The Wayward Sons and the Prodigal Father

Here Micah consoles the people with God’s mercy (Mi 7:14-15, 18-20). God’s wrath will not last forever. Micah is best known for saying that we are “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.” This is the Lenten sacrifice that God wants of us. Our upbringing so imbued us with the practice of giving up things for Lent that we often fail to realize that God wants us to adopt appropriate attitudes and to act accordingly.

In my opinion, doing justice—dismantling structures of injustice—can be much more difficult than giving up text messaging (that latest fad give up). To love mercy—practicing loving kindness—with the jerk neighbor can be much more difficult than giving up candy or Budweiser. Walking humbly before God—practicing mindfulness/contemplation in our daily lives—can be much more difficult than not eating meat on Friday. Humility is not about being a door mat. Rather it is about knowing that God is God. God loves us. Fish swim in water. We swim in the love of God. He loves us into life so we can love others into life. This requires justice, loving kindness, and humility. Remember what the Psalmist says—God “is kind and merciful.”

Luke’s account of the prodigal son (LK 15:1-3, 11-32) is a beautiful story of God’s mercy and compassion. It picks up where Micah left off. Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (  is one famous artistic rendition of the event. Henri Nouwen’s book on the Prodigal Son brings the story to life.

The son did more than leave the family with his share of the inheritance because by so doing he took away from resources to care for the father in his old age. This was a dastardly deed given Jewish family structures and expectations at the time. He spent “his inheritance in a life of dissipation” which the jealous older brother interpreted as cavorting with prostitutes.

Jesus is here confronting the codes and religious rules of the Pharisees and scribes (these people were probably the original control freaks). He eats with tax collectors and sinners because he has come to show us the face of a compassionate, loving, merciful God.

The tribal vengeful male God is on his death bed. Jesus is introducing a new way of seeing God—a compassionate God who is neither male (patriarchal tribal god) nor female. God is beyond all characterizations.

The father, who has been hurt so deeply by the son’s action, looks out and sees his wayward son at a distance. It is the story of a prodigal father who lavishes love and mercy on the wayward son not returning.  He must have been a sight. He was a bag of bones. His eyes were sunken and his cheeks hallowed from hunger. He smelled like the pig pen he had worked in. Nevertheless, the father runs to meet him. He hugs and kisses him. He throws a banquet. Note that he does not lock the door, pull down the shades, and retreat to his bedroom so he can make the son crawl on his knees to earn his love.

The older brother is another story. He is so jealous of the banquet the father is throwing that he refuses to attend. He has been faithful and dutiful and now the wastrel is enjoying a banquet. Like the Pharisees and scribes, who had been faithful to their version of God’ law, he did not want to dine with sinners. He was too good, too pure to associate with the likes of his brother. He too was prodigal and squandered his place in the family—his relationship with his parents.

As I read this today, it struck me that Thomas Merton is the prodigal son par excellence. Merton lived 27 years I n the world hell bent on doing everything he could to find himself—freedom was license. Then, in the second half of his life—he was a monk for just short of 27 years—he returned to God and found mercy upon mercy upon mercy. Monastic structures gave him the freedom to become the penitent prodigal son. It was no longer about Merton but rather about being a prophet critic for peace and justice.

Richard Rohr talks of the two halves of life. In the first half we set out to establish our identity. We leave the house of God to find ourselves and God. In the second half of life we come to our senses and return to the God who is the very breath within us. Here I recall the story of the African farmer who sold his property and went in search of wealth. Having no luck, he returned to his former home. It was now a bustling diamond mine. What he was looking for was buried deep under where he had been.

Often we do not experience the neat divide of 27/27 that Merton enjoyed. Some of us take longer to come to our senses and return to God. But return we must.

The second half of live calls us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. Do we act justly or do we act in such a way that we refuse to welcome “sinners” to our communal tables? Do we practice loving kindness toward others regardless of race, sex, creed, color, national origin, or sexual orientation? Do we humbly recognize that God love every person regardless of who they are or what they have done?

Would Jesus deny a place at the banquet to a legislator who voted for a bill granting the right to abortion because she felt that, in certain cases, like rape and incest, the higher good is being served? We need to be wary of excluding people from the table. Matters are not usually black and white. It is the shades of gray that cause great moral anguish. A pastor in Missouri was laicized, according to reports, because he was ministering to a diverse community. Do we welcome gays and lesbians to our communal tables? Is it possible that our rejection of them is based on faulty scientific thinking and faulty interpretation of the scriptures?

We need to be aware that God may be running out to greet and welcome people whom we would label as sinners. We may be closing doors while God is running around inviting “sinners” to the communal table.

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