Today’s gospel is one of Jesus’ best known parables. The account, usually named the Prodigal Son, is really about the loving father. That change of name is an important shift if we want to appreciate what Jesus is teaching us: it’s really about God, not about us.
The problem with this parable being so well known is that the moment we hear the first line: “a man had two sons” we immediately recall the entire story and jump too quickly to the punch line without savouring the journey and its complex stages.
Take a moment today to slow down and hear this old parable with new ears.
As I was praying with this gospel one line leapt out at me with a new freshness. The prodigal realised that after seeking to satisfy all his superficial desires, he had failed to find the happiness that he sought. He comes to his senses and says to himself:
“I shall get up and go to my father.”
At this turn-around, the life of the prodigal son fills with hope and new potential.
This is the key to new beginning and a more abundant life. We all fail. We all fall. We all sin. However none of these struggles has to define us. The measure of our maturity is not our failure. The measure of our maturity is how often we get up.
A few years ago Pope (emeritus) Benedict reflected on this parable as a measure of human (and therefore spiritual) maturity. I thought you might appreciate his reflection:
This passage of St Luke constitutes one of the peaks of spirituality and literature of all time. Indeed, what would our culture, art and more generally our civilization be without this revelation of a God the Father so full of mercy?
It never fails to move us and every time we hear or read it, it can suggest to us ever new meanings. Above all, this Gospel text has the power of speaking to us of God, of enabling us to know his Face and, better still, his Heart.
After Jesus has told us of the merciful Father, things are no longer as they were before. We now know God; he is our Father who out of love created us to be free and endowed us with a conscience, who suffers when we get lost and rejoices when we return.
For this reason, our relationship with him is built up through events, just as it happens for every child with his parents: at first he depends on them, then he asserts his autonomy; and, in the end if he develops well he reaches a mature relationship based on gratitude and authentic love.
In these stages we can also identify moments along the person’s journey in their relationship with God. There can be a phase that resembles childhood: religion prompted by need, by dependence. As a person grows up and becomes emancipated, they wants to liberate themselves from this submission and become free and adult, able to organise themselves and make their own decisions, even thinking they can do without God. Precisely this stage is delicate and can lead to atheism, yet even this frequently conceals the need to discover God’s true Face. Fortunately for us, God never fails in his faithfulness and even if we distance ourselves and get lost he continues to follow us with his love, forgiving our errors and speaking to our conscience from within in order to call us back to him.
In this parable the sons behave in opposite ways: the younger son leaves home and sinks ever lower whereas the elder son stays at home, but he too has an immature relationship with the Father. In fact, when his brother comes back, the elder brother does not rejoice like the Father; on the contrary he becomes angry and refuses to enter the house.
The two sons represent two immature ways of relating to God: rebellion and childish obedience. Both these forms are surmounted through the experience of mercy. Only by experiencing forgiveness, by recognizing one is loved with a freely given love a love greater than our wretchedness but also than our own merit do we at last enter into a truly filial and free relationship with God.
Please keep in your prayer Fr. Paul Martin SM who today will be ordained as the tenth bishop of the diocese of Christchurch. Yesterday his took the Oath of Fidelity and made his Profession of Faith witnessed by a large number of priests from around New Zealand. The Live Stream is from 10.30am with the Ordination Mass beginning at 11.00am.