Thursday, May 16, 2019

5th Sunday of Easter Yr C (Gospel: Jn 13:31-33A, 34-45) By this love you have, people will know you are my disciples

A few weeks ago two of our young people were confirmed. The bishop prayed with them and asked God to bless them with the gift of his Spirit. Why? Because without the gift of the Spirit we cannot live the Christian life. It is the Holy Spirit, a real person, who makes it possible for us to believe and to live as Christians. The Spirit gives us the desire to pray, to know God, and the ability to love.

No doubt most of us here were confirmed at around the same age. We probably had a day of great celebration with our families and then forgot all about it. Did you notice a profound difference in your faith afterwards? Probably not. But why not? If we have received the all-powerful Spirit of God, who was there at the beginning of creation bringing order on chaos, the same Spirit that transformed the disciples and turned them into unstoppable warriors for God, why don’t we feel a difference too? Perhaps it is because we never asked! That probably sounds silly, but I think it is really true.

Although the Holy Spirit is so powerful, He totally respects our freedom and our individuality. The Spirit is not going to force himself on us unless we ask for him to act. It is as if He waits quietly in the background until we ask him to make our faith alive. The Apostles were waiting and praying for the Spirit in the upper room. They were open to him and they were asking for this power, because Jesus had told them to. Most of us were never taught to actually personally ask the Holy Spirit ourselves to make us more alive in our faith. I think this is something we don’t emphasize enough.

When I was 19 a group of young people taught me to do just that. They taught me to really ask the Spirit to come alive inside me. And then they prayed with me that this would happen, and boy did it happen! When they prayed with me, initially nothing seemed to happen, but in the days that followed I began to notice that things were happening. I was in college at the time studying marketing. I began to have a profound desire to pray. I became aware of the Scriptures and the mass as though I had never heard them before. They were suddenly alive. It was like someone had switched on my faith. The Spirit had suddenly come alive and it changed my life. That was thirty-one years ago, but the effect never wore off, so it wasn’t just a passing phase, or just youthful enthusiasm. I say this because you don’t have to be someone extraordinary, or holy, for this to happen. All you have to do is ask, but most of us were never taught this.

God deeply desires to make us alive in every sense.  ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10). And God will make us alive if we ask. If you wish that your faith was more alive, or that God meant more to you, then ask God’s Spirit to come alive inside you, because the Spirit is already there and is waiting for your response. Maybe you were confirmed 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago, but the Spirit is still with you and is waiting for your invitation. Perhaps you never asked. Ask God to make your faith alive. 

What am I supposed to say?’, you may wonder. Say, ‘God make my faith alive. Holy Spirit let me know that you are real. Set me on fire with love for you.’ If you make that prayer sincerely, you will see the result and I guarantee you will see that I am not making this up.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we must love each other as he loves us.  How did he love us? He spoke the truth; he challenged people; he saw the good in everyone, regardless of their background; his life was one of service and total sacrifice and God asks us to do the same. That is not easy. He tells us that this is what will mark us out as his followers. People will know that we are Christian by the way we love each other. If you go anywhere in the world and meet any community of Christians, be it a parish or small group, you will know straight away whether they are alive or not, by the way they love each other and it is a really wonderful thing to meet when you do. 

But where does this strength and energy to love others come from? People can be very demanding and unreasonable, even when you try to help them. The strength to love and the ability to love comes from God. That is one of the things that the Holy Spirit gives us. It is the most important thing of all. Having the fanciest and most organised church, with every kind of facility and program you could ask for, is completely empty, unless there is love there, unless the Spirit is there. When we have the gift of God’s Spirit, we have everything and the Spirit gives us the power to love as we should, because it is too difficult by our own strength.God doesn't ask us to do this by our own strength, but by his strength. 

Now let us take a moment to make that prayer. Close your eyes for a moment and listen. Pray these words in your heart if you dare:            
Holy Spirit I believe in you. Make my faith alive. Help me believe in everything Jesus taught. Help me to believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Set me on fire with love for you, so that I may live the life that Jesus calls me to live. Come Holy Spirit of God and transform me, as you will. Amen.’

By this love you have for one another
Everyone will know that you are my disciples.’

Thursday, May 9, 2019

4th Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 10:27-30) They have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb

The chapel of the Irish College, Rome.
Several years ago I had the privilege of being able to study in Rome for 3 years. While I was there I lived in the Irish College, which is both a seminary and post-graduate college. As there are not enough Irish students to fill the college, it is now quite an international college. For one of my years there we had students from 23 different countries. This makes for a great cultural experience and it gave me a great sense of the universal Church. I was there studying and living with other young men from all parts of the world. We came from many very different cultures, but we all shared the same faith and the same enthusiasm to make it known to other people. It was very inspiring to live in such an environment, although of course it also had its moments as we had very different ways of doing things.

One man who was my next door neighbour for a year and a half, was Ragheed Ganni from Iraq. I didn’t even know there were Catholics in Iraq until I met him. He was a young, highly talented and very likable priest. He was from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which is the ancient city of Nineveh (Remember the prophet Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh). Ragheed completed all his studies for priesthood in Rome, since if he returned to Iraq during his studies, he may not have been able to leave again to complete them. So he studied in Rome, living in the Irish College and spent many summers in Ireland.

During our time there, the American invasion of Iraq took place and the over-throwing of Sadam Hussein. This was a very difficult and stressful time for Ragheed, as he watched his country being thrown into turmoil, while daily wondering if his family were safe or not. Having someone in the room next to me who was going through this, made the war very real. Just before the war started I asked him as an Iraqi what were his fears about what would happen. He said that the problem was not so much when the Americans took over, as when they later pulled out. He said that then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out as the Muslim factions would not have any tolerance for them. That is exactly what happened.

Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni (1972-2007)
In 2003 Ragheed returned to Iraq. It was now a very different country to the one he had left. To get into the country he told me that he had to fly into Syria and then take a bus across the border. I received a few emails from him after he returned. He said that there was a curfew almost every night and that it was becoming more and more difficult for the Christian community there. One day he sent me an email with photos of his church on fire. He said that gunmen had come in and taken him out at gunpoint. He thought he was going to be shot, but instead they blew up the church. Ragheed was able to return to Rome at least twice over the next three years, and I met him on one of those visits. He had put on some weight, and he said that this was because he could not go outside to exercise, as it was too dangerous. As time passed more and more of his parishioners began to leave and those of us who knew him worried for his safety. Whoever could afford to leave the parish got out. Ragheed knew that staying on in Iraq was becoming increasingly dangerous, but he believed that that was where God was asking him to be. He wanted to remain with his people so that they could have the mass. In spite of death threats and the obvious danger, he continued to minister to his people and they continued to come to pray and celebrate mass. One of the neighboring churches was hit by a car bomb killing two people and injuring many. The bishop’s house was blown up and Ragheed’s sister was injured by a grenade which was thrown at her while she was going to clean the church in preparation for Sunday mass.  In spite of this Ragheed and the other priests continued to minister to their people.

On 3nd June, 2007 I received a phone call from a friend to tell me the terrible news that Ragheed along with three others, had been shot dead the day before. He had just finished celebrating the Mass and was leaving the church with another sub-deacon. Two other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them were in the car behind. One year later the woman and only survivor, Bayan Adam Bella, had the courage to speak out. Here are some excerpts from an interview she gave to 
At a certain point the car was stopped by armed men. Fr. Ragheed could have fled but he did not want to, because he knew they were looking for him. They forced us to get out of the car and led me away. 
Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed,
I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?”  And he simply responded,
How can I close the house of God?” 
They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.’ At this point Bayan fainted.

Ragheed Ganni was only 35 when he was shot dead and had been a priest for just 6 years. 

Icon of Fr. Ragheed on the right, holding the martyr's palm
In the second reading from this Sunday’s mass (Apocalypse 7:9, 14-17) we hear of the great numbers of people who stand before the Lamb holding palms in their hands. When the writer asks who they are he is told,
These are the people who have been through the great persecution and because they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb, they now stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.’

A few years after Ragheed’s death the chapel in the Irish College in Rome was redecorated by the artist Fr. Marko Rupnik (see the photo above). Behind the altar there is a breath-taking mosaic with Christ the Good Shepherd at the centre with several saints on either side including Fr. Ragheed Ganni to the far right holding the martyr’s palm. I always find it very moving to see this image having known Ragheed myself.

In different parts of the world many people continue to put their lives at risk in order to pass on the teachings of Christ as he asked us to. Many, including Ragheed, have paid with their lives. Although it is sad for me to think of Ragheed’s death, it is also a great source of strength and inspiration. Jesus told us we would be persecuted for following him, but he also told us that he is our shepherd who continues to guide and look after us. That doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer, but it does mean that he is always with us. Even though none of us want to have to suffer for our faith, what could be more important than to be faithful to Jesus? He is the one who makes sense of why we are here. Without Christ we are nothing. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 21:1-19) Weakness is not an obstacle

I always find it both amazing and amusing how in the presidential election the opponents of each candidate will go through the history of each person with a fine-tooth comb, in the hope of finding some small thing to discredit him, or her. It’s as if they are looking for the perfect person who is not allowed to have any defects. If they do find anything in their past such as smoking dope when they were a teenager, or something similar, they present this as a reason for him or her to be unsuitable for president now, as if you could find someone who didn’t have defects. Modern day media tends to do the same, gloating over the sins of an individual while showing no mercy whatsoever to that person for the mistakes they have made.

In contrast to that we have almost the opposite presented to us in today’s Gospel. Peter is confronted by Jesus in a loving but painful way, when Jesus asks him three times ‘Do you love me?’ Why did Jesus do this since he knew well that Peter loved him? Jesus was making Peter face his own weakness, the weakness that caused him to publicly swear that he never knew Jesus. This happened during Jesus’ trial when Peter tried to stay close to Jesus, but he was overcome with fear when individuals realised he was one of Jesus’ followers and then he denied ever knowing Jesus. After this happened it says that Peter went outside and wept bitterly, because of course he didn’t want to do this, but he was overcome by fear. 

In asking Peter three times ‘Do you love me,’ Jesus was helping him to heal, but also making him face his weakness. Jesus wasn’t going to just pretend that this never happened, because if he did it would have continued to haunt Peter for the rest of his life. Instead, Jesus confronts Peter with it and makes him face it. And then Jesus makes this same Peter the first pope. Jesus was saying, ‘I know you let me down because of your own weakness/fear; but that is not an obstacle for me.  Now face it and then I can really work through you.’  It is an extraordinary thought that Jesus wasn’t afraid to make Peter the first pope even when he knew that Peter had denied him. Our weaknesses are not an obstacle for God.

It is because the Lord loves us that he challenges us with our weaknesses.  We want to just gloss over them and pretend that mistakes never happened, but that doesn’t really help us.  If we are to heal and grow then we must face up to our weakness, which is difficult and painful but it’s also what helps us to grow. 

In the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous the first step to recovery is to acknowledge your weakness and that you are powerless over it. Only then can you begin to continue in the right direction. This is also one of the reasons the Lord gives us the facility to confess what we have done in total secrecy, so that we can heal. The idea that all our sins are totally forgiven by God if we ask for forgiveness is a hard thing to grasp, and many of us struggle to believe that this could really be so. And yet that is what the death of Jesus on the cross is all about: the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness has already been won for us; we just have to ask for it.

There is a lot more freedom in admitting that we are weak when we come before God, than in trying to prove we are perfect. If we had to be perfect it would put enormous pressure on us. Part of the freedom that our faith gives us is to realise that it’s ok to be weak, to have made mistakes. Ultimately we rely on the power of God and not on ourselves and that certainly is a relief.

Can you imagine if Jesus hadn’t challenged Peter in this way and then made him the first leader anyway? Peter would have continued to live in fear wondering whether his denials would come to light or not. Instead Jesus brings everything out into the open and basically says, ‘I know what happened and now you have repented, so don’t be afraid anymore.’ This is why the Lord keeps inviting us to come back to him, to confess what we have done wrong, so that we can be free and so that we can live in peace. Everything God does is done to help us.

Peter do you love me?’  ‘Lord you know everything, you know that I love you.’

Sunday, April 28, 2019

2nd Sunday of Easter Yr A Peace be with you

In December 2005 it was announced on the news that a man called Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Féin’s (the political wing of the IRA) top men, confessed to having been a British spy for twenty years.  People were amazed that this could happen.  The poor man obviously could not live with this any more and so he came out into the open.  He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was killed four months later.  God be good to him.  I remember thinking at the time that he must now be living in terrible fear.  Fear of being hunted down and killed.  He had betrayed many, and now he would be afraid of what they would do to him.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

2000 years earlier on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, who they believed was the Son of God.  Judas had betrayed him for money.  Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus.  They all betrayed him.  Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room afraid.  Why are they afraid?  One: because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates.  Two: perhaps they were also afraid of what God would do to them.  They had betrayed the Son of God.  It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens.  Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’  The first thing he does is to take away their fear.  There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before.  There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful.  Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’  ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed Jesus and indeed sometimes wish I was not a priest, when my own sinfulness gets the better of me.  And in case you think I am just trying to be holy by saying this, I am not.  I am a sinner.  That is one thing that God has left me under no illusions about.  Sometimes I think it would be better for me not to be a priest as I would not have to deal with what is sacred.  I could run and hide, so to speak.  Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish.  Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease.  ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned.  Peace be with you.’  God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out.  He knows what we are like.  He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace.  I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus, would not take the words of others to convince him that Jesus was alive.  When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful.  And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe.  No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe.  No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.

Today as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, let me finish with this story. There was a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home.  He decided to desert the army, but he was caught.  The punishment for desertion was death.  Now this man was the only son of his mother who was now widowed.  His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person.  She pleaded for her son, and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world.  The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on the man.  Napoleon said in reply, ‘he doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’.  But the mother said back to Napoleon, ‘if he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’

Peace be with you.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Passion Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 22:14-23:56) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus; events which changed the course of history forever. Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die. It is that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet. They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Yet within a few days everything changed. He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed. Today we read the full account of his passion. It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one. That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time. In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, St. Paul wrote, ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied.’ If we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point. The truth is that we are preparing for something wonderful that is waiting for us, should we choose it.

Everyone suffers, as we know; there are no exceptions. Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  But even if everyone else seems to abandon us, at least we can always turn to God. But where do we turn if God disappears too? There is nowhere left to go. This is the worst kind of suffering, verging on despair. God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ What does this mean? It is the beginning of Psalm 22 which is a Psalm that ends in victory, but it can also be understood in a different way. It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father. He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there? Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God. By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering. After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there. We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

Even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, in fact we have not. But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God. It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it. Many of the saints went through this feeling of abandonment, including Mother Teresa. Here is something from her own writings to her spiritual director:

Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long  & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—...God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—‘My God’ and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.—p1.

Mother Teresa: Come be my Light, (edit.) Brian Kolodiejchuk, London: Rider Books, 2007.

That’s not what you expect to hear from someone like Mother Teresa, who was such a light of hope for so many people, yet God allowed her to go through this darkness too.

Finally, I want to mention Our Lady. She also was at the foot of the cross. Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king. He would be called Son of the Most-High God. What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes? Although Mary must have suffered terribly with all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope. She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding. God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand.

The end of Psalm 22, which begins with the cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ ends with the following words:

The Lord reigns, the ruler of nations.
Before him all the prosperous of the earth will bow down,
Before him will bow all who go down to the dust.
And my soul will live for him, my children will serve him;
People will proclaim the Lord to generations still to come,
His righteousness to a people yet unborn.
These things the Lord has done. (Ps 22:28-31)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

5th Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 8:1-11) Baptism and Confirmation

Easter is the time when many adults are baptized and become part of the Church, having completed the time of learning about the faith known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Easter is always focused on baptism and it is the most important time for baptism to take place, as the whole focus is on new life. I always find it very inspiring to see adults lined up for baptism at the Easter Vigil. It is a reminder of what we take for granted. Recently someone asked me to try and explain baptism and confirmation and that’s what I would like to do. In order to make sense of it we need to go way back to the beginning.

We believe that God created everything; the world around us that we see and the invisible world that we cannot yet see. We also believe that God’s greatest creation was the human being. It says in Genesis that the last thing God created was the human being, which is a biblical way of saying that we were the most important thing that God created. We are more like God than anything else that was created, especially because we have free will. But free will also comes at a cost.

We also believe that somewhere way back at the beginning, humanity sinned against God. There was some kind of rejection of God and of his word, which is explained through the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that there was some kind of rebellion against God and we call this Original Sin.

Because of this sin we now lost the possibility of eternal life with God which God intended for us. It says in the story that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. They had lost what God originally intended for them. This was a disaster as we could not resolve this problem ourselves.

Because God loves his creation He would not leave us in that situation and so, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the perfect offering was made to the Father which overcame Original Sin. The power of Original Sin was broken and we were set free, restoring to us the possibility of eternal happiness with God. However, because gave us the extraordinary gift of free will, God does not force this on us, but simply offers it to us. We have to say yes to it. We have to accept this gift which God offers us and we do that by being baptized. When we are baptized we are saying, ‘Yes, I believe this and I want this. Let me be baptized in it, soaked in it,’ That’s what baptism is, but we must consciously ask for it.

If that is true, then why do we baptize infants who don’t yet have the understanding of baptism? We baptize infants because we want this grace for them from the beginning of their lives, but on condition that we will teach them their faith as they grow up. Otherwise it is hypocrisy. To baptize an infant without the intention of teaching them about their faith as they grow up is hypocrisy and that’s why the parents and God-parents make the vows of baptism, promising to pass on this faith as best they can. If an adult comes to me for baptism, they first have to go through what we call the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, during which time they will learn about their faith. Only when they understand it properly will they be baptized. Recently I spoke to a man who was telling me that he and his wife drove two hours each way to go to the RCIA classes so that they could be baptized. Two hours each way, for several months! That is so inspiring to me.

So, to be baptized is to say 'yes, I believe all that God has done for me and I want it all. Let me be soaked in it, baptized in it'.

What about those who are never baptized, such as our brothers and sisters who are Muslim or Hindu? Can they go to heaven too? Of course they can. We understand that it is necessary for us to be baptized in order to enter life with God, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t bring it about for others who have no understanding of baptism. But for us who understand it, baptism is necessary and that’s why it is so important. God’s power is not limited to any one way. God will speak to people of other faiths in ways that we don’t understand.

Where then does confirmation fit in? Confirmation is really the other half of baptism. It is the time when we receive the gift of the Spirit to strengthen us for living the Christian life. One confirms the other; hence ‘confirmation.’ For children we wait until they are old enough to understand what confirmation is, since they were baptized when they were too young to understand, but for adults they usually receive the two together. The important thing is that these are gifts to us from God, to help us. Everything we receive from God is to help us and is given out of love for us. That is why the Apostles baptized people and then prayed with them for the gift of the Spirit, so that they were ready for our life with God on earth.

Every time we pray the Creed we are stating what we believe and that we want this for ourselves and our children. We want all that God is offering us.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

4th Sunday Lent Yr C The Parable of the Loving Father (Gospel: Lk 15:1-3, 11-32)

How do we talk about God? It is extremely difficult for us, if not impossible, because God is completely beyond our understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas was a great genius and wrote one of the greatest works of theology called the Summa Theologica. Towards the end of his life he had a vision of God, or heaven, and after that he stopped writing and he said ‘It’s all rubbish, we haven’t a clue!’ This is one of the reasons why Jesus spoke in parables, to try and give us some idea of what God is like. Today’s parable of the Prodigal Son is a particularly beautiful one.

This story could also be called ‘The parable of the forgiving Father.’ We usually tend to focus on the rebellious son. In asking for his inheritance, the son was basically telling his father that he wished he was already dead and so he wanted his inheritance now. Having insulted his father in the greatest way possible, he eventually comes back in hard times to ask forgiveness. Jesus says an interesting thing: ‘When he came to his senses’. He is telling us that we are only complete when we are in God, or coming towards God. The son realized he could come back.

Now the son is focusing on all he has done wrong, all the sin, all the insults to his family. The father looks beyond the sin and just loves his son. He does not condemn him, he does not ask for an apology, he doesn’t do anything that you would expect him to do. He just celebrates and loves his son. Maybe it should be called ‘The parable of the foolish Father’. The robe he gives his son is a symbol of honor. The ring is the symbol of power, the equivalent of being given the power of attorney. The sandals meant he was one of the family. Slaves did not have shoes. He was completely restoring his place in the family, as if nothing had happened.

This teaches me something about God in a very practical way. When I think of myself before God, I tend to do as the younger son did. I usually think only of the sins I have committed and my failings, rather than my strengths. But from the parable I realise that God’s approach to me is very different. God is not interested in my sin, or my weakness, or what I could have done better. He is interested in me as a person, and He rejoices and celebrates every time I come back to him, especially if I have drifted away from him. God rejoices in the child before him, like you would with a toddler. You don’t focus on what a small child has done wrong, you just see the child that you love.

Then there is also the older brother. In many ways I think most of us are probably more like the older brother than the younger. We probably haven’t done anything too outrageous; we may even have been quite faithful to our duties all through our life. But we may well despise those who have apparently walked away from God, and especially those who obviously do what is wrong and get away with it. Think of someone you may have read about in the papers who has done terrible wrong. Would you be happy to know that God completely forgives them if they repent, or would you resent it? Maybe we would rather see them punished. It is easy for us to resent the fact that God loves them. This is exactly what the Pharisees (who were the religious people of the time) were doing. They said, ‘Why is this prophet hanging around with those people. They are disgusting, they do everything wrong and they know it.’ This was what the older brother did. He resented the Father’s forgiveness. But the Father also loved him, forgave him and reached out to him. 

Through the parable, Jesus is showing us that that is not how God sees us. God does not act as we do and that is a hard thing to grasp, because we have probably never experienced that kind of unconditional love.

God is not interested in what we have done wrong. His desire is just that we are reconciled to him so that we can enjoy all that He has done for us and all that He has created for us. His design for us is that we find happiness. We have been created for happiness, which we will hopefully experience some of in this life, but only completely in the next. That is also why in the second reading the Apostles are at pains to point out that we have already been reconciled to God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing we can do that God hasn’t already forgiven, so long as we turn to God and ask for that forgiveness. That is why we talk about forgiveness and repentance so much, especially during Lent, because this is what God asks us to do. 

What we are appealing to you before God is: be reconciled to God.