GOD IS A MERCIFUL FATHER
Ex 32:7-11,13-14; 1Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
Today’s readings from the Holy Scriptures teach us about the overflowing mercy and forgiveness of God. We heard from our first reading that while Moses was on Mount Sinai talking to God, the chosen people were acting perversely. They had casted for themselves an image of a calf, worship and sacrifice to it, giving credit to the idol for bringing them out of slavery in the land of Egypt and the Lord became very upset. God was prepared to destroy them all. But Moses implored God to have mercy and forgiveness on the sinful people. Hearing the plea of Moses, God changed His mind and decided not to destroy the people as he had originally planned. The second reading tells us how the mercy and forgiveness of God sanctified St. Paul. By the mercy of God, St. Paul “formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence,” (1Tim 1:12) was made “an example to those who would come to believe in Jesus for eternal life,” (1Tim 1:16). The gospel also speaks of the mercy and forgiveness of God. In this case, three parables are given to declare the magnitude of the mercy of God. These are the parables of the “Lost Sheep” (Lk 15:3-7), of the “Lost Coin” (Lk 15:8-10) and of the “Prodigal Son” (Lk 15:11-32). Many tax collectors and sinners come to Jesus and drew criticism on the part of the Pharisees and the scribes (Lk 15:1). They were grumbling because Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Let us meditate on the parable of the prodigal son.
- THE DESIRE THAT MOTIVATES A LIFE OF SIN
The parable begins with a request. The prodigal son says to his father: “father gave the share of your state that should come to me.” Here we are given our first insight concerning sin. The father “divided his property between them” (Lk 15:12). This request by the younger son is a declaration of independence from his father. This is where ALL sin starts. No matter what type sin we find ourselves struggling with in life, (and we all struggle with sin), all comes from the heart that strives for independence from God’s control. By our nature as human beings, we rebel against God. The request of the younger son is something unparalleled in the ancient world. No normal son could have dared bring up the subject of his inheritance with his father. The fathers blessing was only given at the father’s initiative, nearing his death. But this kid had the audacity to come to his father and demanded his share of the father’s estate in advance. Basically the son was declaring his father dead. He was tired of waiting for dad to die so he could get his inheritance! This was a slap in the face of the father, but amazingly the father gave him what he asked for.
The boy’s action was a complete rebellion against what his father believed in. He no longer had to submit to his father’s authority; he no longer had to receive his father’s permission; he no longer had to abide by his father’s curfew. He was now his own man, not “his father’s son”. We rebel from God by wanting to control our own lives independent of God’s authority.
In Genesis 3:6, that is what the serpent tempted Eve to do, by eating of the forbidden tree instead of listening to what God had commanded. She said that the tree was going to make them wise. She ate it, and also gave her husband. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5). Like the prodigal son, we do not want the father to be in control, but we want God to give us what we want. The fact that he asked for money was evidence that he could not make it on his own, but he was determined to start his own life independent of the father. So it is with every sinner. Spiritual independence desires credit for one’s own life!
- A FARE-AWAY COUNTRY
When this boy received his inheritance he did not just move out of his father’s house. He moved far away from his father, to a far-away country. If he had stayed in the same city to enjoy his money, everybody would have known that he was spending his father’s money. So he took a trip to the far country where nobody knew him. The prodigal son’s abandonment of his father’s house and the experience in the far country teaches us two things about the life of sin:
- a) First, a life of sin thrives in anonymity. Sin stirs the sinner to function in shady corners. Adam and eve were hiding from God, once they became conscious of their sinfulness. This explains why sinning pushes the sinner to go to a “far-away” land. When people commit sins that they do not intend to repent of, they desperately try to run away from the Heavenly Father, just like this boy tried to run away from his father. sinners make all efforts to keep their sins secret, that nobody knows them.
- b) Secondly, the pleasures of sin are real. “There, he squandered his property in reckless living” Lk 15:13). The story does not tell us what was involved in the prodigal son’s spending spree in the far country, but we can assume that while he squandered his money in reckless living, he had a good time. He wasted family money but he had a swell time doing it. That is an important lesson. Sin is delightful, otherwise people would not be sinning. In some sense, being lost can be fun!
- c) Thirdly, enjoyment in a far country can only last for a little while. It is fleeting, passing, and short-lived. The burning passion of the prodigal son is to consume ALL THAT THE WORLDLY PLEASURES OF THE FAR COUNTRY OFFERS. But that soon comes to end. The most ENJOYABLE DAY has only 24 hours, like any other. Sin never delivers on its promise. Sin is never worth what it costs!
- THE DISCOVERY THAT CHANGES THE LIFE OF SIN
In the far country the prodigal son learns something about life and about himself, and his father. His father was not the one who taught him the lesson. Life itself taught him the most important lessons of his life. Life caught up with him. When he had spent everything he had, he began to recognize HOW GOOD HIS FATHER HAD BEEN ALL ALONG. Hired servants in his fathers’s house were well taken care of, but here he was feeding pigs in the far country. In fact, he went from herding the pigs to huddling up with the pigs! So he made up his mind: “I CAN’T KEEP LIVING LIKE THIS, I NEED TO GO HOME TO MY DADDY’S HOUSE!” The lesson is clear! We, all, need God! He learnt this in the classroom of the pig pin.
This teaches us never to put anything or anyone ahead of God. We are not to put our children ahead of God because we are going need God to help us with them when they get crazy with youthfulness. Let no one put his/her job ahead of God because you will one day need God if you get laid off that job. Do not put your health ahead of God because you will, one day, need God when the doctor gives you a bad report! Up or down we need God; win or lose we need God; poor or rich we need God; sick or well we need God; high or low we need God; in victory or defeat we need God; sun shine or rain we need God! “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1). This realization led to repentance, a total turn-around. “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you (Luke 15:18). The son left his father making demands arrogantly. He returns simply begging. That is what happens when life catches up to someone. It strips him/her of all pride. The young man could not fix his life by working harder in the pig pin! The only redemption for the life of sin is to come home to God! The father never left his post; he never did the leaving. The prodigal son did. Thus, the young man arose and came to his father.
- THE FATHER WHO WAITED
The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward”. It generally means “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. For some critics, this term is as appropriate for describing the father in the story as it is for his younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment.
Some people even hold that the father could have saved himself and his son plenty of trouble had he not divided his wealth and not allowed the son to wander away from home. But he wanted the prodigal to learn some important lessons: i) To be humble, ii) To know that consequences will always follow his actions and iii) To know that true happiness does not lie in having the things of the world. Both the son and the father paid a high price for these three lessons, but that was worth it.
This is the kind of love God has for all his children, who we are. He permits his children to wander away for a season because he is not a cruel slave driver or a bully who uses brute force to coerce us into submission. He does not try to break our will, but woos us to himself, so that we might offer it freely to him. Anyone who “comes to his/her senses” and comes back to God with a repentant heart, is never turned away. The is staggering truth: if you will repent, no matter where he/she has been, no matter what he/she has done, no matter what he/she has squandered, or how low he/she has sunk, the Father of Heaven will welcome him/her home as one of His children.
Then the father’s reactions to the returning of the prodigal son reveal four important characteristics of God.
- a) He was filled with compassion. This indicates that our God is compassionate for the lost. (Matthew 9:36)
- b) He ordered the servants to put the best robe on his son. God dresses the sinners that come to him, with the robes of his righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10)
- c) He ordered the servants to put a ring on his son’s finger which was a symbol of acceptance to family. God treats people who return to him as his sons/daughters rather than his servants. (1 John 3:1)
- d) He ordered the servants to put sandals on his son’s feet. Only a free person would wear them. Sinners who come to God find everlasting freedom. (John 8:32)
- e) He ordered the servants to kill the fattened calf. In order to save us, God will not spare anything, not even his son. (John 3:16)
- f) He celebrated his son’s return. When a sinner repents there’s great joy among the angels of heaven. (Lue15:10 & Lk 15:20–24)
When the prodigal came home, he discovered that everything he was looking for in the far country was already available in his father’s house!
- He wanted fancy clothes: THAT FATHER SAID: Put the best robe on him.
- He wanted shoes that signified he was somebody: THE FATHER SAID: Put sandals on his feet.
- He wanted glittering jewels: THE FATHER SAID: Put a ring on his finger.
- He wanted parties; he wanted to celebrate: THE FATHER SAID: Kill the fattened cow because my lost and wayward son has come back home alive.
Only God has what our soul needs. He, alone has what our spirit craves for; what our heart longs for and what our strength pursues.
- THE OLDER SON
If the story ended here it would still be a great story. But Jesus has more for us: we need to hear about the older son more than we do the younger.
One can understand the feelings of the older son. One often hears people say that it did not seem fair that a person who lived most of their life rebelling against God and ignoring God’s commands could receive forgiveness and end up in Heaven just like the person who had lived faithfully before the Lord. (Death-bed repentance!) Is this not what Jesus granted to the repentant thief on the cross ? To this criminal, Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:42-42). This kind of ‘last minute repentance’ is in essence, the complaint of this older brother.
In spite of all these feelings for the older son, he stands in this parable as a symbol of the Pharisee and the Scribe. This is seen in his anger with his father for forgiving and receiving the prodigal son into the family again. His attitude reminds us of two types of Christians in the church. i) The self-deserving believer – the older son accused the father of not rewarding his upright behaviour. He sounds like one of those believers who serve God for the wrong reasons; ii) The self-righteous believer – the older son was confident of his own righteousness and held his brother in contempt. Likewise, the self-righteous believer holds on to his/her own righteousness and passes judgment on those that they think to be wrong. He/she often seems to forget that he/she is a sinner in need of forgiveness.
The attitude of the elder brother seemed cold and totally lacking in sympathy. Notice he does not speak about “my brother” — he says “your son”. One gets the feeling he is one of those self-righteous types who would cheerful kick someone who is down even further into the gutter. He had a nasty mind. There was no mention of prostitutes until he brought them up. You have a feeling that he accused his brother of sins he would have liked to commit himself!
In conclusion, let us bear in mind the following lessons:
- a) We have a God who has created us free, and continues to grant us that freedom. He permits us to act in liberty. We must, therefore, also take responsibility for your choices in life. Don’t blame the DEVIL for what you freely chose.
- b) The older son seems to feel that he has been cheated because he didn’t get to go out and sin like his brother did. He minimized the incredible blessing that he had of the abiding presence and enjoyment of his Father. We must avoid overlooking the blessings of obedience.
- c) Avoid the negativity of the elder brother. Jesus tell us, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
- d) We are urged to reach out to others. Unlike the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who were upset that Jesus was hanging around with tax collectors and sinners, we must remember that the gospel is a grace we are to share. We are not at all diminished when others come to the same Saviour like ourselves.
- e) We are also challenged to be like the father, God, and not the elder son. We should be prepared to give every sinner another chance.
- f) Finally, the story leaves us with some questions to ponder. We do not know what the elder son did. Did he repent and go into the party? Did he ever reconcile with his brother? Did he grow increasingly bitter? Whatever our answers, let us remember this: living with the Father is a wonderful privilege. And if we have ever strayed off from God, we can be sure that the Father is waiting and watching for us to come home.