Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvellous things.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: ""There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." ' So he set off and went o his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Today's parable tells of an inheritance, "squandered ...on dissolute living." But the prodigal son hopes that the Father will somehow take him back. The Micah passage also talks about hope. The people of Judah have been "trampled underfoot," and driven off to a foreign land. This disaster was due to the people's sins, insisted the prophet, and must not be explained just by the enemy's vastly superior army. Even now that the exile has ended and the poverty-stricken people have returned to Jerusalem, they are insignificant numerically and economically. The prophet begs God to "show us wonderful signs ...as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old" (v 15, 20).
The prodigal son, too, survived on his memories and so was humble and courageous enough to seek a way back. "Coming to his senses at last" meant that the goodness of the father, planted within the bones and blood of the son, finally caught up with the young man and overcame his wayward resistance. A beautiful touch in Jesus' parable indicates that from a distance the father was willing the boy to come home, before the son ever noticed him. It almost seems as if the father's desire had been reaching across miles and mountains to touch the faith of the son. The son's remembrance might even be like a passive surrender to a hidden stimulant, calling out for love and celebration.
A newly awakened hope could be the miracle our Church needs right now. Our legacy to future generations is this trust in God's total goodness at the very core of our existence. From our heavenly home we can beckon sons and daughters on the right path, as we wait for them to come home. We may ultimately celebrate like the father upon the return of the prodigal son. When God's deeply planted life in us makes all these claims come true, the family of God's children will be complete.
This parable of mercy must resonate through this Year of of Mercy inaugurated by Pope Francis. Listen to what the Father says. To the servants he says, "this son of mine was dead and has come back to life"; to his elder son he says, "your brother was dead and has come back to life." There is more than one form of resurrection. The resurrection to new life that we long and hope for beyond this earthly life can be anticipated in various ways in the course of our earthly lives. In the parable, a kind of resurrection for the younger son took the form of a journey from a self-imposed isolation to an experience of community, from a sense of guilt to an experience of loving acceptance. It was the father's unconditional love which allowed his younger son to complete his journey, to rise from the dead. The father's emotional response to his son was one of compassion. The father in the parable is an image of God. The parable suggests that God's compassionate love is always at work bringing people from some form of death to a new life. In contrast to the father, the elder son considered his brother dead and was happy to see him remain in his self-imposed tomb. Whereas the father's response to his son was one of compassion, the elder brother's response to him was one of anger. The parable challenges us to embody in our own ways of relating to others the life-giving presence of the father's compassion rather than the deadening presence of the elder son's anger.