A prodigal church and country

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday that means “rejoice” in Latin. While we associate Lent to the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is also a season of joy, for through the Paschal mystery God’s great love for us has been revealed in Jesus. Though his death and resurrection, Christ has reconciled us with God and our fellow human beings.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, which is the Gospel for this Sunday, illustrates to us the depth of God’s love for us. This is a familiar enough parable which we learned from our Sunday Bible class or told to us by our parents or teachers.

The story goes this way:  A man has two sons. The younger son asks his father for his inheritance. Once received, the son promptly sets off on a long journey to a distant land and begins to waste his fortune by leading a dissolute and profligate life. When the money runs out, a severe famine hits the country and the son finds himself a job feeding pigs to survive. Eventually, he grows so poor that he even longs to eat the food for the pigs. In humility, he recognizes his foolishness and decides to return to his father and ask for forgiveness and mercy. The father, upon seeing him, immediately turns to his servants and asks them to prepare an enormous feast in celebration of his son’s return. The father had been waiting for his son’s return and accepted him with open arms. Meanwhile, the older son, who upon his return from the field,  boils in anger to discover a party with music and dancing to celebrate his younger brother’s return. The father tries to dissuade the older brother from his jealous rage explaining, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

This parable invites us to consider the depth of God’s mercy and love. Unlike the Pharisees who were criticizing Jesus for sharing table with sinners and so become ritually unclean, Jesus reaches out to sinners while they are still sinners, inviting them to conversion through fellowship with him. Jesus is God acting among us; by befriending us, he is inviting us to return to friendship with God. Through friendship with Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we, in turn, bear fruit for God.

In the parable, we consider the temerity of a son who asks for his inheritance before his father has died. It was justified for the father to express indignation. And yet the father agrees to honor the son’s request and divides his property among his two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and leaves home to lead a wasteful and immoral life. The older son remains, continuing to provide for the father and the household. Yet despite having been disgraced by his younger son, the father eagerly awaits for his son’s return watching the road all the time. When he eventually sees his wayward son, the father not only welcomes him but also runs out to greet him and then honors him with a party. How much more can one demonstrate love and being so forgiving?

The older son is consistent and a hard worker. So his anger may seem justified. Yet he is blinded by resentment and anger. The father appears sad and even confused by the older son’s indignation. He says in reply that they should celebrate because the lost son has returned. The father is filled with gratitude and love for the older son’s faithfulness yet his love is not diminished by the rejoicing at the return of the errant son. The older son’s jealousy reveals his failure to understand the depth of his father’s love.

So the parable’s message is this: No matter how irresponsible you are, no matter what you’ve done, God will take you back. Yes, God will always take us back with open arms only if we show the slightest humility and contrition. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not reject” (Ps 51:17). But the young son’s return and acceptance by the father is not the end of it all. The road to recovery is long and hard. He has to learn to slowly heal the wounds caused by turning his back from the father. He needs to own up to his mistakes and make it up to the father. On the other hand, the older son has to learn to forgive and share his father’s love.

We are often like the two sons in the parable. Oftentimes, we, like the younger son, defy our father’s wishes and by our sins disgrace ourselves in his eyes. We only realize our folly when we encounter bad consequences  our misdeeds. Also, we can be like the elder son who regards other’s mistakes with hatred and resentment. We easily judge others because unlike us, they are not “clean.” But as seen in the parable, God the father looks at our mistakes through the lens of mercy, love and forgiveness which we ought to learn and imitate.

What is true for us individuals is true also for the Catholic Church and many religious organizations reeling from the sex abuse scandals. It is also true for our country where poor people are being massacred and journalists are prosecuted and persecuted for speaking truth to power. It is my hope that the leaders of the  Catholic Church and our country will see the light, acknowledge their sinfulness, and reform.

The Church must have a zero-tolerance policy for child sex offenders, regardless of seniority of the clerics involved. Such clerics must be punished without exception. This is not about a merciless Church but a prudent measure for accountability and deterrence. As important, the Church must embrace with love the victims, care for them as the children of God and the Church that they are. We must not second guess victims and not underestimate their pain and suffering manifested through righteous anger.

The country need’s conversion. The law has been weaponized for political purposes. Duterte did not invent it. The law was weaponized against Corona, BInay, and Poe, and now it is being done to De Lima and Trillanes, and even to non-politicians like Maria Ressa. We are on the road to perdition. Some would say we are there already. But this can easily be reversed. I pray that like Saul on the road to Damuscus, our political leaders are struck with lightning and see the light. Stop the madness, stop the killings, stop the persecution.

 God will forgive a prodigal church and country but first it must ask forgiveness and convert.

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