Just recently I heard a song by Elton John. The lyrics went like this: “What have I got to do to make you love me? What have I got to do to be heard? What do I do when lightning strikes me? It’s sad, so sad. It’s a sad, sad situation. And it’s getting more and more absurd. It’s sad, so sad that sorry seems to be the hardest word.” I think the Prodigal Son would have sung this song as he looked around at his situation that was getting more and more absurd. So let’s take a look and see what the situation was.
Remember, the young son comes to his father and says, dad, I know you are not dead yet and I cannot stand around here forever, so give me my inheritance now. This was the gravest of insults any son could be guilty of, and it must have hurt the father very deeply. And we remember what happens: he loses all of his money living like a fool, his so-called friends all disappear, and so the lad in is a far-off country with nothing. He does the only thing he can do: he looks for a job, any kind of job, to keep him from starving. He comes upon a man who sends him to feed the pigs. He ends up eating the food for the pigs. The detail to remember here is that this boy is Jewish, for whom pork was unclean, forbidden. To be sent to tend the swine was as bad as being struck by lightning as it forced the son into denying his traditions, his customs, his values. He could not have fallen any lower.
It’s sad, so sad, and so it is all the more poignant and marvelous that, when the son returns, an outcast and renegade, the father still runs to accept him as a son. Another small detail, the father orders shoes for the boy’s feet. In those days being shoeless was a sign of slavery. He lifts him out of slavery of his past life, and returns him to the freedom of being a son. He put the family ring on his finger, and a robe on his shoulders.
Then we see the elder son who is not happy that little brother has returned. In fact, he does not want a brother. He says to his father, this son of yours has returned. He will not even acknowledge him as his brother, and he refuses to enter the house for the celebration. In the Middle Eastern tradition, this is the greatest of insults and the father had every right to be angry, every right to bristle and banish his elder son for refusing to enter the ancestral house. But he does not. Once more the father takes the initiative. He goes out to the son and pleads with him to join the celebration.
Both the sons treated the father very badly, but the father moves beyond the fault. In all these details, Jesus subtly reveals what God, the Father, is like. This parable lays down the fundamental principle of God’s relation to us.
God loves the sinner while we are still sinners. Even before we repent, God never stops loving. In other words, you do not have to clean up your act before you set out for the Father’s house. Perhaps in our truthful moments, we admit that it is not easy for us to forgive others. I can forgive a murderer on death row. I can forgive Pontius Pilate for washing his hands of Jesus. These sins do not hurt me personally. But what about the family member who will not talk to me? Or the person who talks about me?
If truth be told, we hurt so quickly, and forgive slowly. And even when I do forgive, I can make the sinner feel awfully uncomfortable, let them twist in the wind for a while, for their own good of course. There are elder-brother genes in most of us. We do not approve of parties for other repentant sinners.
Simon Weisenthal was a Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor. Over eighty members of his family died in a Nazi concentration camp. He saw his own mother machine-gunned right in front of him. He told the story that one day, a nurse came out to where he was working and tapped him on the shoulder, and told him to follow her. He was taken to a hospital room where a member of the dreaded SS Troop lay dying. He was just a young man. He told Simon how he had been in charge of a unit dealing with Jews. This meant just one thing: herd them into a building, douse the building with gasoline and set it on fire, then machine-gun anyone who tried to escape.
The young trooper had been a Catholic before he became a Nazi, and he began to feel guilt over what he had done. He had requested that a Jew be sent to him, any Jew, male or female; he needed a representative Jew. He begged Simon on behalf of his people for forgiveness. He said he was not born a murderer, and he did not want to die one. Simon Weisenthal said the only response he could give was to get up and leave the room without saying a word, and without granting forgiveness, and for the rest of his life he was troubled by his non-response.
What would you have done? That is a question that we could talk about all day and so I would like to ask you another question: have you ever been in the place of the Nazi officer? Not a mass murder, but are there any Simon Weisenthal’s in your life? Who cannot and will not forgive you? People you may have hurt so bad that they want nothing to do with you ever again. And they are most likely those closest to you. And so we have two questions.
If you are Simon Weisenthal, the Gospel challenges you with the imperative and the demand to forgive, forgive your enemies. If you are the young Nazi and you badly want forgiveness and the people in your life cannot or will not or are unable to forgive, then turn to the Gospel and you find out that Jesus will stand in their place. This is also, I suggest, why He invented the sacrament of confession. It is the place that Jesus has set up where we are reconciled to the Father. It is the one place where we can be reassured that, in our broken and dying moments, the Lord will come and say, go in peace, your sins are forgiven.
I suppose in the end it comes down to how seriously we take the prayers we say every day: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And do not hesitate to say the hardest word, sorry, if you need to.