The familiar story of the prodigal son is traditionally a lesson about the forgiveness of God. But, on a deeper level it is a story, addressed to the elite of Israel, of Jesus’ radical notion that God is not who they think God is.
The Pharisees and scribes were the powerful religious establishment in Jesus’ time in history. The Jewish people deferred to these leaders when interpreting the scriptures and setting rules for everyday living. But through the generations preceding Jesus, these leaders became more and more rigid in their ever-expanding and detailed rules. Self-righteous, they laid heavy expectations on ordinary Jews like the poor, the weak and the working families in Nazareth, the ones most familiar to Jesus.
In contrast, Jesus took a fresh understanding of God’s relationship to people, forged with years of study, prayer and reflection on what he witnessed growing up in that out of the way village. Instead of the Jews justifying themselves with archine rules and rituals, which bordered on the absurd at times, Jesus focused his followers on the words of prophets like Micah, in today’s first reading, and psalms like today’s 103.
Micah says: “Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency, and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt? You have cast into the depths of the sea all our sins…”
And Psalm 103: “As far at the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.”
Jesus restores the Scriptural concept of God as being prodigal…i.e. lavish…in welcoming everyone, especially the most outcast, the most wicked, the most offensive criminals.
Our God is not a God of rules and regulations, no matter how practical some guidelines are for daily living. Our God, Jesus tells us, ignores the misdeeds of the sinner and goes out to meet the sinner with open arms. We have only to stand before God in all our vulnerability, as did the wayward son in today’s gospel.
No better lesson about God’s welcoming mercy is the picture of Pope Francis’ gesture on Holy Thursday, washing the feet of prisoners, those society shuns and locks away because of their criminal acts…murder, rape, extortion, theft, assault, fraud, and whatever else the devil can concoct.
Pope Francis gesture is one of absolute, unconditional mercy. He is imitating Jesus, who imitates his Father.
Let us go and do likewise.
Jim Wayne is a board member of the Passionist Solidarity Network (PSN), and author of The Unfinished Man. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.