When we’re just plodding through Ordinary Time, I don’t expect to hear one of the Greatest Hits readings. But it’s the Twenty-Fourth Sunday today, and one of the parishes where I sang this weekend read the long form of the Gospel, including one of the Top-Ten Parables: the Prodigal Son.
People who get fussy over this sort of thing like to point out that it should be called the “Prodigal Father”, because it is the father whose lavishness we celebrate. But the son is lavish too, just with the wrong resources. In the narrative he gets all the action (in more ways than one), he goes on an “emotional journey”, as they say. He is the main character.
He remains the main character because it is he to whom we are meant to relate. We are the sinful and broken in need of forgiveness. Blessed are those of us who have known a love that celebrates our arrival no matter the circumstances and welcomes us back into home and heart. Not everyone knows that acceptance, and I am fortunate beyond measure to have friends and especially family who love me despite my selfishness and faults.
Although my experience of being loved helps me to believe in a God who loves, the core of my belief comes from turning the parable on its head. I have also had cause to be the father. There has sprung up in me a mercy that is not self-satisfied pardon, nor an absolution that congratulates itself on its own benevolence, but is a love that simply overpowers any offence. If I, a sinner, can feel that love, then I do not question that God can do that and more.
I think perhaps that we are intended to relate to whichever character resonates with our personal experiences. I personally know that I used to relate to the older brother – thinking I had been so righteous when I was younger and wondering why everybody else got the same treatment I did. Well, that was pride and selfishness, and my good behavior had its own earthly rewards. And the story of the prodigal son usually brought that message home to me quite succinctly.