Today, as usual, there are three readings. Today’s from Exodus, 1st Timothy, Luke; Moses, Paul, our Lord. Three powerful readings. With one binding theme: the mercy of God. In the Gospel, three parables: a shepherd, a woman and a father, a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. The last parable with three main characters: a younger son, an older son, a father. With one binding theme: there will be joy in heaven over one repentant sinner.
This is good. No wonder the Church talks about ‘the table of the Word’. We are being well fed here. We are at a feast.
‘I will leave this place and go to my Father,’ says the prodigal son. We sang that too as the refrain for the Psalm.
‘I will leave this place.’ That is, I want to get out of here, I want out of this. That’s a thought that can pass through our minds quite often, in all sorts of situations. It can trouble our hearts in big ways. I want out. This is where we so need to be discerning – always discerning. This thought, this feeling, this impulse: is it wrong or right? It had already worked on this younger son and he had left his father, had his fling and ended in a mess. Now he wants to get out of that mess. Wrong or right? I want out of my house, out of this city, out of my country, out of my job, out of a relationship, out of my marriage, out of my parish, out of the Church, out of God. Discern, discern, discern! Separate good from evil, right from wrong. I want out: it’s the cry for freedom. But freedom isn’t just from something, it’s for something; it’s for what’s truly good. And we can be fooled. So, discern!
Think of the first reading. It’s astonishing. A man conquers God. The Lord tells Moses to leave him, so angry is he at the people’s unfaithfulness. But Moses doesn’t leave. He keeps his place. He knows it was the Lord who put him in it. He was appointed shepherd and leader of this troublesome people, come what may. He’s married to them, for better or for worse. And so he does what a shepherd should: he prays for the people. And God relents. Mercy triumphs. Israel owes its survival to Moses because he stayed where the Lord had put him. No Israel, no Jesus. Thank you, Moses!
Take the second reading. Paul thanks Christ for having rescued him from a bad place, a place where he was doing everything ‘to injure and discredit the faith’. He thanks him for the gift of the ‘faith and … the love that is in Christ Jesus’. He thanks him – (this doesn’t quite come through in our version, but it’s there) – for ‘placing him, putting him, into the service’ of Christ, for giving him a vocation, a ministry, a diaconia. For appointing him an apostle and a servant of the Gospel. For filling his life with meaning and purpose. And this was a place Paul never left. ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ And how much richer our understanding of Christ is! Thank you, Paul!
So, what was the place the prodigal son left, and was right to leave? It was his sin and its bitter consequences. It was the harm he had done to himself. It was the wound he had made in the heart of his father. The hunger that was eating him up. It was the isolation and emptiness and disconnectedness he found himself in. It was shame and degradation. It was the meaninglessness of his life. He returned to himself. He realized what he had lost. His memory of something better revived. His freedom woke up, and it spoke: ‘I will leave this place’. Freedom from. And then freedom for: ‘and go to my Father.’ And that put everything right. Thank you, unnamed son, for returning to your true place, for showing us the way! The whole human journey is here: from what St Augustine calls ‘the region of unlikeness’ (to God) to a free and full and loving relationship to him. Our true place.
Three readings, one binding theme: the mercy of God.
See how the father was waiting and looking, scanning the road day after day. See how he ran towards his son, making a public fool of himself in the eyes of his neighbours, pulling up his tunic, exposing his scraggy old legs and varicose veins, falling on his son’s neck, hugging and kissing him, letting him make his confession, but then overtaking it with gift after gift: the best robe, a ring and sandals, a banquet. We can see the graces of baptism (clothing in Christ), of confirmation (the ring of the Holy Spirit and the sandals of mission) and of the Eucharistic banquet here. And best of all he acknowledges him, he shows him off, he says to everyone around him: ‘this my son.’ And this is our place. This is the love that doesn’t smother us. It awakens our freedom. It fulfills our freedom. It gives us life.
‘I will leave this place and go to my father.’ So let us leave what we should leave, discerningly, and go to our Father. He will be so full of joy, so proud of us.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)