For the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year C, we have the most glorious homily by Father Hanly about God and forgiveness with the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Readings for Mass
First Reading: Joshua 5:9, 10-12
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
Second Reading: Second Corinthians 5:17-21
Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Recording of Gospel
Recording of Homily
Transcript of Homily
Someone once said if there was only one parable that was ever read out on a Sunday morning to a group of people, you should pick this one. It has everything in it. And it has everything that we ourselves sometimes forget.
Because the father, of course, that Jesus is painting his portrait, and painting the portraits of the two brothers, the father, of course, is God Himself.
And sometimes we’re afraid of God and we think, “Oh, I’ve done all kinds of things that are terribly wrong and I don’t know what to do and I’m ashamed,” and we forget that… We think that maybe God will be angry.
I remember, even when I was a little kid, if I did something very naughty, I would look both ways on a one way street running to the church so that I’d get to confession, because I figured if I didn’t get to confession before confessing then I’d go down to hell with all the demons. This is all nonsense.
God’s forgiveness is God’s love. God cannot but forgive.
And he doesn’t begin to forgive when he sees his son coming home, way off in the distance, because he used to look down that road, go up to the top of his house and look down that road, all the time waiting and waiting and hoping that his son would come home.
And when he saw him, what did he do? Did he wait for the little boy to apologise, kneel down before him? He ran down the road making a fool of himself, with his oriental robes flying in the wind and all the people looking at him as if he was crazy.
And he reaches his son. And his son, even before he could get out this little thing that he had learned by heart: “Father, I’ve sinned against you, I’ve sinned against God, I’m not worthy to be your son,” and the father is kissing him and hugging him and he is saying, “Get the robe of honour, and bring his ring of authority, and kill the fattened calf, because we are going to celebrate! My son had died and has now risen from the dead.”
This is hardly a God who is going to sit in judgment and make us tremble and wait for any kind of an apology. This is a God that forgiveness is only one thing: forgiveness is his love when forgiveness is needed. Caring is his love when caring is needed. Sacrifice is his love when the sacrifice of His Only Son is needed.
This is a God who is beyond generosity. It is not the boy who is prodigal. As you know, prodigal means to be lavish, almost to the point of stupidity. And this is what the young son was, using all his father’s, one half of all his father owned, and wasting it on lavish living, throwing it away with friends who would soon desert him. Because the kind of friends that came to him were the ones who would laugh and be gay and happy with him until he ran out of money. And then he would be left alone. And then they wouldn’t even let him eat at the pig sty with the pigs, eat the little bits of corn that they used to throw to them, so desolate he was.
The son makes up his mind. We sometimes say, “Why did the son go home?” “Well,” we think, “well maybe he repented in his heart.” Mmmm. He was hungry. He was really hungry. The gospel says he said, “I’m starving here. I’ve got to go home. I’m so hungry I have to eat. And the only place that will take me is my father. And he will be kind to me.” Because he knew his father. After all, his father gave him one half of the whole inheritance that was not due for many years in the future. And so it was that he turned back and he went to his father.
This is God? If this is God, why are we so frightened all the time? We’re frightened of our own fears. God does not expect anything except our love. And when we come with our love, He opens His arms.
But even if we cannot love Him, even if we cannot forgive our brothers and sisters, even if we have to wait on the road before we finally realise that forgiveness is another name for love and he himself has said, Jesus has said, “You must love God your Father, but you almost must love each other,” and love is forgiveness when harm has been done. And it is not two sided. It has to be only from the one who continues to love even in the face of disappointment and sometimes in the face of great loss.
And so they go in and there’s a great party. And the boy feels that he has come home. And he’s home, and he’s with his father, and then the hunger leaves him. Not just the hunger for food, but he realises what he was hungry for was his father’s caring, his father’s love, to be with his father, and to be with the servants, not as servants, but as a fellow servant who would live and make one family. And he would touch all the things that the hunger of the heart demands, which is acceptance and caring and loving and mutual self-sacrifice to build the family into something great and strong called the family of God.
And now we go to the son number two. Many, many people hear this story and they say, “It’s not fair. The son is right, the older son. Here I am working all the time, never ask for anything, faithful and true, always here, always to be able to count on me. And then when your son who has spent everything, half of everything we own, on prostitutes, comes home, you kill the fatted calf. I never got anything. I never got even a little goat to share with my friends.” And the son would not go in to the party because the son is angry and he’s unforgiving.
And the father knows that. Here the father has to leave the party and for the second time make a fool of himself with the second son. He has to go out and try to beg his son to come into his father’s own house, so that he can be part of the joy and the love that is inside the house. But his son sits there.
And this is where Jesus ends the story. He ends the story with the son outside and the father saying to him, “You must come in and rejoice, because we are celebrating someone who has come back from the dead.” The life he was in was full of death, was full of not only disappointment but great danger to everything that the little boy was hoping would happen to him once he got the family money.
Did the son eventually go in? The father went back into the house and what did the son do? And this is the wonder of the parable.
Because, you see, we’re not the dissolute son, we who are sitting here today. We’re the brother. And the great danger of the brother is not the danger of being so consumed, as the little boy was, with his own ways of handling his life that he would lose himself and die in despair. That’s not us.
We are the older son who judge and pick and see, “How come God is good to them and He’s not so good to me? And why does God do this to me when He should be doing it? Doesn’t He know how faithful and true and all of these things I am?” There’s a little bit of this son.
So that’s why Jesus is telling the story. Because he’s painting the picture, at the beginning, of the Pharisees. And who are the Pharisees? The Pharisees are those who would give their life for God. They would lay down their life, as they did when their enemies came in and plundered the temple and desecrated the temple and they were slaughtered in the hundreds and thousands in defence of… The Pharisees were good, honest, fine, wonderful men. And they got this name because they were missing what the older son had. They were faithful, they were true, but they had no love.
And without love what good is faith and truth and money, and what good is even sacrifice? If you do not have love, you do not touch God. And his father was trying to tell him, “My son, you must come in to the party, because the music and the dancing and the celebration is the music and dancing and celebration of God Himself.” For God is love and God will create a banquet for all of us and we will one time know, not in shadowy ways, but by living in the finality of God’s will, and that is we will be united with the deep and lasting love all together in the joy of a new world.
Will the son take the step away from self-regard and self-honour? Will he take that step and say, “I will give myself like the little boy did. I will give myself knowing that I hunger for something more. And what I hunger for is to be in my Father’s home.”
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This homily was delivered on 14th March 2010.
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