This week’s gospel reading includes what is possibly Jesus’ greatest parable: the Prodigal Son. (I say “includes” because the official gospel reading this week is very long, with the Prodigal Son parable as the second half. However, an approved shorter version may be read at Mass, which is only the first half. So if your priest or deacon is in a hurry and doesn’t proclaim the whole gospel reading, then show your displeasure by reading the Prodigal Son portion in the Missalette instead of listening to his homily. No, I’m kidding. Listen to his homily—but make sure you read the Prodigal Son verses anyway.)
I can really relate to the younger son in this parable. Way back when I was an atheist alcoholic, I messed up my life almost as much as he did. Then when I became a Christian and got sober, I repented of my sinful ways, and began to support myself and my family by finally working hard. (Wow, what a concept!)
However, after many years of sobriety and church-attendance, I slowly began to take on the traits of the pious older brother. Remember him? He’s the one who was obedient, but who became angry and resentful when the younger son was forgiven so quickly. I actually started to look down my nose at people who were messing up their lives but who didn’t have the “character” to get sober like me.
The younger son’s behavior was so bad, he knew he was a sinner. But the older son did not commit obvious sins of the flesh; he committed sins of the spirit: pride, anger, jealousy. So he didn’t even realize he was a sinner, which made his situation more daunting. How do you repent of sins you don’t even know you’re committing?
Most people can relate to either of the two sons, and like me, sometimes both sons at various times in our lives. The late great Catholic author Henri Nouwen wrote that Christians are ultimately called to identify with the father in this parable.
The father in the story represents God, whose love and forgiveness are unconditional. At some point in our lives, we all will be in a position of authority, whether parent, teacher, coach, supervisor, or just an older person with a lot of life experience.
There will be people in our lives who will need our unconditional love. They may not be our offspring, and they may not have messed up their lives quite as dramatically as the younger son in the parable, but they will need our love. And the one thing they will NOT need from us is “conditional” love, the love that says, “I’ll forgive you and embrace you, but only if you do such-and-such.” Conditional love is merely a contract, a business arrangement. It is not genuine God-like love.
The unconditional love God offers us—the same unconditional love demonstrated by the father in the parable, and the love that we are called to share with others—is a joyful love. It’s not a calculated business deal; it’s not a self-righteous demand that the sinner grovel for a while first, in order to pay the price for his sinful ways. Instead, it’s a genuine delight that the other person has reached out and wants to change his ways and restore a broken relationship. There are no conditions. There is only pure joy.
That’s the supernatural love and forgiveness God want to share with us. In turn, we must share this same kind of love and forgiveness with our family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances. It’s the only way we can fully share in the joy of God.