“A father froze to death while sheltering his nine-year-old daughter from severe weekend blizzards that swept northern Japan…” the news report stated the other day. “Mikio Okada died as he tried to protect his only child Natsune against winds of up to 109 kilometres per hour, as temperatures plunged to minus 6 Celsius. Okada was one of at least nine people killed in a spate of snow-related incidents as blizzards swept across Hokkaido Island, police said Monday… Okada’s body was uncovered by rescuers looking for the pair after relatives raised the alarm… Natsune was wearing her father’s jacket and was wrapped in his arms, newspapers and broadcasters said.” (www.news.com.au/world-news)
Stories like this always moved my heart. Yes, reading stories such as this made me shed a tear at times. And yet despite the feeling of sadness and sympathy, I also felt consoled. I felt consoled to know that there are still people, real people in our time, who are more than willing to die for the person they loved. These heroic figures are those people who have a kind of love that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described in his encyclical Deus caritas est, as agape. According to the Pope, this kind of love as agape “expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, encyclical #6) Wow! What a beautiful definition of love! And what a wonderful world it would be if we live in love, selflessly and unconditionally. It is a big challenge. It is hard but it is not impossible.
Today, in our gospel Jesus is telling us a parable that teaches us a lesson that to be in love selflessly and without measure is indeed possible. And it is only possible if we learn from the love of the Father to the prodigal son and imitate his loving ways.
What can we learn from the father’s agape to his ‘prodigal son’ then?
There are three things we can reflect on in here.
First, God’s love sets us free. It would have been a painful sight for the father to see his youngest son leaving him and his brother with no assurance of coming back. Yet, he let him go with all his share of the property to exercise his freedom. The father would have hoped that his son would take his freedom for his own good. Unfortunately, his son used his freedom irresponsibly, selfishly and carelessly. He couldn’t care less for his dignity and reputation by ‘squandering his money on a life of debauchery’ (Lk 15:1-3) and by committing sins against heaven and against his own father. Because of his sinful ways, his dignity was degraded. He worked as a hired servant in a piggery (a repugnant thing to do esp. for Jews who considered pigs as unclean animals.) This is also what happens to us when we sinned. When we commit sin we break the relationship between us and God. Through sinning our dignity as son or daughter of God is being degraded and demoted into a slave- slave to sin. But then again, God’s love couldn’t allow us to perish in sin forever. He takes the initiative to invite us back in and to enjoy his company forever. So he offers us the sacrament of reconciliation and penance to come home again to the house of God.
Second, because of love, God waits for us eagerly no matter how long it takes, how far we have gone, or how sinful we are. Such is the love of the father that he waited everyday with expectancy for the return of his son. He was continually looking at the road for any sign or just a shadow of his son. So we heard in St Luke: When he saw his son coming, he ran towards him and embraced him. This is a beautiful thing about love. Love enables someone to go even an extra mile, even going to an unfamiliar grounds or even in an awkward situations. Let us just try to imagine, an old man running towards his young son. It must be a funny thing to behold and an awkward gesture for the father. But because he loved him so much, he can’t be bothered by anything else because his son was the most important person for him at that moment.
Third, because of love, God wouldn’t want us to settle for less. As long as we come back to him with open, humble and repentant heart, he’d take us back in and even restore our fallen dignity. The father did two extraordinary things here: One, he knew his son was repentant so he didn’t even let him finish his prepared speech, instead he welcomed him, and restored his fallen dignity by giving him a robe (security & protection), a ring on his fingers (authority in his household) and sandals (dignity as son not as a slave whose immediate indicator was being a barefooted) and threw in a party his homecoming. Two, he left his place of honor in the banquet and went out to talk with his other son who was upset and wouldn’t want to go into the house. Sometimes we too are like the eldest son. We tend to discriminate others, because they are less lovable, or less fortunate or more sinful than we are. So when God invites us in to his banquet (Eucharist) we sometimes make this comment: ‘I don’t like going to the Church, they are all hypocrites.’ Like the eldest son, we at times are too focused with our self-righteousness and our almost to the letter following of the rubrics to the extent that we missed the underlying motivation of it all, i.e. to grow in love with God and with our neighbors as we love ourselves. However, God wouldn’t want us to settle for less. This is the beauty of our God. For him, there is no one who deserves lesser or greater love. He loves each of us equally and genuinely. We are all equal in his eyes. It is only that some of us think that “we are more equal than others.” Such is his love for us that he always goes out searching for us, to forgive us of our sins and to bring us back to his company, no matter who we are, or how sinful our lives were. Such is his love for us that he wouldn’t mind to take an extra mile (even dying on the cross) just to tell us “All I have is yours”.
So as we continue our Lenten journey, let us ‘laetare’ (rejoice) because like that Japanese father who lay down his life for his daughter to live, God is doing it for us even more. Because he loved us so much, he took on our very humanity, embraced the punishment of sin (death) and opened for us the door of glory that leads to his kingdom of love. It is something to rejoice about and to hope for.