How can we ever forget this date?
How can we ever forget the four coordinated, planned terrorist attacks on the United States – attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, injured more than 6,000 others, and cost more than $10 billion in property and infrastructure damage?
How can we ever forget the effect of these horrific events on the American people, on the world at large?
This date is etched in our memory, carved into our psyche.
Ironically, in light of all that was lost on that terrible day – lives, buildings, trust, a native son of Peoria – today’s Gospel is all about treasures that are lost:
A sheep, a coin, a son – and then found!
Today’s Gospel is about a terrible sadness that ends in joy. It’s about a family, broken and then made whole. It’s about the irredeemable being redeemed. It’s about sin being washed away by forgiveness, joy overcoming despair, mercy replacing vengeance.
From a Gospel point of view, it’s about a crucifixion that becomes Easter.
The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the greatest narratives ever written – because it’s a story about a family – a family that is broken. And since no human family is free of sibling rivalry or parental resentment or sleepless nights wondering if a child is safe or the victim of a terrible tragedy, this family story is every family’s story.
No wonder it resonates so deeply within us that it has shaped the hearts of apostles, preachers, composers, writers, and artists since its first telling. It is a universally recognized masterpiece.
But, familiar and treasured as this story is, it is also one full of surprises.
The first surprise is that the younger son dares to ask his father for his inheritance – while the father is still living! The boldness, the impudence, of this request carries with it the sense of dishonoring every cultural tradition, and most certainly that of the Jewish laws of that time.
The second surprise is that the father goes along with the request with no hesitation! He says nothing. He simply hands over the requested amount.
The third surprise is that the prodigal son does the unthinkable – he comes back home. His return had to take enormous courage and humility, particularly since he had wasted every penny on a life that would thoroughly dishonor his family.
Then there’s perhaps the most astonishing surprise of all:
The father not only welcomes his son back, not only avoids any lectures or “I told you so’s,” but embraces him with sign after sign of full reconciliation: a robe, a ring, a fatted calf, a huge party.
And then comes the part that most of us can identify with:
The elder son’s bitter reaction. He angrily yells at his father: “All these years I have served you and not once have I ever disobeyed your command.”
Can’t we all hear ourselves saying something like that? Can’t we all identify with that same sense of being passed over, dismissed, not appreciated after “all I’ve done for you?”
How many times have we found ourselves feeling that way and wanting some kind of revenge because of it?
It’s one thing for the father to welcome the “black sheep” home, but not only is he not expected to make any kind of restitution, his father does the ultimate: he throws a party!!
This is the definitive surprise.
It is also the greatest treasure of this story.
Because it tells us about a God no one ever heard of before or even dreamed possible; it dramatizes a Graciousness at the very core of the universe that seemed unimaginable; it uncovers the foremost virtue, the ultimate characteristic of the God of Jesus: Mercy.
Not meanness. Not revenge. Not retribution.
What that unimaginable Mercy tells us is:
God can create life in dead places.
That’s what this classic story tells us.
It tells us that in God’s heart, grace replaces mere law; mercy turns the table on vengeance; new life can be made out of death.
What it tells us is: Crucifixion can be transformed into Easter.
Even that terrible horror can be re-made. It can be remade into a challenge to all of us to overcome the vengeance lying at its heart so that we might accept the challenge the father in our beloved story dramatizes for us:
Forgive, rebuild, renew our commitment to create an even better America, and reestablish mercy – not meanness – as the law of our heart.
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.