St. Mary Church in Middletown
February 27, 2016
Losing things is the occupational hazard of getting older. I know! I can't tell you how many times each week I misplace my keys or wallet or cellphone, even important papers. It drives me crazy. I mean, I'll have something in my hands one minute and the very next minute, I've lost it. Did you ever have that experience?
If you have, then you know the feeling. "St. Anthony, come around ... something's lost that must be found" has become a regular prayer. More often than not, I eventually find what I'm looking for but not without a few anxious minutes. Maybe St. Anthony's testing my faith a little!
Our Gospel story today is a familiar one, "The Prodigal Son." It only appears in the Gospel of Luke, however, and yet it is one of the most well-known of all the parables of the Lord Jesus. Its subject is loss, losing something important but it has a happy conclusion when what has been lost is found.
Actually this story is the third in a series of parables in Luke, one right after the other, all dealing with loss. The Lord Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and the Scribes who are fond of challenging him and trying to trip him up in his words and actions. He has attracted the attention of tax collectors and sinners through his preaching and the Pharisees and Scribes have a big problem with that.
How could a truly righteous man --- let alone someone considered possibly to be the Messiah --- associate with the likes of those sinful men? The Lord Jesus sees an opening here and he takes it with parables: first, the lost sheep ... he risks 99 in the desert to find one; when he finds the one lost, he rejoices to bring them all together. That's how it is with the Father when the lost sinner is found.
Next, the lost coin ... the woman turns the house upside down to find it; when she does, she is ecstatic to have her savings intact. That's how it is with the Father when the lost sinner is found.
Finally, the lost son. He takes his inheritance and off he goes, lost in the world and seduced by all its attractions. Let's spend a little time with this parable.
The son had a right to his inheritance but his father was not dead. Taking it then was like saying to his father, "you're dead to me ... nothing more you can do for me, I don't need you." But the Gospel begins, "a man had two sons." The second stayed behind, loyal to the father, working for the father, respecting and loving the father. The father recognized this and he loved the second son in return but still missed the first son deeply. Notice that, unlike the one sheep who wandered off, lost from the other 99, or unlike the one coin missing, lost from the other nine, there was no searching in this parable. It was the lost son --- feeling the pain of separation, the desperation of having nothing left, the stupidity and humiliation of living worse than pigs --- who rethought his choice, his action, his path and, regretting it, retraced his steps and came home.
He who was lost searched for the father, knowing where and how to find him. The father had the same joy as the shepherd finding the lost sheep and the woman finding the lost coin. The lost son found his father again and, being found, was shown mercy. The second son had a different reaction, having stayed with the father and done everything he was asked, the second son believed and judged that the prodigal son should have been rejected and treated the same way he and his father were treated. No mercy was earned or deserved.
But there's the point: mercy is love and compassion freely given: unwarranted; unearned; undeserved ... just given. It was given to the prodigal, lost son and even to the unforgiving, second son by the father. It was not only a joy to receive ... It was a joy to give!
I don't know if the Pharisees and Scribes got the message or even if the second son did. Merciful like the Father, that was the Lord Jesus' message and invitation to the lost, to the sinner ... and to us. And we know where we need his mercy in our lives and where we, in turn, need to show his mercy.
The Psalm today reminds us "the Lord is kind and merciful ... he pardons all your iniquities, he heals all your ills; he redeems your life from destruction; he crowns you with kindness and compassion." Can we do less and call ourselves, consider ourselves his sons? The Prophet Micah offers us the same message of mercy in the first reading today: "he delights in clemency," compassion and mercy.
The 20th century spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once reflected, "For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. ... I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. ... Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, to love me. The question is not 'how am I to find God' but 'how am I to let myself be found by him ... be known by him ... be loved by him?' God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, longing to bring me home … and now I see that the hands that forgive, console heal and offer a festive meal must be my own. (Henri Nouwen, "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming").