Today we celebrate the great Feast of Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit first came upon the Apostles so that they could go out to the world unafraid, and spread word of the infinite mercy of God. I’d like to focus upon this mercy a bit more by reflecting in detail on two of Pope Francis’ talks at his general audiences in Rome, which recall the wonderful story of the Prodigal Son.
Pope Francis begins from the end of the story, that is, from the heart of the father, who says: “Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Luke 15: 23-24). With these words, the father interrupted his younger son at the moment he was confessing his fault: “I no longer deserve to be called your son,” (v. 19). However, this expression is unbearable for the heart of the Father, who instead hastens to restore to his son the signs of his dignity: the best robe, the ring and the sandals. Jesus doesn’t describe a father who is offended and resentful — a father that, for instance, says to his son: “You’ll pay for this.” No, the father embraces him, awaits him with love. The only thing that the father has at heart is that this son is before him, safe and sound, and this makes him happy and he wants to celebrate. The welcome of the son that returns is described in a moving way. “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.” (v. 20). What real tenderness! He saw him from afar, and went out to meet him.
What does this mean? The father went out continually on the terrace to look up the road to see if his son was returning — a son who had done just about everything! Still, the father awaited him. How beautiful is the father’s mercy; it’s overflowing, unconditional, and is manifested before the son speaks. The son certainly knows he has erred and he acknowledges it: “I have sinned … treat me as one of your hired servants”(v. 19). But these words dissolve in face of the father’s forgiveness. His father’s embrace and kiss make him understand that he was always considered son, despite everything. This teaching of Jesus is important. The condition of God’s own children is the fruit of the love of the Father’s heart; it doesn’t depend on our merits or our actions and, therefore, no one can take its dignity away, not even the devil!
This word of Jesus encourages us never to despair. I think of mothers and fathers so apprehensive when they see their children distancing themselves, wandering off in dangerous ways. I think of parish priests and catechists who sometimes wonder if their work was in vain. I also think of those who are in prison, and who think that their life is over; of those who have made mistaken choices and are unable to look at the future; of all those who hunger for mercy and forgiveness and believe that they do not merit it. In whatever situation of life, we must not forget that we never cease to be a child of God, of a Father who loves us and awaits our return. Even in the most awful situations of life, God awaits me; God wants to embrace me.
There is another son in the parable – the elder son; he, too, is in need of discovering the father’s mercy. He has always remained at home, but he is so different from the father! His words lack tenderness: “Look! All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders … But when this son of yours returns …” (vv. 29-30). We see the contempt: he never says: “Father,” he never says “brother;” he only thinks of himself. He boasts of having remained always beside the father and of having served him; yet he never lived in closeness or joy. Now he accuses the father of never giving him even a kid goat to make merry. Poor father! One son went away, and the other was never truly close to him! The father’s suffering is like the suffering of God, the suffering of Jesus when we distance ourselves, or because we go far away, or because we are “close by,” without actually being close.
The elder son is also in need of mercy. Those who believe themselves to be just are also in need of mercy. This son represents us when we wonder if it is worthwhile to toil so much if then we receive nothing in return. Jesus reminds us that one does not remain in the Father’s house to have a compensation, but because one has the dignity of co-responsible children. It is not about “bartering” with God, but about following Jesus who gave Himself on the cross without measure.
So says the Father to the elder son, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice” (v. 31). His is the logic of mercy! The younger son thought he merited a punishment because of his sins; the elder son expected a recompense for his services. The two brothers don’t speak to one another; they lived different stories. But both reason according to a logic that is foreign to Jesus: if you do good you receive a prize, if you do evil you get punished. This is not Jesus’ logic; it isn’t! This logic subverts the father’s words: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (v. 31). The father recovered his lost son, and now he can also restore him to his brother! Without the younger, the elder son ceases to be a “brother.” The Father’s greatest joy would be to see that his sons acknowledge each other as brothers. The sons can decide whether to unite themselves to the Father’s joy or to refuse. They must ask themselves about their desires and about their vision of life.
The parable ends leaving the end in suspense. We do not know what the elder son decided to do. This should be a stimulus for us. This Gospel teaches us that we are all in need of entering the Father’s house and taking part in His joy, in His celebration of mercy and of fraternity. The world needs men and women who are not closed in on themselves, but filled with the Holy Spirit. Closing oneself off from the Holy Spirit means not only a lack of freedom; it is a sin. There are many ways one can close oneself off to the Holy Spirit: by selfishness for one’s own gain; by a rigid legalism – seen in the attitude of the doctors of the law to whom Jesus referred as “hypocrites”; by neglect of what Jesus taught; by living the Christian life not as service to others but in the pursuit of personal interests; and in so many other ways. The world needs the courage, hope, faith and perseverance of Christ’s followers. The world needs the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22). The gift of the Holy Spirit has been bestowed upon the Church and upon each one of us, so that we may live lives of genuine faith and active charity, that we may sow the seeds of reconciliation and peace. Strengthened by the Spirit and his many gifts, may we be able uncompromisingly to battle against sin and corruption, devoting ourselves with patient perseverance to the works of justice and peace.