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Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Ex. 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Tim. 1:12-17 & Lk. 15:1-32

Our modern world often regards the quality of mercy as a sign of weakness in a person’s character. The powerful person, it says, is one who asserts his or her rights, steam-rolls opponents and punishes enemies. The Gospel turns such an idea on its head, by showing us what God is like. We know, of course, that God is the only all-powerful Being but His power finds its most eloquent expression, not in His Creation, but in His mercy. And in showing mercy to one another, human beings become God-like.

Saint Luke at the beginning of His Gospel emphasised God’s mercy through Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat. “His mercy is from age to age on those who fear Him … He has remembered His servant Israel being mindful of His mercy.” In today's passage he proceeds to paint, in vivid verbal colours, a literary portrait of this merciful God through the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. The climax and centrepiece of Luke’s literary triptych is, of course, the lost son and what Luke captured in prose, Rembrandt captured centuries later in art. This beautiful story of the Prodigal Son teaches us some important truths about sin, freedom and reconciliation.

Sin involves a turning away from God. The people of Israel forsook their Lord and worshipped a golden calf in the desert. The prodigal son leaves his father and seeks greener pastures to satisfy his appetites. In both cases, reality is abandoned for the sake of an illusion. The Israelites find no more fulfilment in dancing around a golden calf than the prodigal son finds in a life of debauchery. That is exactly what happens when we sin. We disobey God’s word and the result is a bitter disappointment and disillusionment. We are reminded time and time again that in God alone can our deepest longings for love, security and acceptance finds their fulfilment.

We may be tempted to ask why God allows us to sin - the answer is that God respects our freedom. True love is always free and never forced. In endowing us with the gift of freedom, God has made Himself vulnerable, because we are free to love Him or to reject Him. That is why, in the story of the prodigal son, the father gives his son his rightful share of his property when he freely asks for it. Then with a heavy heart he watches his son go away and from that moment keeps yearning for his return.

The prodigal son comes to his senses, when he discovers the illusion under which he had been labouring. He compares his present miserable predicament, all of his own doing, with the happiness he had once enjoyed in his father’s house. This is a symbolic description of what happens when we examine our consciences, and compare what we have done with what God expected of us. The Church invites us to make our examination of conscience each night before going to bed, and certainly before we go to Confession.

It is here that we see the turning point of the story. Having examined his conscience and admitting his guilt, he makes the right decision. Instead of giving into despair, or of continuing to wallow in his sin which would have only made his life even more miserable, he decides to return to his father in a spirit of sorrow, hope and confidence. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you” and he asks for some kind of penance. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like a paid servant.” The Lord invites us to follow the same path of repentance: to turn back from our sins, however small, return to Him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confess our sins and seek His absolution and penance. When we volunteer to do penance we are expressing not only our sorrow for our sins, but also to make amends for it by joining our meagre penances with the infinite merits of Our Lord’s Passion.

We now come to the climax of the story, which is the joy of the son coming home. The father warmly embraces him, puts on him new clothes and sandals, and lays on a banquet for him. This threefold action is symbolic of what happens to us in the Sacrament. Through the priest’s words of absolution, God our heavenly Father embraces us; He then puts on us the spotless robe of our baptismal innocence because each time we go Confession our baptismal innocence is restored. And after the Sacrament of Reconciliation our heavenly Father leads us to the great banquet of the Eucharist which He has prepared for us. The symbolic fattened calf is none other than His own Son Jesus whom He sacrificed on Calvary in order to welcome us home from our sinful ways.

The behaviour of the elder son is in sharp contrast to what Jesus, our elder Brother, has done, and continues to do for us. As He did on the Cross so now in Heaven He pleads for us, at the right hand of the Father, that the Father will forgive us and receive us into His kingdom. This was prefigured by Moses, in today’s First Reading, when He appealed to God to spare the people of Israel after they had sinned by worshipping a false god. Jesus, therefore, is our compassionate elder Brother, our High Priest and our Mediator with the Father. When He keeps pleading for us, we can be certain that the Father will receive us back into His arms with great rejoicing.

Lord Jesus, no matter how big or small our sins, let us approach with confidence God’s throne of mercy. Let us bathe ourselves regularly and frequently in His river of mercy which flows from Your Passion and reaches us in the Sacrament of Penance. Finally, having received God’s mercy, let us in our own turn be moved by compassion to show mercy and forgiveness towards others.

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