(Adults, you could begin by reading the first paragraph of the reflection to the child, then read the Gospel, and then continue with the reflection.)
Jesus often speaks about the love of God. It seems important to him that we understand how God loves, that we understand how much God loves. We can ask, are there limits to how much God loves? Are there things people can do to make God stop loving them? Jesus knows that people wonder about this, so he tells a parable to help us understand how God loves.
This is a parable about a father. We listen closely to what the father says and does.
“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.’
What is this son asking of his father? What is the property that will belong to him? This is the father's land and wealth. Ordinarily, when a parent dies, their land and wealth is split between the children. This property belongs to the children after their parent has died. This son asks for something that is not yet his. He cannot wait for his father to die. He wants the property now. We can imagine how this must make the father feel.
What does the father say? What does the father do?
So the father divided his property between them.
He says nothing. He allows his child to make this choice.
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.
"Squandered" and "dissolute" are not words we hear very often. "To squander" means "to waste." Does the son take good care of the property from his father? "Dissolute living" means making choices that do not bring him life. Jesus does not say what these choices are.
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
Now the son has nothing and the country he lives in has very little food. What can he do?
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. The young man would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
The pigs are living better than he is! What an awful way to live. His choices have brought him to this. Does he not realize how terrible this is? Does he have to live this way?
“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!
Jesus says, "When he came to himself..." What does this mean?
Finally, he remembers that he is not being who he is meant to be.
Finally, he remembers there is life with his father.
Finally, he remembers that he can make new choices.
The son makes a plan:
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.”’
The son says he is "no longer worthy." He knows he does not deserve to be his father's son. He knows the choices he has made do not match with who his father is. But he is going home anyway, because he knows that with his father, there is life.
“So he set off and went to his father.
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and—
Wait, wait, wait. How does his father see him if he is still far off? How can his father notice him way off in the distance? His father must be watching and waiting for his child to return home. We wonder if he has been watching and waiting ever since the son left.
What does father do now? How does the father greet his son—his son who could not wait for him to die, his son who has squandered all his property, his son who has made such terrible choices that do not bring life?
his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
We do not often see wealthy, important people running to meet others. The father cannot wait any longer to be with his child again. He has to throw his arms around him and hold him close.
The son begins his prepared speech:
‘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;
We notice that the son does not get to finish his speech. The father interrupts him! For the father, it is enough that his son is home. He does not need to hear explanations.
Jesus does not tell us what the son is wearing, but we can imagine that after squandering the property, making such bad choices, and living among the pigs, his clothes must be worn and dirty. The father makes sure to give him the very best robe and put sandals on his bare feet.
What about the ring? Why does the father give him the ring?
When people get married, they give each other a ring.
The ring means, "I belong to you and you belong to me."
The ring means, "We are family."
The ring means, "I will love you no matter what."
Could this be what the father means when he places a ring on his son's finger?
The father explains why he is doing all these things:
for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
The son was not dead, was he? We know, though, that his choices did not bring him life. He could not wait for his father to be dead, but when the son went away, the father felt as though his son was dead. We understand that the father's heart was broken. He loves his child that much. Now, together again, there is fullness of life.
And they began to celebrate.
The son knows that his choices do not match with who his father is. The son rejected his father, treated him like he had died. It is absolutely true that he does not deserve to be forgiven. But the father says nothing about that. He accepts him back. The father forgives. All is restored.
Forgiving someone who does not deserve to be forgiven, is called mercy. It is gift.
As with all parables, we ask ourselves, what more does Jesus mean? Who could this father be like? Who could this son be like? What could this hugging and kissing, this celebration be like? What is Jesus trying to tell us? We remember that Jesus wants us to understand something about the love of God. It seems that he also wants us to know something about the mercy of God.
Are there limits to God's mercy? Is there anything so bad, God will not forgive? Is there anything we can do to separate ourselves from the love of God?
What do we hear?
The father watches and waits.
The son returns, admitting he has sinned.
The father forgives. The father gives him the gift of mercy.
What do we not hear?
We do not hear what bad choices the son makes. We do not hear what kind of dissolute living the son has chosen. Jesus does not tell us on purpose. Why?
Perhaps it is because there is nothing we can do that is so bad that God will not forgive us.
Perhaps it is because God watches and waits for us to return so that God can give us the gift of mercy.
What else do we hear?
The father places a ring on his child's finger.
Perhaps this is God's way of saying to us,