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.