The other day I said Mass at one of the 4 Catholic Schools in my parish for the grades 1 and 2. I asked them to spell the name Jesus for me. After testing quite a few on their spelling I explained that in Jesus, God loves us so much because he even includes US in the name of his Son. The name Jesus could not be Jesus without U, and without US in it.
And in the gospel we have heard today, Jesus assures us that not only we are included in his name, but that no matter how great our sins are, God’s love is even greater and no matter how far we have gone away from the Father, he is always there waiting for us to return.
I would call this ‘Amazing Love’.
First, God’s love is so amazing that he gives without counting the cost. For a father, it would have been a great insult to hear his son asking for a share of his property. Normally, a property is only divided among the children if the owner is approaching death or has died already. In asking for his share, the youngest son not only broke the 4th commandment to honour his father, he also in a way wished that his father be dead. How rude of him.
Without counting how much it would cost him, the father divided his property. (Cf Deut 21:17)- the eldest son received two-thirds of the property and the younger son (assumingly) received one-third of the property.
In doing this, the father lets go of all that’s his, that’s love (cf 2 Cor 8:9). That’s why later on in the gospel, he said to his older son: ‘All I have is yours.’
The younger son, having such a windfall, left home to a far country.
We can imagine, that the home he left behind was a good home, with servants and all. But as any good home, it has rules and boundaries. The son would have none of these rules and boundaries, so he left home to be free.
It would have been a painful sight for the father to see his youngest son leaving him with no assurance of coming back. He lived like a one-day millionaire. He used his freedom irresponsibly, and spent his wealth carelessly, living a life of debauchery (Luke 15:1-3).
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, debauchery means “extreme indulgence in bodily pleasures.”
St Luke would call it a ‘sin against heaven and against the Father’ of the Prodigal son.
But of course, living a life of sin and a misuse of our freedom do not always ensure us a happy and meaningful life.
Eventually, left to his own, apart from God, the prodigal son hit rock bottom. His so-called friends left him. There is a saying that goes: ‘Before you count your friends, be sure you can count on them.’ The son found this out the hard way.
In finding this out, the prodigal son taught us important lesson when we experience difficulty in life: One, he didn’t lose his self-respect. He didn’t fall into great despair and hopelessness as if there is no way out of the situation. He looked for something to do that would benefit himself, even if it was doing the most humiliating of jobs for the Jewish audience, i.e. taking care of pigs-animals considered ritually unclean by Jewish law. And two, he remembers the good things he had- this means counting his blessings. In low moments of our lives, it is helpful to recall the many good things God has given us even us without asking: e.g. experiences, opportunities, relationships, etc.
The second thing that shows us how amazing God’s love is that he forgives us readily when we repent and return to him in reconciliation. When we return to him he would meet us more than halfway. When we go to confession, we experience how amazing our God really is.
The gospel tells us that while the son was still afar, his father saw him. The implication being that day in and day out the father must have been waiting for his return all the time, perhaps watching the road that leads to the village everyday, looking for any sign of his son. This is love- Looking Out for the Value of Each person.
Then he ran towards his son. In the Ancient Near Eastern culture, to rush is an undignified gesture, let alone by an old respectable man. The love of the father is so amazing that he doesn’t mind what people say or think about his love for his son. He engaged in such humiliation in order to lift us up from eternal damnation.
He then “put his hands around him and kissed him”. This gesture implied that the father would have kissed him either on the neck or on the cheek. This is significant because in the culture of the time, people of equal status kissed each other on the cheek. If someone is of lower status, he kissed the neck or the shoulder of his superior. If he is even of lower status, he would kiss the hand. And if he is a slave, he would kiss the feet.
The gospel tells us that the father put his hands around his son and kissed him. When we hugged someone and gave that person a kiss, we could only be kissing either the cheek or the neck. Now, if the father kissed his son on the cheek, he considered his son as his equal. If he kissed him on the neck, he put himself even lower in status than his son. St Paul reminds us that ‘Christ emptied himself for our sake.’ (cf 2 Corinthians 8:9)
Then the son started to make his confession. But the father, happy as he was for his son’s return would not even let his son finish his prepared confession.
Not only that, when we repent and return to God, as the father of the prodigal did, he would give us the best robe, ring, and sandal. Now again these things are significant:
The robe: In the Ancient Near East culture: When a person of high regard died, his family will take his robe and put it over the eldest son as a sign that now all the respect and authority belongs to the son. By putting on the robe, the father restored the respect worthy of his son.
The ring: reminds us of the power of seal of the King’s ring. By giving this to his son, the father would indicate that once again, the son is now able to sign in the father’s name. (cf symbol of authority in the story of Joseph and Pharaoh [Gen 41:41-42])
The sandals: Again culturally then, the slaves are distinguished from others because they go barefoot. By giving him sandals, the Father would say: ‘My son is free man, with all the rights as my son.’
The Father restored his son’s rights and dignity. The Father has reconciled with his son. All is forgiven. All is good.
One important thing to note here: reconciliation with God is not just a private affair. It is a celebration of the whole community, of the whole Church.
In the gospel, the father ordered that a fattened calf be slaughtered. Again in the Ancient Near East culture, this kind of meal is prepared for special occasion and for special people.
(Cf: Gen 18:7) Angels’ visit to Abraham; 1 Sam 28:24- woman (necromancer)- Spiritist (offered to Saul upon his visit); 2 Sam 6:13- David sacrificed when the Ark of the covenant passed by.)
A sheep would only feed about 20 people- so basically an immediate family or a few close friends. A calf and a fattened one can feed 80 people—i.e. most if not all the people in a typical Ancient Near East village.
Friends, brothers and sisters, we are the prodigal sons and daughters of the Father at times. Lent is an opportune time for us to make our way back to the Father- to confess our sins and resolve to sin no more. The Father is waiting for us. Let us take Jesus’ hand leading us back to the Father by being responsible with the freedom God has given us.
Freedom is not that we are able to do many things or to get all the things we want. It is however, choosing the right thing and using it well. And exercising our freedom is to acknowledge that we may never always be doing the right thing, but we can always make things right. God has ‘US’ in the name of his Son. Let us give him a home in our heart and be an exemplary Christian. Amen.
(reference: The Nazareth Jesus Knew by Joel Kauffmann)