The Prodigal Son and the Loving Father

August 7, 2016—The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

        How would you answer the question: what was Jesus’s greatest contribution to world history? You might say the cross, which has become the universally recognized symbol of our redemption. You might say the gift of baptism by which the faithful are initiated into His kingdom; or the Holy Eucharist, which is the means by which we directly participate in his sacrifice, thereby, receiving in our souls the salutary benefits of his death. Jesus Christ has left his mark on the world in ways that no other man has. That is beyond dispute. Considering that he was able to raise himself body and soul from the dead and leave us, in the Shroud of Turin, a material memorial of that transphysical event, you could say that he literally left an impression on the world unequaled by anyone.

       But in addition to fulfilling the scriptures by his death and resurrection and instituting the sacraments by which we access the sanctifying grace of his sacrifice, Jesus did one more thing that no one else could do, that no one before him attempted to do. He succeeded in persuading the world that love is the highest value. In a world that worships power and pleasure, that is obsessed with money and sexual fulfillment almost to the exclusion of everything else, Jesus convinced us that the greatest achievement in life is to grow a heart of compassion, humility and forgiveness. He convinced a world consumed with myriad lusts and endless selfish ambitions that the greatest among us are the saints of God, those whose singular passion is not for worldly honors but for holiness expressed as unconditional love.

       Before the early church took the name the Catholic church or even before it was called Christianity, the religion founded on faith in Jesus  was called, simply enough, “the Way” (Acts 9.2). Jesus led the way by setting an example of perfect love (John 14.6). His disciples were those who chose to give up everything that people normally cling to for security in life to follow him in living that way. A lot has changed in the two millennia since Jesus ascended into heaven but Jesus’ message remains today what it was then: always choose the way of humble love; because God is love (1 John 4.8; John 3.16).

        In last week’s sermon I said that Jesus taught that a human being has an immortal soul of divine origin, a soul made to give and receive love. And I furthermore said that the fact that we know ourselves to be soul-full people should be enough to convince us of the reality of God; because souls cannot exist apart from God who creates them. So don’t let the sick secularized world we live in psyche you out. The secular establishment keeps telling us that there is no Creator; that life on earth arose from a series of blind chance events; but this existentialist view of life, as a completely random and meaningless purely spontaneous material event without design or purpose, is utterly absurd. If there is no God there is no human soul and you and your loved ones are essentially worthless piles of clay. No one deep down believes that. No sane person believes that human beings are nothing but a mixture of magnesium, copper, potassium, carbon, and other assorted minerals. No one who has ever been loved by his mother and father believes that. No one who has loved his brother or sister can believe that. Whoever has been in love knows that chemistry alone cannot explain the chemistry between two people. Love is a mystery of the Sprit and one soul who finds his compliment in another knows that he or she has found something that is beyond the reach of science or wisdom to explain. But that’s my point: unconditional love is transcendent. The very existence of love in our hearts is proof of the transcendent nature of our souls. And the transcendent nature of human souls is proof of the existence of God.

        Human beings need love. Without unconditional love, we wither and perish not physically but spiritually. That is so because the human soul needs to give and to receive love. Love is not something we like to have when we can get it, like a year–end bonus or a pay raise. A pay raise may at times feel like a life or death issue, but it never really is. Money comes and money goes but love remains essential to life. Love is to the human soul as oxygen is to our lungs. If we go without it, we begin to suffocate, something within us dies. We need tenderness, we need compassion, we need friendship and affection; we need people to be patient with us, to listen to us, to hear what we’re saying; to understand our feelings and accept our differences. We need to know that others have not given up on us, that we matter, that we belong; that we count no matter what. Love is not a luxury item we can do without; love is essential to our happiness. We are beings made for love. It’s an injustice if a person is deprived of food, shelter and clothing. But it’s a tragedy if a person is deprived of love. A person who died, never having been loved, would have lived an empty existence, for life is only full to the extent that it is full of love. A house is just a house but add love and it becomes home.

       And our true home is with God who is not just a distant powerful deity indifferent to our individual fate, but as the giver of our soul is a true Father to each of us. He is as much your parent as is your mother with one caveat: he loves us even more. This is the revelation that Jesus brought to humankind; a revelation of the divine nature that he illustrated in the greatest of his parables known as the Prodigal Son; a story that might better be called the Loving Father. The point of the parable is as simple as it is shocking: God is radical unconditional love and God expects us to get on board and love one another as he loves us. I say shocking because both sons are shocked by their father’s behavior. It’s as if neither son before this knew who their father was or what his heart was really made of. The younger son couldn’t’ believe it when the father ran out to greet him and offered to welcome him home with a celebration. The younger son was going to offer to come home as a servant. He knew he was guilty and he thought he would be punished, if not utterly rejected. The younger son was left speechless by his father’s unexpected generosity and unconditional forgiveness. But so was the older son shocked. The older son couldn’t believe it either. He said to his father in effect, “Who are you? Do I even know you? What kind of justice is this?” And the father answers, “All that is mine is yours.” In other words: God’s mercy is justice.

       We call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it really should be called the Parable of the Loving Father. It’s the Father whose passion for his sons that captures our hearts. And so as much as we are moved by the sons’ conversion, we recognize that this is more than a story about our need for penance and faith. This is the paramount story of how to spread the gospel and of how to save souls. We spread the gospel by winning hearts and minds for Christ, the best way to do evangelism, is to do as the Loving Father did. Love them. Love them with so great a love that they cannot resist your love. Love them as the Father loved his sons; love them in other words as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. People will instinctively argue and resist your politics and your religion when you push it on them; but no one argues with unconditional love. Win their hearts with love and soon their souls will hunger to have what you have: the Holy Spirit alive in you, the fountain of God’s Word, joy in your soul.

        As much as preachers would like to imagine that souls are converted by their great preaching, few are. Souls are converted to faith in Jesus Christ by love. Saint Francis knew this which is why he said, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary use words.” How can one preach without words? By living the gospel. The gospel is, after all, a revelation from God as to how we are to live our lives. “The faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is not just a set of dogmas to which we give our assent; divinely revealed truths we defend with conviction. The faith is nothing until it becomes a way of life. “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (Eph. 5.1-2) is how Saint Paul put it. That is the church’s marching orders. Go into the world and conquer with love; always remembering what love is and from where it comes. Love is not what happens at an orgy nor is love what happens when you manage to manipulate people to get our own way with them. Love is what happened in a manger in Bethlehem; love is what happened on the cross. Love does not seek its own glory but God’s. Love carries the burden of sinners without complaint. Love does what is right, even to the point of suffering death. Love is holiness in action, a prayer that doesn’t cease. Love forgives even our executioners, because love has a singular aim: to save souls.

         So that is the word for today. Let Jesus Christ love you. Don’t be afraid of his love. Don’t put him off or shut him out. Open your heart to him and let him fill you with the Holy Spirit, the joy of his perfect love with the Father. And then, go out into a world of sinners desperate for love and be saint. Be the one in your family and circle of friends who loves others as Christ loves us; be a person of radical forgiveness and compassion, giving until there is nothing left to give and then, having given your all, offer it up to God who in His Son gave his all to us.  And be assured that as Christ by his love changed the world in his day, He will do the same today through you.