Father Donald Senior, CP

Searching for Home

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Jos 5:9a,10-12; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

During a visit to the Middle East last month, I had the opportunity to visit a refugee center in Madaba, Jordan, with some officials from Catholic Relief Service. We met with about 50 refugees — all of them Christians from the city of Mosul in Iraq — who recently fled for their lives from the terror of ISIS. Through the hospitality of a Catholic parish in Madaba they had been living for a few weeks in trailers, with families of 10 or more jammed into a small space, using the facilities of the parish hall for bathrooms and a kitchen.

With anguished faces, they told us they would never be able to return home again — their homes and their parish church in Mosul had been destroyed. Now they wondered where they could go next.

So much of the Bible is about searching for a home — a place where one can be at peace and truly belong. In the first reading for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, Joshua captures a moment when the Israelites' longing for a homeland seems to be fulfilled: they are encamped on the plains of Jericho, about to enter the Promised Land. Now the manna, God's rations for them when they were on the road, can cease.

But it is the Gospel selection from Luke that dominates this Sunday's readings and deals with homecoming in such a powerful way. The parable of the "Prodigal Son" — or better, the "Lost Son" — is perhaps the most poignant and well-known of all Jesus' parables. The setting is the religious leaders' criticism of Jesus: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." In response Jesus tells three parables in a row: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the one we have in our readings, the lost son.

Each of these vivid stories speak indirectly but forcefully about God's ardent mercy toward those who are lost. The first two parables tell of an earnest search for the lost: the shepherd after the one sheep who strayed away; the woman desperate to find her lost coin.

But the third parable is about anxious waiting rather than active searching. It has always struck me how insightful this parable is. An adult son grabs his inheritance and goes off and squanders it. Like so many parents of adult children, the father cannot force his son to return. He can only wait at the end of road, hoping against hope that his son will come to his senses and come back home.

Having lost everything, the son does decide to return — but not for the best of motives. He comes back not because he is remorseful about having caused his father pain but because he misses home cooking!

Despite his son's selfish motives, the father's unconditional love for his wayward son knows no bounds. When he catches sight of his son, he "runs to him, embraces him and kisses him." Without hesitation or conditions, the young man is welcomed back home, with new clothes, a lavish feast and music and dancing.

The reaction of the elder brother is also a key part of this parable and adds another note of family realism. This son never left home and has been good and faithful, whereas his younger brother has caused nothing but heartache to his father and is welcomed back with extravagant love. The father now has to go out and try to persuade this son of his that his love for him has never wavered, even as his attention has been drawn to the son in trouble.

No parable of Jesus communicates more eloquently the intensity of God's unconditional love for us. God both searches us out and welcomes us back home.

Who is the "elder brother" in this parable? Is this the religious leaders (then and now) who want to lay down conditions for experiencing God's lavish forgiveness? Or is this some of us, who underestimate God's love and judge others, and ourselves, harshly?


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