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Deacon-structing the Prodigal Son

Deacon Pedro

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Detail of The Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Recently, while editing one of our shows, the computer crashed and we lost all the work that we had done in the previous ten minutes. Thank God for auto-save! Trying to be funny, I made the comment: "We have to remember to save. Jesus saves and so must we." Marc, our editor, said, "Except with God there isn't 'auto-save'. We have to cooperate with the saving process."
It's so true. That's what the Church would call cooperating grace. (Read more in Deacon-structing Grace.)
If it were up to God, everyone would be saved. But it’s not entirely up to God. Jesus Christ opens the door, but we have to go through the door; He’s not going to reach out and grab you and pull you through.

Although sometimes He comes pretty close.

Which, I guess, is what the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) is about.
I don’t really get the whole sheep thing. Seriously, if I had 100 sheep and I lost one, I’m not going to leave the other 99 to go find this one sheep. It’s not worth the risk of losing other sheep.
Unless that one sheep is really valuable.
Have you ever lost a pet? Our dog Max has gotten out of our yard a few times, and when it happens, we stop everything – everyone goes out – we go searching until you find the dog. What if it wasn’t a pet but your child? Once when I was a camp counselor, we took the kids to Canada’s Wonderland. One of the kids in my group was 6 years old and I lost him. I have never been so worried, so afraid, so desperate. Thankfully we found him; he was fine – he was lost for about 20 minutes. Those were the longest 20 minutes of my life.
And it wasn’t even my own kid.
What if it had been my own child? I don’t wish that on anyone. And that’s how God searches for us. There’s a beautiful 19th-century poem by Francis Thompson called "The Hound of Heaven", which says that God hunts us like a bloodhound. We run away, but he chases us like a hound dog. He searches until He finds us. Like a lover seeks his beloved. Like a woman who loses one of her ten precious silver coins (Luke 15:8-10).

Yes. Sometimes Jesus opens the door and reaches in to grab us and pull us through.

That’s what happened to St. Paul. In the Letter to Timothy he says that he was lost as lost can be (1 Timothy 1:12-17): He was a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence; Paul was hateful and wanted the destruction of Christianity. In fact, the first time we ever see Saul (that was his name before it was changed to Paul) in the book of Acts is at the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 7:57-58). (Stephen was one of the first seven deacons. Imagine killing a deacon! That’s the worst crime ever!) Yet Paul continues to say to Timothy that he received mercy and grace. He received salvation. We could say that Jesus reached in and dragged Paul kicking and screaming through the door.
But Paul had to choose to stay inside. He could’ve gotten up and gone right back out the door. God can search and find; He can drag and pull, but we always have a choice.
Which is why God needs to be patient. That’s the difference between the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-32). In the first two, God searches; in the other, God waits. And this is true. Sometimes we have to search, and sometimes we have to wait. If your child is a three-year-old and he’s going to fall into the pool, you go and you grab him; you save him. If my teenager wants to fool around all night instead of working on his project – I don’t do the project for him. I don’t help him; I let him fail. I let him face the real consequences of his actions. Sometimes a parent has to let the child find his own way.
And we are that rebellious teenager. Isn’t it great that God is a patient God who will wait as long as it takes? He will wait. And this should give us hope; it should give us courage! Some people call the Parable of the Prodigal Son the Parable of the Merciful Father.

I like to call it the Parable of the Patient Father.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s too late, that you are so lost – worse than Paul. Whatever you’ve done is so bad: You’ve cheated on your husband or you’ve stolen from your clients; you like looking at pornography; you had an abortion; you paid for an abortion – who knows what you’ve done or what you haven’t done. It doesn’t matter if you repent.
See what happens in the story? The son has a whole speech prepared (Luke 15:18-20). He’s truly repentant, and the Father doesn’t even let him finish, “Get him a ring and a robe and sandals – let’s have a party!” (see Luke 15:21-24). If you repent and come back, God will welcome you with open arms, no matter what. It may be hard, but don’t be afraid to get up and go to the Father.
This is why during Mass not only do we ask for forgiveness and God’s mercy several times but it’s the first thing we do! “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…” Don’t be afraid to repent and ask for forgiveness. Remember that we are not alone; we can help each other.
Look at this funny thing that happens in the first reading from the book of Exodus (32:7-11, 13-14). God has had it with the Israelites. He’s just going to blow them up, and Moses intercedes: “Don’t do that God. What would people think? You went through all that trouble to get them out of Egypt with plagues and locusts and toads and turning the water to blood and parting the Red Sea – so much work to then just destroy them in the desert? What will people say of this God of Israel? And don’t forget your promise to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob.”  He’s like a marketing or PR consultant! And he convinces God to have mercy on the people of Israel.
St. Paul, also in the Letter to Timothy, implies that Jesus intercedes for us to the Father. We can intercede for each other too. Isn’t that what we ask for at the end of the “I Confess” at the beginning of Mass? “And we ask blessed Mary ever Virgin, all the angels and saints and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.” It’s OK to pray for God to be patient with someone, to continue being merciful with someone, not to give up on someone.

Remember that we are responsible for our own salvation but also for the salvation of others.

In 2013, Pope Francis said at the Mass for the Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome that “God responds to our weakness by his patience, and this is the reason for our confidence, for our hope… this dialogue between our weakness and the patience of God is a dialogue that will grant us hope.” It should give us hope!
God will wait as long as it takes, but here's my question: Why are we waiting? What are we waiting for?
Why are we longing to fill our bellies with the food of the pigs when we can just get up and go home and eat the pig!? All we have to do is get up and go to the Father. Repenting is easy if we know we will not be condemned. Confession is easy if we know that we will be forgiven. The Father will welcome us with open arms and say in the words of that beautiful song, "Prodigal Son [Father I Have Sinned]" by By Father Eugene O’Reilly, C.Ss.R):
“I forgive you, I love you. You are mine, take my hand. Go in peace, sin no more, beloved one.” 

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching:

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