Two sons. Their father is a landowner wealthy with cattle and teaming with servants. The sons labor on their father's property hoping that one day it will be theirs. But they both keep an eye over the fence surrounding the property wondering whether something better awaits them beyond it in the big city. Nonetheless, they are loyal to their father and faithful to his wishes.
Then the day comes when one of them can stand it no longer. Tired of working and tired of waiting, he demands his inheritance in full and storms off to that far away land and the pleasures it promises. The other son, perhaps shocked at his brother's boldness, stays behind to help his father. Maybe he feels stuck as though there are no other options for him now that he is the only one left to help the old man. Or maybe he rubs his hands together knowing that now all the property will be his without having to split it with his prodigal brother.
Then, after a long day laboring in the fields, he learns that his brother has returned. The older son is scandalized and offended by his father's forgiveness and mercy. How could he welcome him back so eagerly? How could he be so lavish in celebrating his return? We realize from the older son’s angry reaction that, though he never physically left his father's house, in his heart he was long gone. He lived and worked in his father's house but didn't really know his father. Maybe he thought that all his work and sacrifice would earn him his father's love. He couldn't understand that he had that love already, and that his work and sacrifice should be a generous and joyful response to his father’s love and goodness.
Now this good son who has always lived up to whatever his father has asked of him finds himself on the outside when the celebration takes place. Now he becomes the son who is lost because he cannot accept that his father has treated his prodigal brother with mercy and compassion.
The older brother embodies what happens to us when religion becomes a matter of following rules instead of loving our Father. We are doing what we are told, but all the while we are wondering when we will be rewarded for it. It becomes perfect Mass attendance without perfect conversion. Our body is in the pew, but our heart is looking over the fence at the world and its empty promises. Our sacrifices make us bitter rather than freeing us for service. Our faith life becomes about what we are doing for God rather than what God has done for us. And we begin to feel entitled to honors and recognition rather than open to being surprised by grace.
What the father in the story tells his son, God also says to us: “My son, my daughter, you are with me always and everything I have is yours.”
All of us who are baptized and have believed in the name of Jesus live in the house of our heavenly Father. The riches of his kingdom have been given to us in abundance. We feast on his word in the Sacred Scriptures. We have the sacraments to strengthen and nourish us in our time of need. We are part of a family of believers which stretches out over the whole world. And we have as our inheritance nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven. God has given us every type of spiritual blessing. How could we ever be ungrateful? How could we ever feel that God is holding out on us? How could we ever begin to think that, because of our hard work and dedication, we deserve more than we have already been given?
At the same time, we who have come home and experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness must extend that same mercy to sinners. It is not enough for us to gather here every Sunday and hope that our prodigal brothers and sisters will make their way back home. Like the father in the story, we have to run out to meet them. We have to see them from afar off, grasp their hands and lead them back. We have to welcome them with open arms and celebrate their return with lavish feasting.
If our Masses are not as lively as they could be, maybe it is because there are people missing. No family celebration is as joyful when some of the members have failed to show up. So we have to fill God’s house with all those who long for his forgiveness. We also have to be mindful that we are sinners who are in constant need of conversion and mercy. Then we will not be gathering here merely to meet an obligation but rather to celebrate the love of our heavenly Father. We will not be going through the motions but will be truly lifting our hearts to God in spirit-filled prayer and worship.
This man, Jesus, welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Whether we packed our bags and took off long ago or whether we have become blind to the riches of life in our Father's house, we can always return. This house is always here for us and a room is always prepared. We can always come home again to be restored to our dignity as sons and daughters of God. We just have to expect that the same mercy which our Father lavishes on us so undeservedly will be lavished on our brothers and sisters as well. If we are so ready and eager to accept it for ourselves, we must be just as ready to extend it to our neighbor. Then we will not find ourselves on the outside looking in when the celebration takes place as the older brother did, but we will be rejoicing with our brother, Jesus, who died to wash us of our sins and who has clothed us with love and mercy.