Friends, I think today, as we look at our readings; we could conclude that they teach us mercy and that is no better depicted than in the familiar story of the prodigal son. The story should really be called the “prodigal father,” because that emphasis is what makes the story so astounding.
This father (picture, God) demonstrates over-the-top love for the one who has turned his back, left and squandered his life. And yet, none of that matters to this prodigal parent. All that matters is that this lost one found the way back. Our hearts can hardly not, go out with mercy and compassion and run with the parent to meet and greet the lost child. None of it matters, what was done, what was squandered, only that the child has returned. We see a parent here who is as “prodigal” in bestowing love as the child was “prodigal” in turning away from all that life had given.
It is perhaps good for us to try and see the reaction of this parent through his 1st Century eyes. We must remember that family was everything and one’s inheritance came once the parent was dead. For this son to ask for it ahead of time, was really an insult to his father—the fact that he couldn’t wait until the proper time. And then to further go off and squander it was a double insult. By these actions, he not only turns his back on his father and his family, but on the community that he was a part of.
I learned more of the background story to this beautiful display of parental love when I was still working with the seniors at Lake Winona Manor—I’ve shared this in the past, but it bears repeating. Apparently part of the reason that the father ran to meet his son, besides loving him and being so happy that he returned, was to arrive before the town’s people met the boy at the city gates and denounced him for his actions to his father and to the community’s way of life. This denouncement came in a ritualistic way. A group of town’s people met the returning person at the city’s gates, dropping a clay pot at the person’s feet—shattering it, which indicated that the relationship was broken between that person and the community. The prodigal dad, not wanting this to happen; runs to meet his son, and bestows everything on him that the community was ready to take away. Even his action of running meant that he would have to raise his tunic, showing his legs; which was also against custom, basically shaming himself in order that his son would not be shamed.
As we reflect then on this prodigal parent and the fact that it seems there is an inability to show anything but love and mercy, we are called up short at the representation of God in the reading from Exodus. This God is ready to torch the Israelites for once more proving their unfaithfulness. It is Moses who has to calm God down—he even asks, “Why should your wrath flare up against your own people?” Looking back again to the gospel from Luke, we see the opposite and some people find it hard at times, including the older brother, to understand such “wasteful” love for one who seems so clearly not to deserve it.
I raise the apparent different images of God for our reflection because they don’t seem to coincide. We have often heard that Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets; to perhaps set straight, some of the discrepancies about God and God’s place and relationship with our world and its people. In this reading today from Exodus, Moses almost seems more god-like in mercy than God does. It might be that Moses, who is supposed to have written these early First Testament books, was trying to make up for what he does in the next scene that we didn’t read here today. Upon seeing his people dancing around a golden calf to worship, Moses throws the stone tablets to the ground in anger, destroying them. He is now on a par with his God’s anger!
Albino Luciano—Pope John Paul I, a pope that we had for too short a time, only 33 days, did not like the theology of Moses or the God of Moses. He felt that the God of Moses was and is responsible for all the religious wars ever fought, for all the violence perpetrated against women, gays and lesbians, and the lack of charity and mercy toward the “lepers”/the downcast in our societies. This kind of violence toward others is given license in the theology of Moses—the killing and raping of innocent peoples in order to take the Promised Land. John Paul I had a great deal of trouble with the God of Moses and saw the discrepancies between this God and the Prodigal God of Love depicted in Luke today.
Let us shift then to this God that Jesus talks about. Again we see the need for Jesus, God incarnate, becoming one of us. We hadn’t quite got the message that we are loved abundantly; Moses apparently didn’t translate the message too well about who God was to end up with two readings, one from the First Testament and another from the Second Testament that show us such a different face of God with the two really so opposed to each other in style.
I believe the part we must not lose sight of is that God’s ways are not our ways. This becomes crystal clear in the reading from Luke where we see the image of God in the Prodigal Parent—one who is almost maddeningly merciful and understanding. We humans tend to want people to get what they deserve—if people have been bad; we want to see them be punished. And likewise, if a person has done something noteworthy, reward is in order, we feel. We all had cause to reflect on this tendency of retribution this past week when the rapist and murderer of Jacob Wetterling was finally exposed. This human quality was even raised up in defense of Moses’ God wanting to torch the Israelites for their unfaithfulness in some of the exegesis that I read in preparation for this homily. The exegete said, “The wrath of God’s fury blazed against them. And who would blame God for destroying them?” The God of Luke—the Prodigal Parent would not have agreed with such an action. God’s ways are not our ways! Thank God this is so!
This long gospel today gave us several images, faces, if you will, of our loving God—each different, yet each showing us a God who loves us deeply, and is never inconvenienced by our needs. First we see the shepherd who will leave the 99 and go in search of the one who is lost. The woman who turns her house upside-down looking for the lost coin (both, by the way—legitimate images of God) and finally, as we already discussed, the exquisite story of the Prodigal Parent who continues to wait and pray that the lost one will return and when it finally happens, runs to embrace him/her and throws a party to celebrate. In my work as a chaplain, it was this over-the-top, God of love that I always tried to have the people I met with, especially those in the Department of Behavioral Medicine recognize as the One who wants them to come back, to check in again, and know that they too are loved and cared about.
Paul, in his letter to Timothy expounds on the love of this God. He is totally aware that he deserves the worst punishment—the wrath of Moses’ God, yet he received love, from Luke’s God—only love, and is challenged by Jesus to go out and share the love that he has been so freely given, with others.
One final point that we need to remember friends—our readings today are not just about becoming aware of God’s great love, mercy and acceptance of each of us; but coming to the realization that each of us must move past recriminations and a need to exact punishment toward seeing as God sees.
I am presently reading a biography of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who pastored the people of Seattle, WA from 1975 to 1991. He was known for his generosity and goodness as a person, but most significantly for taking on the U.S. presidency in the person of Ronald Reagan, the Catholic Church hierarchy in the person of Pope John Paul II and the government of the United States.
All this was done because the good bishop was following his conscience by calling attention to our country’s nuclear build-up through the Trident submarine system. In the early days of this build-up, there was a real threat that the Soviets would attempt to keep pace with the United States and the result could have been annihilation of the world as we know it.
Hunthausen struggled with his conscience over this issue. He had attended all four sessions of Vatican II and as this council forever changed our Church, it forever changed this pastor—he had to go public with what his faith and conscience were telling him—he had to do the right, albeit hard thing. He spoke publicly challenging that our country needed to turn from this proliferation of nuclear weaponry—he even challenged Catholics who worked in plants putting together warheads to give up these jobs. He then advocated for civil disobedience by asking people to refuse half of their taxes that would go toward this nuclear buildup, beginning with himself. You can imagine that he wasn’t popular among everyone, even though he did receive much support.
My friends, we are challenged to see as God does that each person’s action in the now is a composite of so much more that we don’t see that has gone into making them who they are. We know this is true in our own case as it was true for Raymond Hunthausen. He was a man of the Church—but at a certain point, his conscience, his faith, called him to become a true man of God.
Let us pray together today that we might grow bigger hearts, wider minds, eyes that can see more deeply, ears that can hear more intently the stories of our brothers and sisters in God’s world. Let us work toward peaceful resolutions to strife in our world—let us strive to understand what causes unrest among people and look for real solutions.
My friends, it would seem that the time has come to face our world and its problems with the prodigality of our God that looks beyond the hurt done to see the heart of individuals and the good that they are capable of. We must grow beyond the easier answer of, “an eye for an eye” and choose the answers of diplomacy, communication, peace and ultimately, love. As we have often said, “Love is the hardest lesson,” but it is the only one which truly sets us free. Amen? Amen!