Frank and Nancy were parents of an only son, whom they loved dearly. He was tragically killed by a drunken driver as a young man. The driver was also a young man. Frank and Nancy were heartbroken and angry. As time went on, their anger persisted, and they realized that it was affecting every aspect of their lives.
Reflecting on their anger and seeking a resolution, they understood that the only way to find relief was to forgive the young man who killed their son. They visited him in prison and got to know him. They even helped him to overcome his addiction to alcohol. Years later, when the young man was released from prison, he became a lecturer for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. Mercy brought healing, and gave new life to Frank, Nancy and the young man.
Mercy is at the heart of our Lenten journey. We recognize our sinfulness and we seek the Lord’s forgiveness. We also seek to forgive as we have been forgiven. The mercy poured out on us by our loving Father is powerfully presented by Jesus when he tells the story of the prodigal son, which is retold in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy.
The story’s title, which emphasizes the prodigal son, is by convention. The younger son, however, is not the focus of the story, nor is his older brother. The main character is the loving and merciful father. It is the father who loves and never stops loving. It is the father who through compassion and mercy who heals the son and restores him to life.
The story is powerful. The drama that unfolds in the short account is deep and moving. As the story begins, the younger son makes a request no son should ever make. He seeks an inheritance from a living father. The insult could not be greater. In making the request, he reveals himself to be blinded by greed and self-interest in that he does not see all that the father has given him: love, home, work and family. He seeks to indulge himself at the expense of the father’s love.
The father, rather than reacting in anger, accedes to his young son’s wishes and gives him his share of the estate. The son leaves all the good that the father has bestowed upon him and takes with him mere money. When the money runs out and he is destitute, the awareness of true wealth and where it lies come back to him. He is moved to repent and to beg forgiveness. He returns.
The father, meanwhile, has never stopped loving him. Rather, that love intensifies and he longs for the younger son’s return. In a telling moment, Jesus says: “While he [the younger son] was still a long way off, the father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”
The joy of the father’s love is then expressed even more fully when he orders the fattened calf slaughtered for the great feast. The father’s love knows no bounds.
This is also seen in his exchange with his other son. That son too does not realize the depths of his father’s love. He has been with the father the whole time, enjoying the same love that the younger son experienced but failed to recognize. Instead, he thinks he is owed something. This blindness hinders him from rejoicing with the father at his brother’s return. Yet the father’s love remains.
As we continue to move through Lent toward Easter, we come to an even greater awareness of the Father’s love in our lives. He has loved us, continues to love us and calls us to love. This, the greatest of loves, is perfectly expressed in his Son, Jesus the Christ.
Jesus offers himself completely for the Father and for us. It is through this love that the mercy of the Father is made manifest, as St. Paul writes: “And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
It is this “message of reconciliation” that we seek to live out in our lives. We have been forgiven, like the younger son in Jesus’ story. We are called to share that reconciliation through mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
Frank and Nancy came to know the healing power of mercy. The loss of their son, probably the greatest loss a family can endure, was healed not through vengeance or retribution, but through mercy. Lent affords us the time to recognize God’s compassionate love and to share it with those we encounter, especially those in most need of mercy.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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