|St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)|
How do we talk about God? It is difficult and in a way impossible, because God is completely beyond our understanding and yet we have to try. St. Thomas Aquinas (13th C.) was a great genius and wrote one of the greatest works of theology called the Summa Theologica, which is still used today. Towards the end of his life, he had a vision of God, or heaven, and after that he stopped writing and referring to his own work 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. The beautiful thing about parables is that they invite you to think about them to understand what God is saying. It is a reminder that God respects our free will and our intelligence. He doesn’t force us to believe, or to do anything.
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 leaves with his inheritance, but soon discovers that it doesn’t bring him the happiness he had hoped for. In the end, when he has lost everything he comes back 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. Only God can fulfil us. The son realized he could come back. All the wealth he had led to nothing. Earthly things won’t bring us happiness. Only God can do that.
The son focuses on all he has done wrong, all the sin, all the insults to his family and he prepares his speech of apology. 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. It also says that the father ran to meet his son. In that culture it would have been considered shameful for a father to run in that way, because it would mean that he would have to lift up his robe and expose his legs. The father didn’t care. In that culture it was also possible for a community to disown anyone who had rejected his family in that way. They would have come out and met him outside the town before he entered. But the father ran to get to his son before that could happen. The father humbles himself, out of his love for his son.
This teaches us something about God in a very beautiful 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, my inadequacies, 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 young child. You don’t focus on what a small child has done wrong, you just see the child that you love and delight in that child.
Then there is 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 throughout 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 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 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 from another human being. Think of Jesus dying on the cross, in unimaginable pain. In that pain He prayed for the people who were torturing him, that the Father would forgive him. He promised paradise to the good thief who asked Jesus to remember 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. 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. God’s forgiveness awaits us, but we must repent and ask for it. ‘Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed’ (James 5:16). In the parable the father didn’t go after the son. He waited for him and hoped he would return, but the son had to choose to return and ask for forgiveness. The Lord is constantly calling us to repent and ask for forgiveness, so that we can be healed of the damage we have done to ourselves through out own sin. We must confess our sins. God has given us the beautiful gift of confession, where we can experience his forgiveness and his healing, but we must choose to use it.
What we are appealing to you before God is: be reconciled to God.