24th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

I have a notoriously bad relationship with the Prodigal Son.  He has always rubbed me the wrong way.  It is not so much what he did to his father or how a young man wasted money.  That is a story that has been going on for literally thousands of years.  What I have always resented was the lack of quality in his repentance.  After all, he did not return because he was sorry.  He came home because he way “dying from hunger.”  He did as anyone would when approaching an awkward situation, as you did when you broke curfew – he practiced a speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  I imagine him the whole way home, saying over and over again, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

And then the father sees him, his hungering eyes peering to the horizon.  The Father runs towards him and embraces him with a holy hug, a moment of unforgettable reconciliation.  He has been fully welcomed home.  And how does this kid respond?  With same canned speech he had been practicing the whole time.  “Duh, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  It appears the Father’s love has not moved or changed him at all.

Yet, I am being as judgmental about the quality of his confession as the older brother is about the sins the Prodigal Son committed.  If I do not find him worthy of the Father’s acceptance, than I am electing not to celebrate God’s gift of mercy.   The older brother and I stay outside the party together in our bitterness over the Father’s forgiveness.

Is the Father’s welcome more that the Prodigal Son deserves because of his actions or his desultory repentance?  Absolutely. And that is the point.  There is word for allowing mercy only to those who deserve it – justice.  In order for there to be true mercy, we must extend the cover of God’s grace over those whom we think might still not be worthy of it.

Do you remember the show “Extreme Makeover – Home Edition”?  They would establish this narrative of a family that had gone through trauma after trauma and then all these people would come together and build them a mansion.  My best friend Fred hated the show while his ten year old son loved it.  Fred said to his son, “Who deserves a home?’  His son said, “Everyone.  Now can I please just watch the show?”   Shelter belongs to everyone, worthy or not.  So too does mercy.

Let us be thankful that God gives us more than we deserve.  With all our sins, failings and omissions, God still forgives us, loves us and chooses us for salvation.   While I might be stuck on the justice with the Prodigal Son, I want to be embraced in mercy by the Father despite all my faults.  After all, Christ called us to love our enemy and the reason is fascinating. He remarks that even pagans know how to love those who love them.  Grace allows us to love even those who hate us.

Mercy is not a miserly gift.  We are meant to share it freely as it has been freely given to us.  For us to exercise a ministry of mercy, we must extend ourselves in forgiveness and service to those whom it is difficult to forgive or care for.  September 11th is a day that challenges us to show mercy and forgiveness to those whom have offended deeply.  We all shared a national and indeed worldwide wound that day; for some, that hurt was searingly personal.  Can we forgive? Should we forgive?  Fr. Ken Doyle, and there is no one’s opinion I respect more, in an admittedly controversial column in the Evangelist suggested that the lack of remorse of the terrorists makes it not compulsory to forgive. There may be some things that are unforgiveable.  But that seems to me the reason every war begins.

What I am sure of though is that in your life and mine, there is some unworthy person whom we can forgive, but have not.  There are some we have found beyond the pale, but who can be loved only because we know God loves them.  Think of whom you have not forgiven.  Is the knowledge of God’s mercy in your life, or the prison of holding onto hate when we are called to love, enough for you to cover that person in mercy?  What would a year of mercy mean if we were not able to forgive one person whom we have never forgiven before?

If you can you will know the joy of the Forgiving Father.  As Pope Francis constantly urges priests, look for the smallest reason to forgive and do so.  Search the horizon for the smallest figure taking the most tentative steps towards a home they have forsaken and rush to welcome them and you will be sharing in God’s face.  Forgive the “unforgivable” and it will be like brushing the face of God.