What is God like? What kind of God are we Christians to believe in? The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the longest parable Jesus ever told, and in it he has left us an answer to what God is like: he is the God of generous mercy and forgiveness.
For those of us who have seen out a few decades, the ‘lost and found’ parables we’ve just heard would be extremely well known to us. And even for school children, that masterpiece of story telling, the Prodigal Son, would already be familiar to them. Such is our familiarity with it that I’m sure you could probably repeat the parable nearly word for word, as well as recall at least half a dozen decent homilies preached on it over the years.
At different times in our lives, most of us have played each of the roles in this story: that of the loving parent, who anxiously wants only to embrace even the most wayward child; that of the younger son, whose utter selfishness and pride have brought him low, and desperate need; and the older son, who has lived responsibly and above reproach, yet is scandalised by the generosity and leniency with which the sinfulness of others is treated. We have been each of these people; and each of these three stories we personally know only too well.
So, what might be said today that could be considered a fresh take on it? Well, in an odd sort of way, the most basic and most obvious aspect of the story of the father and his two sons—that of the play between repentance and forgiveness—is really the only and always fresh message. Why? Because none of us is ever far from the need for mercy and the desire to be forgiven. And none of us is ever at a point where we can say we have overcome the need to offer mercy or learn to forgive. None of us.
Pope Francis has proved to be the pope of mercy and tenderness. Time and again he has challenged us to become more and more a people motivated by God’s divine compassion and forgiveness. We might say he has been proposing a revolution, not in the content of the faith, but in the culture of the Church. Pope Francis believes it’s time for the Church to lift up its merciful face to the world, in part because of its own self-inflicted wounds and in part because of the unforgiving temper of the times. This is a call of the Gospel: that each of us might look for every chance to express God’s mission of compassion, to extend the hand of forgiveness, to offer a word of welcome and closeness.
The merciful love of God, evident in the father of the parable, does not reveal an angry god that can be rejected, nor an indulgent god that is quickly outgrown. The God of Jesus Christ is the God who loves each of us from being lost to being found, from death to life.
So, that is all I want to say today. Repentance and forgiveness. Jesus went to the cross so that we might find these in our own lives: first to receive them from him, and then to give them to others. To be reconciled and to reconcile; to find mercy and to forgive. What more needs to be said?
Image:Jean-Louis Forain, The Return of the Prodigal Son (third plate), etching, 1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli17 November 2023