24th Sunday of the Year Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14; 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Luke 15:1–32
The apple tree We should forgive others as God has forgiven us.
There’s a short story by Richard Pindell called “Somebody’s Son.’’
It opens with a runaway boy, named David, sitting by the side of a road. He’s writing a letter home to his mother. The letter expresses the hope that his old-fashioned father will forgive him and accept him again as a son. The boy writes:
“In a few days I’ll be passing our property. If Dad will take me back, ask him to tie a white cloth on the apple tree in the field next to our house.’’
Days later David is seated on a train. It is rapidly approaching his home. Two pictures flash back and forth in his mind: the tree with a white cloth tied on it and the tree without a cloth tied on it.
As the train draws nearer and nearer, David’s heart beats faster and faster.
Soon the tree will be visible around the bend. But David can’t bring himself to look at it. He’s afraid the white cloth won’t be there. Turning to the man next to him, he says, nervously:
“Mister, will you do me a favor? Around this bend on the right, you’ll see a tree. Tell me if there’s a white cloth tied to it.’’ As the train rumbles past the tree, David stares straight ahead. Then, in a quaking voice, he asks the man, “Mister, is a white cloth tied to one of the branches of the tree?’’
The man answers in a surprised tone of voice: “Why, son, there’s a white cloth tied to practically every branch!’’
That story illustrates what Jesus is saying in the first half of today’s parable. He’s saying that God always forgives us after we sin. Jesus is saying even more. He’s saying that God not only forgives us when we sin, but also treats us afterward as if we hadn’t sinned.
This is clear from the three things the father does in today’s parable.
First, he embraces his son. Embracing the boy shows that the father welcomes him back fully. He withholds no sign of affection from him.
Second, the father puts shoes on his son’s feet. Putting shoes on the boy’s feet shows that the father forgives him fully. In biblical times, shoes were the sign of a free person; slaves went barefooted.
Putting shoes on his son’s bare feet takes away the sign that says the boy is somebody’s slave and gives back the sign that says he’s somebody’s son.
Finally, the father gives his son a ring. Putting a ring on the boy’s finger shows that the father restores him fully to the status he had before he ran away.
For, undoubtedly, the ring was a signet ring, containing the family seal. To have it meant to have the power to act in the family’s name.
And so, the embrace, the shoes, and the ring show that the father welcomes back his son totally, forgives him fully, and restores him completely to the status he had before he ran away.
This brings us to the second half of the parable. It deals not with the younger son but with the older son.
It contrasts the father’s lavish forgiveness with the older son’s lack of forgiveness. The older son won’t come into the house to celebrate, even though the father begs him to come in.
The parable ends without telling us what the older son did. Did he eventually come inside and celebrate? Or did he stay outside and sulk?
The reason Jesus doesn’t tell us what he did is because of who the two sons stand for. The older son stands for the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time. The younger son stands for the sinners and outcasts of the time.
The outcasts and sinners are responding to Jesus’ call to repent. Jesus, in turn, is forgiving them even celebrating with them. And this angers the scribes and Pharisees. They think sinners should be punished, not forgiven. And so Jesus tells his parable in such a way that each scribe and Pharisee must write his own ending to the story.
Each realizes he is the older brother and must decide whether to forgive his younger brother and to celebrate or not to forgive him and not to celebrate.
What does all this say to us here today? I think it says two things.
First, it says God will always forgive us after we sin.
Second, it says that we should forgive others as God has forgiven us.
Moreover, we should receive them back as generously as God receives us back: with a full welcome, full forgiveness, and full restoration to their former status.
There’s a story about President Lincoln. Someone asked him how he’d treat the South after the Civil War was over. Lincoln replied, “I’ll treat them as if they’d never left home.’’ That’s what we mean by full restoration.
That’s the way Jesus treated Peter after Peter denied him on Holy Thursday night. Jesus not only forgave Peter but also restored him to his original status as “the rock’’ upon which he would build his Church.
Jesus could have told Peter: “Peter, I had great plans for you, but you failed me. I’ll forgive you, Peter, but you’ll have to take a lesser job because you failed me so badly.’’
But Jesus didn’t do that. He treated Peter as if he had never sinned.
This is also the way we should treat those who sin against us. We should forgive them and take them back into our hearts with the same generous love that God shows us. And if we do this, we can be sure that when we depart this world in death and approach the gates of heaven, we too will see an apple tree there with a white cloth tied to practically every branch.
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, show me your mercy and fill my heart with your forgiving love.
I am the younger child who ran away and has returned home. Thank you for receiving me back.
I am also the older child who finds it hard to forgive my brothers and sisters as you forgave me. Touch my heart with your forgiving love.
Then, when I fall asleep in death, I will awaken in your presence to enjoy your forgiveness forever, together with those brothers and sisters whom I too have forgiven.
Series II 24th Sunday of the Year Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14; 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Luke 15:1–32
He touched me God is more eager to forgive than we are to ask forgiveness.
Some years ago, Father John Powell wrote a best-selling book called He Touched Me. It was an extremely personal book.
In it, he admitted many of his own personal weaknesses and faults. He also talked about God’s goodness to him.
Father Powell said that when he finished writing the book, he began to feel a little uneasy. The reason was obvious.
Now the whole world would know about his own personal brokenness. And so he concluded his book with these words to his wide reading audience:
“Some of the admissions I have made in these pages . . . came hard for me. . . . And I hope that you will accept [what I have written] . . . as I have intended it: as an act of love.’’
During the year after the book’s publication, Father Power received an average of four to five letters a week. They were from people who were deeply touched by his book. Many of the letters contained similar stories from the personal lives of the people who had written them.
One story stood out in a special way. It was from a young woman who had lived “an evil life for many years.’’
One day she had decided to end her life. She figured her life was a failure, and there was no point in prolonging it. So she went down to the ocean.
She would swim out as far as she could and then let nature do the rest.
Before swimming out into the ocean, however, she walked along the deserted beach to say her tearful good-byes to the world. In a later book called Happiness Is an Inside Job, Father Powell describes what happened to the young woman next:
“[As she walked along] she heard a clear and distinct voice which told her to ‘stop, turn around, and look down.’ When she did this, all she could see were her own footprints in the sand. Then she watched as the ocean waves rushed in and obliterated her footprints.’’
Again, she heard the voice speak to her, saying:
“ ‘Just as you see the waves of the ocean washing away your footprints on the sand, so has my love and mercy erased all your past. I am calling you to live and to love, not to die.’
“By instinct she knew it was the voice of God.’’
That event was the turning point in her life.
The young woman ended her story, saying that she never told anyone about this episode before, because, to quote her:
“I didn’t want anyone to laugh and say, ‘Oh, you just didn’t really want to die, so you made up a voice.’ “No, I have never told this to anyone else. But I do want to tell you. I want you to know of the hour of God in my life. It is my act of love for you. Take it in gentle hands.’ ’’
The hundreds of letters that Father Powell received from readers, and this letter in particular, are eloquent testimony to what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel.
Jesus tells us that God is a loving parent. God knows us and our sinfulness better than we know ourselves. In spite of this, God loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves. And God is more eager to forgive us than we are to ask God for forgiveness.
This is a message we all need to hear over and over and over again. And as we hear it over and over again, hopefully, the day will dawn when we will understand and realize it not just in our head but also in our heart.
And the day we do this is the day when, like the woman in the story, we will hear the same voice she heard a voice, saying:
“Just as you see the waves of the ocean washing away your footprints on the sand, so has my love and mercy erased all your past. I am calling you to live and to love, not to die.’’
And instinctively, too, we will know what the young woman knew: that it was the voice of a loving God speaking to us in the depths of our heart.
This is the message in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which we just read in today’ gospel. This is the message that we celebrate in today’s liturgy. This is the message of hope that Jesus wants us to carry into our world when we leave this church today.
It is the message that God knows us better than we know ourselves.
It is the message that God loves us better than we love ourselves. It is the message that God is more eager to forgive us than we are to ask for forgiveness.
Let’s end with the words of John Newton, which he wrote to celebrate his own forgiveness by God:
“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found Was blind, but now I see. . . .
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.’’
[N.B. The song “Amazing Grace’’ makes a moving follow-up to this homily.]
Series III 24th Sunday of the Year Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14; 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Luke 15:1–32
Forgiveness As God forgives us, let us forgive others.
W]hen his father saw him . . . he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him.” Luke 15:20
Saint Patrick was born around A.D. 400 somewhere along the western coast of Scotland or England.
He says in his Confessions that he was brought up a Christian. But in his teenage years, he turned his back on God.
In other words, he treated God much the way the young prodigal son treated his father in today’s Gospel.
Sometime around the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped by pirates, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave.
In Ireland, he spent long, long hours tending flocks of sheep— much as the prodigal son spent long hours tending herds of swine.
Living a hard life, Patrick began to realize how helpless he really was without God.
Like the prodigal son in the Gospel, he gradually came to his senses and repented his sins. He describes in his Confessions what happened next. He writes:
God comforted me as a father comforts his son. . . . And as my love for God grew . . . so did the activity of the Holy Spirit within me.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, Patrick began to use the long hours of tending his flocks to teach himself to pray. He writes:
Even when I’d spent the night with my flock on a mountainside or in a forest, I’d rise before dawn to pray to God.
Whether it was raining, freezing, or snowing, I was not bothered by it, for the fervor of the spirit was strong within me.
After six years of slavery, Patrick managed to escape on a boat that took him home. Eventually he went to Europe and became a priest and then a bishop.
Patrick then returned to Ireland to preach the Gospel to the very people who had enslaved him.
The stories of Saint Patrick and of the prodigal son are similar not only in detail but also in two important points that each makes.
First, they show us how eager God is to forgive us when we come to our senses and return home after having sinned.
They go a step further. They show us how, when we return home, God bends over backward to treat us as if we had never left home.
The second point of the stories is that when a sinner returns home, God not only welcomes him back but also invites him to bring the good news of God’s love and mercy to others.
Saint Patrick returned to Ireland to preach this good news. He was ideally suited to do this, because he had lived among the Irish and knew them inside out.
This brings us to each one of us right here in this church.
How might we apply the stories of Saint Patrick and of the prodigal son to our own personal lives?
Or to put it another way, what might God be trying to say to us through these two stories?
Personally, I find them saying two things to me.
First, God will never cease to forgive us when we repent and return home. God will forgive us, not just seven times, but seventy times seven times—as Jesus taught.
Second, the two stories make it clear that because God forgives us so generously, God want us to forgive others just as generously.
There’s a story about President Lincoln that is appropriate here.
Someone asked him how he would treat the South after the Civil War was over. He replied, “I’ll treat them as if they had never left home.”
That is the way God treated Patrick. That is the way the father in the parable treated his prodigal son. That is the way God treats us.
And that is the way Jesus treated Peter when Peter denied him. Jesus restored Peter to his original status, as “the rock” upon which he would build his church.
Jesus could have said, “Peter, as you know, I had great plans for you, but you failed me. I’ll forgive you, Peter, but you’ll have to take a lesser job.”
But Jesus didn’t do that. He treated Peter as if he had never left home.
This is also the way we should treat repentant sinners. We should treat them as if they had never left home.
We should forgive them and take them back into our hearts the way Jesus forgives us and takes us back into his heart.
And if we do this, we can be confident that when our lives come to an end and we approach the gates of heaven, God will welcome us home in the same way the father in the Gospel welcomed his son home.
Let us conclude as we began. Let us focus on the life of Patrick. In his Confessions Patrick gives us an insight into what changed his life so dramatically from that of a sinner to that of a saint.
It was his decision to teach himself to pray and make prayer a part of his life. Through daily prayer he developed a deep awareness of Christ’s presence in his life.
And out of this awareness grew a simple but profound reflection. He memorized and repeated it throughout the day. A part of it reads:
How marvelously engulfed I am by the divine presence:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left. . . .
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.