We’ve heard this parable of the prodigal son so many times we could hear it in our sleep. We see the willingness of the father to let this mixed up son find his own way in life, we see him running out to meet him as he returns home, broke and hungry, we imagine the great party the father threw for him and we sympathize with the elder brother’s resentment at the reception his spoiled brother received.
One of the lessons parents can learn from this powerful parable is the truth that parents can give their children roots and wings. Often the wings carry them far from their roots but we have to trust the truth that roots are stronger than wings.
Reading Paul’s letter to Timothy we can imagine that Paul saw himself as a prodigal son – even though he probably never heard the parable. He saw himself as a blasphemer, a persecutor and as a man of violence. In his own enthusiasm for his Jewish faith he persecuted the followers of Jesus. In all sincerity his saw these followers as traitors to the ancient faith. He was determined to stamp out this heresy.
But like the prodigal son there was that moment of grace when Paul came to his senses, when he was graced to know that what he was doing was so wrong. As Paul says, “I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief” As the son in the parable came home to his father so aware of the wrong he had done, the hurt he had caused, so Paul opened his heart and his life to Christ and the grace of Christ overflowed for him with faith and love.
The message of this short piece from Paul’s letter to Timothy is the same as that of the parable – for this reason Paul – as did the prodigal son – received mercy, so that in Paul and in the prodigal son, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making them an example to those who would come after them.
Paul knew that that moment of grace that changed his life on the road to Damascus was totally God’s work, just as that moment of grace on the pig farm when that broke and hungry and homesick young man came to his senses was totally God’s work. Paul knew that all that had happened in his life, except for the sinning, was God’s work. As Paul told others, “God strengthened me, God trusted me, God appointed me, God had mercy on me and God graced me.”
Paul acted out of conviction, the young man in the parable acted out a deep need to find his own way in life. They both ended up making wrong choices; they both were graced, to change their lives.
I was reading a reflection on the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The writer suggests that these words apply to all of us when we make wrong choices in our lives, when we fall short of being who we are called to be by Christ. We know not what we do because we have never come to grips with the love shown us by the crucified Christ. As Paul tells us, “it is difficult to die even for a good person, but what proves that God loves us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Because we’ve never really been able to get our heads around such awesome, unconditional and undeserved love, we really don’t know what we’re doing, we really don’t appreciate the love we are rejecting and betraying when we sin. We are good people but there are times when we do make awful choices in our lives, that is why we constantly ask for God’s forgiveness. We never give up hope because we trust in a forgiveness that stretches to seventy times seven.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass, having heard these powerful words of scripture, we can pray for ourselves and for each other that if and when we fail to respond to that tsunami of God’s love toward us, proven in the passion and death of the crucified Christ, that we be graced as were Paul and the prodigal son to come to our senses – admit to ourselves we have sinned and then return home to the love and the embrace of the Father Who so loved us He sent His Son to the world to bring us everlasting life.