Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Prodigal Father:
 Multiply Mercy

Father John J. Lombardi

We've heard it all before/ So, disciple-Is this Parable a bore?

No, Lord, Show me more…

"We now pray for the two mixed up sons in the Gospel…" Those were the words of the Prayer of the Faithful at a Mass with Fr Tommy Lane, of County Cork, Ireland, on St Patrick's Feast Day, referring to the infamous-heard-it-all-before story of the "Prodigal Son." We both laughed-and agreed: as Fr. Lane said (and he is a scripture scholar)-"That's an excellent commentary on the Parable."

Commentary: One son in the parable (the elder) is proud, legalistic and jealous: he rants at the Father's love and mercy, and rails against his brother's squandering ways. The younger ("Prodigal") son is mixed up, too: he "has it all" but goes his own way-deep into sin and alienation…So: jealousy, rivalry, misunderstanding; and: in return, mercy and loving-kindness. Isn't this the Story of Us All?

That's one interpretation. In Jesus' "Most Famous Story Ever Told" (or, just about-Lk. 15:1ff), let's remember the ABC's of Life: Always Breathe Compassion. Hearing this Gospel of "mixed up sons" I'm reminded of an old-fashioned dad once saying: "Our family is dysfunctional." His use of that "d-word" was uncharacteristic of him. I thought for a minute-did he get it from Oprah? Anyway, my response: What family isn't mixed up these days? Look at the First family-Adam and Eve: they had everything and still wanted more; they were unhappy with Bliss. Then: Cain and Abel: they fought. The Hebrews and Jews were perennially in-fighting, idolizing false gods; breaking up Kingdoms, etc. Then, even in the Twelve Apostles, Judas betrays the Lord and kills himself…All our families have faults and failures, no doubt: this is realism to admit, not to whitewash or airbrush our clumsiness-- we need help. The point: what are you doing about it? Are you despairing or daring-trying to reconcile, amend, show mercy; go out to your sinful son, the cousin-drug addict, or daughter filled with diatribes-are you going out of your way and comfort zone like the Prodigal Father to redeem, save and elevate?

Dramatis Personae: Who are dramatic actors in this Parable of all Parables? The Father: I once heard that this Famous Parable is misnamed: it should be called the Story of the Prodigal Father. He gave his children everything; he loves his sons; he takes back his "prodigal son"; he shows love and education to his elder, misunderstanding son. What more could a Father do-or be? You see; Jesus tells the story of His Father-Our Father in Heaven-how He is ever-merciful, ever kind, gentle and lavishing-prodigal-in His Love, for "God is love" (1Jn. 4). Fathers are getting beat up today, attacked, subverted. We have a Father in Heaven Who is always Wise, Loving and Merciful: Worship Him!

The Pharisees and scribes: Jesus told this story for our legalistic, unbending persons who fail to be freed by their Faith and Religion and are, rather, imprisoned by the so-called rituals and rules they misinterpret.

Prodigal means, get this, "recklessly wasteful; and profuse in giving (from the Latin, prodigere, "to drive away". Source: American Heritage Dict.). That definition describes both the son's wastefulness and the Father's profuse mercy.

In this Parable, also, we can interpret from the various often-heard lines: the younger son who would "go away from the farm": this can stand possibly for the Jews "who had it all" and still wandered off from Yahweh; and it can mean us, when we leave the Father's House-His Providence, and leave His Church-the Extension of Jesus Christ on Earth…"Eating with pigs": may mean hitting rock bottom. "Coming to his senses" (the prodigal son): awakening, realization, enlightenment into God's Love and one's sinful ways…. "Go back to my Father's house": we all need to make a U-turn-back to Jesus and His Most Sacred Heart… The prodigal son makes a "break away": sin imprisons and we need to actually break the bondages into New Life (cf. II Cor 5:17-"If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation")…"The Father saw him a long way off": The Heavenly Father and Jesus are Omniscient-Omnipresent (All-Knowing-All Seeing) and constantly look for us sinners to return-they await us!... The Father is "deeply moved": This should be incentive for our repentance and contrition… "The Father ran out to meet him": he didn't walk, he wasn't a slacker; he ran, as does our Heavenly Father… The father ordered-"Quick, buy a fatted calf, the finest robe and shoes" for the returning son: there is a nobility to being a human being when graced, but in sin this is camouflaged. So, don't be hoodwinked... "Let us celebrate": return means festivity. "This son of mine was dead": the Father says this and following line twice, notice-- in serious sin we are dead, sleepwalking; stupefied, and "He has come back to life": Life in God=Bliss.

What are some other Messages of Mercy? Well, this is a Parable of Transgression. This means that Jesus told it to legalistic professionals in the Business of Religion to shock them,"get in their grill" and upset their spiritual-mind-imprisoning apple-cart. In St Luke's Gospel, Jesus is depicted as constantly challenging people's expectations of God, others and religion. Do you need a wake-up call like the story of the Prodigal Father and Son? Christ, in St Luke's Gospel, shows the story of the Good (10:29) - it is not the Jews or rich who heal the needy man, but an outcast do-gooder. In this Gospel Jesus also heals lepers (the outcast) and appeared not to the Apostles at the Resurrection but to Mary Magdalene (apparently: the men were afraid or asleep). We all get weary and sluggish and overly-human in our images of God, and need to expand (dynamize) them so that God as Lord of Compassion and Challenge and, ultimately, Loving Infinitude, shakes and makes us within truer disciples.

Christ subverts spirituality: Sometimes he lets us-like the "prodigal son" -hit rock bottom, "the gutter" and "experience the blues." Who doesn't' want Spring and light and peace? However, it is sometimes in the darkness that God richly reveals Himself; that we "find our souls" and true direction in life; and that external events beyond our control-whether sent or allowed by God (a sickness or natural disaster) mysteriously and mystically combine with inner transformative elements and change us in a way we could never plan or procure. We can say all the prayers we want, go on retreat and so forth but, by God's "strange alchemy" and Providence, it is only in His timing and suffering situations that we are readied for transformation. Point: keep praying and receiving the Sacraments and so forth, and, also, stop airbrushing your life, cosmeticizing your conundrums, and stifling your sufferings (Americans are pros at this), and more readily embrace the Cross and the gutter and the dereliction of discipleship like St John of the Cross, St Therese of Lieseaux and Mother Teresa of Calcutta who, it was revealed after her death, frequently went thru long periods of suffering and darkness.

Multiply Mercy/Cultivate Compassion: We just saw a breathtaking movie here during a Healing Conference at Mt St Mary's, called "The Power of Forgiveness"' by Martin Doblmyer. In it we saw the language and love of forgiving mercy thru young Catholic and Protestant student-children in Northern Ireland, overcoming centuries of hatred by guided interaction. We saw how Amish parents forgave the murderer of their children (last Fall) and even took up financial collections for the family of the murderer's children's education. We saw how relatives of 9/11 overcame bitterness towards terrorists. We saw how a psychologist said he was formed for forgiveness: ten years in study of psychology and eight years in therapy and spirituality, then: his mother was murdered. Because of the cultivation of compassion he was taught thru those years, he forgave and now teaches others to forgive. Forgiveness means "You have the upper hand" and refuse to use it. It means when spouses continue to forgive one another-for the up-teenth million time. Mercy means loving others, warts and all. It means giving someone who has just tarnished you another opportunity to amend the relationship.

Ten Messages of Mercy:

  1. "To err is human, to forgive divine." -Shakespeare
  2. In God, Justice and Mercy Meet: mercy and justice shall meet: we usually think it's either mercy or justice. In God they somehow mysteriously blend perfectly. So: when a son breaks a window for the tenth time you forgive him (mercy) and you also instruct him to move to another place (justice) and fix the window.
  3. Go to Confession-it is the Sacrament of Divine Mercy.
  4. Because we know we let it show-mercy that is. Think about it-if you wanna' keep it, pass it on.
  5. Don't limit God's Infinite Mercy-as did the elder son in the Lord's Parable.
  6. Cultivate compassion/Multiply Mercy: think of the thousands of times, some small and many big times you've not only been forgiven but also healed.
  7. Reconcile with someone: it's what Christians do.
  8. Remember and go frequently to Mass for as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us in his Exhortation ("The Sacrament of Charity on the Holy Eucharist), Jesus Christ comes to us as a Sacrifice and Offering to God for our sins and those of the entire world.
  9. Pray the Our Father: esp "forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive others"-think and pray about it-just do it.
  10. Ponder Excellent Examples of Mercy: Pope John Paul II who forgave Ali Agha, his would-be assassin; the mother of Saint Maria Goretti who forgave her daughter's murderer. Think of: The Lord on the Cross, who forgave, forgives you and me.

We adore you O Christ and we praise you: because by Your Holy Cross You have Redeemed the world!

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi