The Loving Father and Two Lost Sons

(Micah 7:14-20; Ps 103; Lk 15:1-32)


Have you ever felt lost in sin, struggling with false pride, alienated from God, others and even yourself?

There is a close link between the readings today, inviting us to come to God for both forgiveness and healing.

The prophet Micah in the first reading prays humbly to God, confessing the sins and failings of the Chosen People, and placing his trust in the compassion, mercy and forgiveness of God. Micah has his own unique way of expressing how God forgives – “God will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Psalm 103 wonderfully builds on the sentiments shared by Micah, putting the stress not only on forgiveness, but also on our need for healing. As he puts it, God will forgive all our iniquity and heal all our diseases; redeem our life from the pit, and crown us with steadfast love and mercy. Then in another unique way, the psalmist adds to how thoroughly God forgives our sins: “as far as the east is from the west, so far the Lord removes our transgressions from us.”

Even more radically, in Hebrews 8:12 God declares that God will deal with our iniquity and not even remember it. So, God forgets our sins! That is good news for those of us who have a difficult time forgiving ourselves for our past sins and failings – if God forgets them, they no longer exist, so why are we hanging on to them? One elderly gentleman shared with me how he still felt guilty about a sin of a sexual nature he had committed forty years earlier, even though he had previously confessed it. I believe sharing the good news with him that God has forgotten that sin so it no longer exists, will help him to finally let go of it in his golden years.

The well-known gospel story about the prodigal son (that I prefer to entitle the Loving Father and the Two Lost Sons) puts the icing on the cake in terms of revealing the merciful nature of our God, and our need for both forgiveness and healing.

Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

In that story, the youngest son certainly sinned grievously. In demanding his inheritance, he was basically telling his father he did not care about him or the family – he just wanted the money and proceeded to alienate himself from his family, his culture (a foreign land) and his religion (feeding pigs as a Jewish youth). He was lost in the world of guilt, fear, shame, and sin, for which he needed forgiveness. However, he finally came to his senses, repented, prepared his confession, and returned home to settle for the life of a servant, but experienced forgiveness and a celebration. As Richard Rohr puts it in his own inimitable way, this son “got it right by doing it wrong.”

The dutiful elder son, who apparently did everything right, was lost in an even worse way than the younger son. His problem was an inner one – painful emotions like anger, bitterness and jealousy, and even worse, negative attitudes and defects of character like false pride, and stubborn self-righteousness, compounded by arguing with his father and refusing the father’s invitation to enter the banquet. He even disowned his brother, calling him “this son of yours” in the conversation with the father. The elder son was lost in a world of sinfulness for which he was in desperate need of healing, more than forgiveness. To reverse the saying of Rohr’s, this son “got it wrong by doing it right.”

The father, however, is the main focus of the story, which Jesus recounts as a gentle way of revealing the breath, depth and even extravagance of the Father’s loving forgiveness. The father was already forgiving the younger son before he left home by giving him his share of the inheritance (what human father would do that?), was waiting for him to return, and ran to greet him when he caught sight of him, full of mercy, compassion, unconditional love and forgiveness. The father did not even need the son’s confession, cutting him short to restore him to full belonging in the family with the sandals, robe, and ring topped off with a celebration.

The father also came out to the elder son, reminding him of his love for him, seeking to restore the family because if the elder son disowns and does not have a brother, he is only a son and the family is incomplete. Above all, the father wants the elder son to also forgive and come into the banquet. We do not know if he does or not – the story ends with us wondering and deliberately so – almost forcing us to ask, how have we been the younger son, and how are we perhaps still like the older son? In what ways have we been, or are we still, lost?

This story should blow away all our preconceived notions of a punishing, vengeful God that is so prevalent in our world today as well as over past generations. Angie Mihalicz would ask her students in Christian Ethics class to write out their own version of a time they were prodigal sons or daughters. They had no problem doing that, until they came to the part where they returned home, and to a person, they stopped writing. When Angie asked why, they replied, “That’s not how it is – we are always remembered for what we did wrong.” How hard it is for us to believe in, let alone act like the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

The Eucharist is an experience of the loving Father welcoming us back even now as prodigal sons and daughters with forgiveness for our sins, and pleading with us as elder sons and daughters to accept healing of our sinfulness, that which makes us sin.

May our celebration deepen our faith in God’s humble mercy, compassion, unconditional love, forgiveness and healing, and empower us to live within the house of the Lord, participating in the banquet of eternal life, already here and now in this life, and fully in the next.

Updated: March 11, 2023 — 3:10 am

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