Fr. Frank Mihalik, SVD tells a story about God’s forgiveness. One day, a woman on one of the Pacific Islands came to a missionary carrying a handful of sand, which was still dripping water.
The woman asked, “Do you know what this is?” “It looks like sand,” answered the missionary. “Do you know why I brought it here,” she asked. “No, I can’t imagine why,” the missionary replied.
The woman explained, “Well, these are my sins, which are as countless as the sands of the sea. How can I ever obtain forgiveness for all of them?”
The missionary said, “You got the sand down by the shore. Well, take it back there and pile up a heaping mound of sand. Then sit back and watch the waves come in and wash the pile slowly but surely and completely away. That is how God’s forgiveness works. His mercy is as big as the ocean. Be truly sorry and the Lord will forgive. (Franck Mihalik, SVD, 1000 Stories You can Use, Volume II, 95)
Indeed, God’s loving mercy is bigger than any sins that we can possibly commit. And there are no sins that God cannot and will not forgive. The only sins that cannot be forgiven are the sins that we refuse God to forgive.
We can arrive at another very striking insight on God’s forgiveness by reflecting on the word “forgiven.” “Forgiven” is “given before.” This is how God’s forgiveness works. Even before we ask for it, it is already given. Our forgiveness has already won by Jesus on the cross. All we need to do is to receive it, to claim it and to make it effective. It is not something that we merit or deserve. God’s forgiveness is gratuitously and lovingly given even before we ask for it. But even if God’s forgiveness is already freely given, if we refuse or do not want to receive and welcome it, it can never be effective in our lives.
God’s forgiveness is also so different from man’s forgiveness, which tends to be conditional and so difficult to earn. Sometimes, we already kneel down and beg to be forgiven; we will still not get it. We deprive others or are deprived of forgiveness by others and we often miss imitating our Lord who is compassionate. Jesus has taught us, “Be compassionate as your Heavenly Father is compassionate.” We can also say, among others, “Be forgiving as your heavenly Father is forgiving.”
The gospel passage today is about the parable of the lost or prodigal son. This parable is one of the three parables in Luke 15. The other parables are the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of lost coin. It is obvious from these parables that the owner of the lost coin, the shepherd of the lost sheep and the father of the lost son represent God.
Biblical scholars and commentators say that if we do not have a copy of the Bible, as long as we have a copy of Luke 15 and we get its message, we get the message of the entire Bible. And what is the central message of Luke 15, which reveals the message of the Bible by way of the parables?
The central message of the three parables in Luke 15 is about the unconditional, forgiving, all embracing, patient, searching and seeking love of God the Father. And this is the very message of the entire Bible as shown in the person, teachings, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus the Son of God.
The English poet Francis Thompson, in his poem entitled The Hounds of Heaven, illustrates this loving and forgiving God. He shows God as Someone running after the sinner not to make him or her pay for his or sins, not to condemn the sinner but to offer him or her His unconditional, forgiving and boundless love. Indeed, God runs after us in loving and hot pursuit despite our sins and transgressions against Him and others. This divine assurance made the English mystic Blessed Julian of Norwich confident in the love of God even in the midst of sinfulness. There was nothing that could discourage her – not even her own sinfulness. She believed that with and in God, “all shall be well.” Blessed Julian Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Patricia Datchuck Sanchez says that the parable of the lost son is a double-edged parable. The father’s dealing with the younger son is a lesson of divine mercy and compassion offered to sinners. In the exchange between the father and the older son, we see a strong warning against those who are self-righteous and cannot share in God’s joy of boundless goodness over the repentance of sinners.
In the face of the father’s unconditional love, both sons are actually in need of conversion. Both sons need to return to their Father. In fact, for the older son it is not even returning to the Father; it is first turning to the Father and allowing himself to truly experience being a beloved son and not a hired servant. He also needs to turn to his brother and be truly a brother who rejoices at the return of his brother. One can say that the older son, in fact, needs more conversion that the younger son.
It is very evident is that God, as represented by the father in the story, can never change the way He relates with us despite our transgressions, mistakes and sins. He remains the loving Father who runs after us even if we run away from Him and His love.
St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, says that God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting our trespasses.” In the story, the father of the lost son restores him to his status as one of his beloved sons and reconciles him to himself and the rest of his household. He brings back the dignity that the son has lost as a result of separating himself from the father and living a life of disrepute. This loss of dignity is exemplified by the experience of the son living and eating with pigs, considered the dirtiest animals by the Jews.
God can never be “offended” by us. The only thing that can “offend” Him is when we harm ourselves and others. As St. Thomas of Aquinas says, “We offend God only inasmuch as we act against our own good.” Thus, God does not and cannot turn his back on us. When we sin, we are the ones who turn our backs on Him.
God can never turn his back on us despite all the bad, evil and harmful things that we may do to ourselves and to others. In fact, he runs towards and after us so that He can bring us back to the right and holy path. In the story, we see the father running towards his lost son to happily welcome him.
The Jewish culture dictates that it is undignified for old people to still be running. An old person must always try to walk in dignity and, in fact, it is the offending son who must run or come to him. But the heart of the father is overwhelming with joy, happiness and love over the return of his lost son. The father does not mind anymore all these cultural norms. So, he runs towards his lost but returning son and lovingly welcomes him embraces. His son was lost; he is alive again. He was lost and now he is found. It is time to rejoice and be glad.
Parables serve as windows and mirrors. They are windows for they enable us to look into the loving mystery of God and His kingdom. Through the parables we “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 34:9). They are also mirrors for they enable us not only to see God through them but also to see ourselves being reflected in the story.
Whenever we read or hear a parable, it is important that we place ourselves into the shoes of any of the characters. If we are honest, we will admit that we have played all the roles of the characters in the parable. At times, we have been the belligerent and squandering younger son. We have also been the father who is prodigal in lavishing compassion and forgiveness on others. We have also played the part of the resentful and righteous older son. But the big question is – which of them do we usually play or live?