Gospel Luke 15:1-32 ©
The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he spoke this parable to them:
‘What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulders and then, when he got home, call together his friends and neighbours? “Rejoice with me,” he would say “I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance.
‘Or again, what woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one, light a lamp and sweep out the house and search thoroughly till she found it? And then, when she had found it, call together her friends and neighbours? “Rejoice with me,” she would say “I have found the drachma I lost.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner.’
He also said, ‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.
‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”
‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”’
This parable of God’s generous forgiveness tells us a great deal about the kind of God we believe in.
Jesus paints a picture of God as unfailingly generous and magnanimous in forgiving. We believe in a God who not only forgives but delights in forgiving and in the company of the forgiven. The story of the prodigal son is told especially to those who complained that Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners.
It may be easy to speak of the generosity, the finality and the availability of God’s forgiveness but it may also be difficult to ask for that forgiveness. It may be even more difficult to accept it and to pass it on in turn as we are taught to do. Even to know and to hear ourselves say or speak of our own sin can be difficult. We are suitably vague about not being holy or not being saints but pinning down our offence and saying it out loud is another matter. The most difficult task of all is to accept forgiveness, to believe in it, to take it to heart, to be thankful for it, and to pass it on to others.
Forgiveness is a difficult subject. The resentment of the older son is within each of us. Resentment of the kind we all indulge in after the example of the older son is of no help. We assume that the forgiveness of God is the same as our own limited sense of mercy and forget that God’s sense of generosity and God’s joy are far removed from our grudging and sometimes sullen sense of forgiveness and acceptance.
St Luke reminds us though that all exclusion and intolerance of others, even when accompanied by strict religious behaviour and compliance is not in tune with the Gospel. Therein lies a lesson for all so-called fundamentalists, whether of the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or secular varieties.
The God we believe in and whom we see portrayed in the figure of the father is, as in the psalm, a God of kindness, a God of compassion, a God who washes away our guilt if we would only ask humbly. This is a parent who is moved with pity, who is tender in his welcome, who accepts, celebrates, reassures, gifts and honours, who rejoices in the sinner returned and in the struggling faithful.
Our task, in response to the teaching of Jesus in the story is to achieve an understanding of the forgiveness of God, so beyond our own grudging forgiveness. It is to cultivate a pure heart, a keen humility and acceptance of that generosity when it is applied to others or to us. Healing of the past, forgiveness in the present and hope for the future are all possible in the forgiving embrace of the Father.
Both sons need to return home, one from his journey of self-centeredness, the other from his place of hard-heartedness.