This Sunday gives us the beautiful Parable of the Prodigal Son. The readings with which the Liturgy surrounds it, however, point us to something we might miss if we read it in isolation: the divine initiative.
In the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father is (at least at first glance) entirely passive. He lets the son take his inheritance, and then he throws a feast when the son comes home. But it is the son’s own realization that brings him home. All the initiative seems to be on the son’s side.
But Jesus introduces the Prodigal Son with parables where it is the opposite. In the Lost Sheep, it is the good shepherd who goes out in search, who finds, and then who carries the sheep on his shoulders – as if to emphasize how passive the lost sheep is.
Similarly, in the parable of the Lost Coin, Jesus even has her lighting a lamp and sweeping, as if to emphasize how hard she is working. The coin doesn’t come to her!
And Jesus tells these stories to explain to the Pharisees and scribes why he welcomes sinners and eats with them. Now, the tax collectors and sinners were themselves drawing near to Jesus, so in that sense they were like the Prodigal Son. But the Pharisees want a lot more initiative on the side of the sinner: sinners should repent before they come to Jesus! In welcoming them and eating with them – and, indeed, in becoming Incarnate in the first place – Jesus is more like the woman and the shepherd than like the father who waits at home for his son’s repentance.
The same two elements come together in the Psalm. The response is from the Prodigal Son: “I will rise and go to my father.” Here, the initiative is with me. But in Psalm 51, we beg God to do it all. We do not say, “God, I will clean myself up and then you will accept me.” To the contrary, our only sacrifice is a contrite heart: we have nothing to offer except a recognition of our weakness.
We beg him to open our lips so that we can proclaim his praise, to wipe out our offense, to wash us and cleanse us, and renew a steadfast spirit within us.
Above all, we beg him to “create” a clean heart for us. And there’s the key: the God to whom we cry is our Creator. The initiative is always his. He created our hearts, and he re-creates them. The mystery of grace is not the mystery of a passive God waiting for us to clean up our act, but of a God who makes us and remakes us.
A God whom Paul praises in First Timothy for having raised him up out of the swine slop. For Paul, it is not just that God waited around for him to clean up his own act. Rather, Paul boasts in his own weakness, because there God’s power is made perfect.
And yet the thing about Creation is that God actually creates something. This is the most profound truth of the Prodigal Son. When God’s spirit moves in our hearts, we really do rise and go to our Father. The Creator-Redeemer is so powerful that he can actually make us good. He can change us.
The heart of the first reading, where Moses pleads with God after the incident of the Golden Calf, is that Moses invokes God’s promise. It is God who has created this people. First there was his promise to Abraham – a promise he fulfilled, as Creator, by making a baby from parents as good as dead. First there was his calling of Moses, and his miracles to set them free from Egypt. Always it is God who is first. Moses does not say, “hang on, God, we’ll clean up our act.” He says, “Remember your promise.” He clings to God’s promise to raise up a people for himself. Jesus is that promise made flesh.
How then shall we live? The Desert Fathers say our prayer every moment should be, “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” Trust in him to change us. Lean on him. Count on the sacraments, and prayer, and Scripture to change you. With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
And give thanks.
And pray for others. We cannot convert them. But God can.
Looking for last week’s readings? Reflection for Sunday, September 8.