Sunday of Prodigal Son
26 February 1989
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
The last reading of the Gospel a week ago spoke to us of the sharp pain of sin, and of the sharp pain of repentance. It called us to a sense of responsibility and to be aware that unless we forgive we cannot be forgiven. But this does not mean that we can, simply because we wish to forgive, be able to open our heart completely, receive the other into our heart and give him peace, as at the same time we receive peace ourselves.
I was asked after my sermon what should a person do who cannot forgive? Is it impossible to say then, in the Lord's prayer, ‘Forgive as I do’? Indeed, we can turn to God, and if we have not got the courage to say these words, forgiving with all our strength, all our ability to our neighbour, we can at least say, ‘Lord! With all my awareness, with all my heart I wish I could forgive – forgive me, Lord, for that at least and give me to grow into such a maturity of soul, to understand what tragedy it is to be separated from my brother, that I may say, one day, with a l l my heart, all my mind, all my being: Indeed I forgive!
Today's Gospel speaks of something quite different; one could say that the Gospel comes under the words of the Psalm, ‘Those who have sewn (?) in tear will rejoice in laughter’. Think of the prodigal son; it speaks to us not only of sin – and indeed, it does – not only of brokenhearted repentance – as indeed it does – but of the glorious exulting joy of reconciliation.
The son comes home, and the Father is waiting for him, has been waiting for him all the time this son of his was away, forgetful of home, forgetful of his father, forgetful of his own honour, and dignity: at no moment had the father forgotten; all the time he was away from the father, the father followed him with his heart and his love. And he knew something very tragic, which neither the young boy nor his older brother understood; but by rejecting his father, by saying in the first place to him, ‘I cannot wait long enough for you to be dead for me to be able to enjoy life to the full! Let us agree that you are, as far as I am concerned, as though you were dead. I don't need your life – I need your goods; I need the fruits of your life that I may enjoy life'...
That was the beginning; and then, it was years perhaps, a long time, unspecified; and in the life of each of us it is unspecified when having received from God all that God can give us, we spend, living in a way unworthy both of God and of ourselves; until one day we come to a point when hunger comes upon us. In the case of the boy of the parable, of course it was physical hunger, physical misery; but there are other ways in which hunger comes: the hunger of loneliness, the hunger of rejection, the dark hunger that assails the soul when we become aware that we are dead, that the spark of life has died in us, that no joy is left, that nothing is left, except not only the possibility but the cruel necessity of existing when life has already gone; no longer alive – dead, and yet existing.
This is the condition which the father recognises when he says to his servants and then to the older brother: My son was dead, and now he is alive.. And we have examples in the Gospel, in the New Testament of what this deadness means; remember the woman taken in adultery: she lived, she sinned, she was happy; and one day she was found out. And then she discovered with horror that the Old Testament Law commanded such as she to be stoned unto death. And of a sudden she realised that sin and death were one and the same thing; she understood that because she has been dragged to her own stoning, to her own death, and there was no other reason but her sin for it.
The father understood this – that sin kills: kills joy, kills life, kills relationships, kills everything, and there is only one way in which life can come back: awareness, and a return, reconciliation.
In the story which we have read today, the son came back to his father, he came back home, that home he had rejected, contemptuously, this life he had rejected contemptuously; and because he had come home, life could well up again. Yes indeed, he has sown in tears, and now it was joy, resurrection! Can we imagine what Lazarus felt when he came out of the grave, alive but with a new experience: he knew what it meant to be dead, and now he was alive again! That is what this (?) felf (?): he knew what it was dead, destroyed, hopeless, without a father, without a home – and now he was back: he had a father, he had a home, he had love, he was acknowledged. More than this: no one waited for him to come and eat humble pie; no one expected him to humiliate himself: the moment he appeared, the father ran to meet him, embraced, brought him back – isn't that a wonder!? Isn't that something both the resurrection of the sinner AND the resurrection of the father! The father was also was (?) wounded unto death by the rejection, by the betrayal of his son; and now, he could breath deeply, his heart beat, JOY was in the heart, he had become aglow with joy and new life because the s o n had come back.
This is something which the older son did not understand, because he did not love his brother much; he was just a brother as others were workers on the farm; the father loved. The older son had never perceived that the boy had died by turning away from all that was love; he had never perceived, what he felt was that here was a young man who had left home to enjoy himself as best he could; perhaps, was he jealous of him? He certainly despised him, he certainly had no compassion. And then he (the boy...) was back: what did it matter to the older son (and, that??) to the father.
And so let us think of our return to God and our return to one another in repentance or, if you prefer, to be reconciled, to become again one, to atone, in terms of joy, of victory; it is a miracle of a joy that conquers, a miracle of love that is resurrected, the faith of the one who comes in repentance and find that he can be loved in spite of all, and the joy of him who can say: However far my son, my daughter, my friend has gone away from me, he believes in my love – o, the wonder of this!
Let us therefore think of the coming Sunday of repentance in the terms of the wonder of reconciliation, of giving back life to the person whom we will forgive, and receiving life from the person who will receive us. And then indeed the words of the Gospel will be fulfilled that there is more joy for one sinner that repents than for all the righteous people who need no repentance, because the one was still alive, perhaps plodding along, half live, half dead; and the other one was dead, and a word came, and he came again to life.
Let us all give life to one another, receive life from each other – and rejoice in this victory! Amen!