A recent blurb on Facebook announced that becoming a mother means that you are going to have to worry for the rest of your life. The same is no doubt true of dads. Childhood illnesses, incidents at school, first attempts at the family car, sex, drugs and whatever is taking the place of rock’n’roll nowadays can deprive any parent of a good night’s sleep. But what about that child who is an A student, great athlete, very sociable, college bound and then college graduated, secures a good career, waits to get married before moving in with the spouse to be, raises a family, and then become a trustee at the parish church. Many is the parent who would breathe a sigh of relief should their offspring follow such a life path.
It is precisely because parents always want what is best for their children that the parable of the Merciful Father (popularly known as the parable of the Prodigal Son) really flies in the face of universal parental experience. And Jesus certainly knew that it was a tale of contradictions when he preached it. The elder son is clearly the ideal offspring, bringing joy to any parental heart. “Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.” The dutiful son, indeed! He is “out in the field,” taking care of the family business. He is familiar with the crops; he knows planting, and cultivating, and harvesting; he knows the hired hands. He should be the apple of his father’s eye; “‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders.” The young man certainly deserves a pat on the back. Yet what he gets is a slap in the face.
Upon the return of the wayward son, the father rejoices: “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ And they began to make merry.” Now this delinquent son comes home, loaded with tattoos, weary from drugs and alcohol, forsaking his live-in girlfriend, with no employment, plenty of credit card debt, and absolutely no future prospects. And the father throws a party! “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” No censure, no condemnation, not even criticism! Just merriment that his son has returned to family life!
In classier language, St. Paul in this Sunday’s second reading, tells the Corinthians the very same message: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation…For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
For the Christian believer, as with the younger son, the old things have indeed passed away. God, as father, runs down the road and throws his arms around the returning son. As a merciful Father, God is no longer counting any wayward believer’s trespasses against him or her. The Christian community, regretting all sin, has been reconciled to God in Christ. Indeed, Christ himself was the kinder elder brother who did not criticize but rather rejoiced in each Christian’s renewal: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Jesus as the elder brother generously took all mankind’s waywardness upon himself, atoned for humanity’s sinfulness, and restored his errant brothers and sisters to the Father’s good graces.
The Christian community, indeed all mankind, is especially privileged to have an understanding and forgiving father as well as a helpful and supportive elder brother. God as father does not hold his children’s sins against them. Indeed such sins have all been forgiven through Christ. Every sinner can now approach the throne of God with a clear conscience; Jesus has already wiped the slate clean. And with forgiveness come the bountiful graces that God makes available to all believers through his Church, his Word, his sacraments and his nearness. Well might believers begin “to make merry.”