity of the younger son finds its foundation in the acceptance and love of the father, and this dignity – at the end of the day – cannot be destroyed or completely taken away from him. Saint Pope John Paul, in his writings about mercy, was always at pains to emphasize that mercy is much more than just having compassion when someone is in need, or to pity someone, or to feel sorry for them. True mercy always reinforces the inalienable dignity of the human person, it strives to see the positive and good in them, and always intends to raise the person up. The Gospel of Luke brings home to us, in this wonderful parable of Jesus, the “civilization of love”. When we speak about love, we are speaking about a power and reality where compassion, tenderness and mercy are all brought together, so that every human being can become what he or she is in truth. This is what actually happens in the encounter between the merciful father and his son. The love of the father restores the son’s human dignity. In other words, the experience of mercy is a concrete way to express human dignity, to emphasize human dignity and also to experience human dignity. In the understanding of the Bible, when we speak about Divine mercy, we are always speaking about a process and reality taking place between two people. On the one hand, we have the merciful Father, and on the other hand we have the son who is forgiven. In this experience, both encounter again their own innermost identity. This merciful love of the father is always a gift that is unmerited and unearned from us. When we receive this gift, and when we rediscover our own dignity and identity, then that becomes the basis of the greatest joy and rejoicing.
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