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 straw!’ 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 share of the inheritance the younger son was basically wishing his father dead to his face. He was saying, ‘I cannot wait for you to die, so give me my inheritance now.’ It was really the greatest insult he could give. Having turned his back on his family and made a fool of himself, he eventually comes back in hard times to ask forgiveness. Now the son is looking at all he has done wrong, all the sin, all the insults to his family and shame of it. But the father looks right beyond the sin and just sees and 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 child. Maybe it should be called ‘The parable of the foolish Father’.
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 delights in us, just as you would in a young child. You don’t focus on what a small child has done wrong, you just see the child that you love. God celebrates even more every time we come back to him, especially if we have drifted away from him.
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. 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.’
However, through the parable Jesus is showing us that that is not how God sees things. God does not act as we do. It may be understandable from our point of view, but we are in no position to judge the heart of another person. We can judge their actions as right or wrong, but we cannot judge their heart. Only God knows what causes another person to act as they do. 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.
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. This is the mercy of God that we trust in. 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.