I’m pretty sure that in the congregation today we probably have a few perfectionists. I confess that I used to be one as well. Doing something correctly the first time, regardless of what we are doing, drives many of us perfectionists. Of course, there are certain professions, an airline pilot comes immediately to mind, where perfectionism is a major plus. We all like to do good work, and society has always rewarded perfectionists with promotions, good grades, and responsibilities. All of us want this.
I haven’t met many people though who are perfect. We can be very harsh on ourselves and others when the inevitable imperfections show up. Failure can lead to many things; most of them not good. Our society today is ripe with depression, addictions, suicide, and a general feeling of hopelessness. Some of this is caused by individuals not living up to their own internal perfection picture.
For those of us who may be caught up in this perfection/imperfection cycle, today’s gospel reading should be a comfort to us. In our second reading, St. Paul in a letter to St. Timothy without any ambiguity states that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He came so that those of us who are not perfect can become perfect, not through our own efforts, but through his saving grace. Let’s think about that for a second. This is the good news of the gospel.
The world can be a harsh place of judgment and condemnation. As we just heard, it was no different in Jesus’ time, and he is going to confront it head on. The judging class and internet trolls of his day, the Pharisees and scribes, began to complain that he was associating with the sinners, losers, and imperfect of his day. Jesus addresses three separate parables to make his point. All three involve the finding and redemption of those who were lost. It doesn’t matter whether the “lostness” was caused by foolishness, the wandering sheep, through no fault of its own, the coin, or through willfulness, the prodigal son.
In each case, God as represented in the shepherd, the woman, and the father, goes above and beyond with his mercy, grace, faith, and love to welcome home the lost. He will look for the sheep in all kinds of treacherous areas- wild cliffs, deserts, in areas populated by dangerous animals, etc. Would the Pharisees have stepped outside the sheepfold? We all know how difficult it is to find a coin in a house. God will turn everything over to find that one coin, regardless of the time invested or the mess made. Would the scribes had invested the time? God doesn’t stop with the act of finding though. In each case, God calls all together to join in his celebration. God cannot contain his own joy. It flows out to affect all in the community in a positive way.
What about that last category- the ones who are lost because of willfulness, or arrogance, or rebellion? We all know the type. Sometimes, it is us. We think we know better than everyone else. We won’t listen to anyone. We create all kinds of harm. No one is beyond redemption, and to prove that point, Jesus gives us his famous parable of the prodigal son.
The younger son does everything in the worst possible way. His act of leaving is an absolute rejection of all his father stands for. He wastes a not insignificant portion of his father’s estate. He literally bankrupts himself both financially and morally. When the party is done and the hard times come, he has no one. In the end, he lowers himself as much as a Jew possible can. He works with the swine. Under the Jewish law, swine were considered among the most unclean of animals. Any Jew who ate or worked with swine was considered cursed. The audience Jesus was addressing would have understood all of this.
Surely, someone who can sin so completely, make so many willful mistakes, and betrayed all that meant to be Jewish could never be forgiven. Yet the father in the parable literally welcomed him back with open arms. Where is the justice in that? Shouldn’t he answer for what he had done? That would be the human thing to do. I’m sure that is what the other son was thinking, and why he would not come in and join the welcome back party. I’m sure he felt superior to his brother and could never understand why the father would welcome back someone who squandered the gifts given to him, betrayed the family, and only came back when there was no other choice.
The father though had such a deep love for his wayward son that he was willing to overlook all of that. He knew his son was safe. That was the only thing that mattered. I can imagine the father looking down that road every evening; praying that one day he would see the son walking up that road toward the farm. His family would be back together again.
Jesus never concludes his story. Does the older son join the party? How does he treat his younger brother? Does he forgive, but never forget- always holding his brother’s misdeeds against him when it is convenient? Is this still a broken family? Jesus is not only revealing to us the great love that God has for all of us, but he is also issuing a challenge. Can we love with that same love? What is more important, justice or mercy? It is the challenge each Christian must eventually answer. Perfectionism is not something we will ever achieve. How do we handle the imperfection and the problems that it causes are what will really defines us as Christians.
The good news for us is if we ever find ourselves in the same place as the prodigal son we can have real hope. Jesus came to save the prodigal sons and daughters of this world. We can never be too far gone that we can’t be saved. God’s mercy is greater than anything else we can experience in this world. Only those who have been in that pit and experienced it themselves can really speak to what God’s mercy means. We can talk about it in the abstract, but many of us can witness to the power of God’s saving forgiveness in our lived experience.
Like the older brother, it can be so easy to shun individuals who are struggling by making a quick judgement and relegating them to the back. They have so much to offer as examples of lives liberated and changed by their firsthand experience with God’s loving and transforming forgiveness. Mercy is a gift we can take advantage of anytime in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Let us never be afraid to let that saving light of God’s love and forgiveness shine in whatever dark part of our life may exist.
It takes humility to admit there is a part of our lives that need changing. Surrendering control of that part of our life to Jesus so he can work on it is also difficult. Like the prodigal son in today’s gospel reading, let us not be embarrassed but come to our senses and return to our Father. He will not be there to scold us, as so many may do in this world. He will be there with open arms to welcome us home.