Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 11, 2022)

God’s love is amazing, powerful, steadfast, true and enduring. Jesus reveals this love and invites us to recognize it in our lives. The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy gives us a glimpse into this love.

Jesus was speaking, and tax collectors and sinners were gathering to listen. Pharisees and scribes were also gathering. They began complaining, saying: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

There could be many explanations for the complaint, and the same attitude manifests itself in different cultures and times, even our own. Regardless, the comment is true – Jesus “welcomes sinners.” Jesus wants everyone to know God’s love and mercy, the path to healing and life.

Jesus tells two parables and a story to help us reflect on and understand the Father’s love. The common element in all three is that something is lost and needs to be found. The two parables are on the short side, as are most parables. The story is much longer and detailed. Notice the emphasis Jesus is making as he addresses the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes. He uses three illustrations, the final being the most impactful, to make the point that God’s love is active. He seeks everyone, but especially those who are in most need of his love.

“A man had two sons,” Jesus says as he begins the story most of us refer to as “The Prodigal Son.” The story is not just about the wayward son or his brother, but is about a loving Father who continually shares his love with his sons. The contrast between the two sons helps draw us into the reflection on God’s love in our lives, as well as the way we emulate that love in our life with others.

When the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, we get a glimpse into his situation in life. Something is motivating the son to make this request. Was he confused about life? Did he want to explore life away from home? Was he selfish? Was looking for “more”?

Regardless of the answer, the request is highly insulting and would be scandalous in Jesus’ day. It is akin to saying to the father, “I wish you were dead.” The younger son is either completely unaware or fails to appreciate or understand the value of the life he already has with his father and in his home. He cares for him, provides for him, and shares his life with him — but most important of all, he loves him.

The father accedes to the younger son’s request. The action also points to the Father’s love. In order for the son to accept the father’s love, it has to be done freely. The father allows the son to leave so he can come back. The father does not rejoice in the son’s departure, but immediately longs for his return.

We quickly see that when the son leaves his father (and the life of love) his life swiftly enters a downward spiral. As he moves further and further away, his life is being drained from him. When he hits rock bottom in the pen of swine, the proverbial light bulb goes off: “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.” He recognizes that his father has all that he needs to live. His insight is furthered by self-awareness. He recognizes that he is not worthy of the father’s love for he has sinned.

Meanwhile, the father has never ceased loving or longing for the son’s return. When he sees him coming, he runs out to meet him. Jesus highlights the father’s longing: “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” When the son expresses his remorse, the father orders the celebration and restores him to his home and life, saying “this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”

We quickly realize that the older son was lost too, albeit in a different way. The son was faithful and had remained in the home. He continued to share the life of his father, yet it seems he did not appreciate what he always had. Refusing to join in the celebration, his father begs him to celebrate. The son focuses on his fidelity, failing to recognize the gift – everything he has comes from his father. It is the father’s love, which is always with him, that provides him with all he needs. That love needs to be celebrated and shared.

Jesus leaves us pondering what happens with the older son as the story ends without us knowing if he goes in or stays out. What remains, however, is the father’s love.

God’s love is abundant and active. He seeks out the lost, the sinner, those in need of healing, the broken, the lonely, the poor, the sick, the lame, the hungry, and the grieving. He actively seeks anyone in need of his love – in other words, everyone – and invites them to come home.

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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.