March 14, 2020
I delivered the following homily last year on the same gospel we have today – the parable of the prodigal son.
The following is the story of Amy and Joe, a story of reconciliation:
Joe began: “Near my house there’s a sign that reads, ‘Please do not drink and drive.’ There’s a smaller sign underneath that reads, ‘In honor of Amy.’ Amy was a young lady I killed in 1992 while driving drunk on the freeway.”
After the accident, Joe fled the scene. He was later arrested for second degree murder. In the days that followed, he was overcome by what he had done.
“But God put some people in my life who made me understand what reconciliation was all about,” Joe explained.
Joe spent the next seven and a half years behind bars. On January 6, 1999, he was released and went home to his family and friends.
When the weekend arrived, he and his wife discussed whether or not to attend church on Sunday. They decided yes, and when they arrived, the church was waiting to welcome Joe and his family with open arms.
The oak trees surrounding the church had yellow ribbons around them, and there was a big banner at the entrance that said, “Welcome Home, Joe!”
Not long after Joe’s release, his mentor called to say that Amy’s brother, Derek, wanted to meet with him. For years Joe had prayed that God would help him reconcile with Amy’s family.
That first meeting with Derek was several hours long. Derek told Joe how much he loved Amy, and that he previously thought Joe was a monster who should get the electric chair for what he had done.
Joe told Derek something he had long wanted to say: “I’m really sorry for what I’ve done, and I hope that someday you can forgive me.”
Not long after that meeting, Joe’s mentor called again to say that Rick, Amy’s father, wanted to meet with him, too.
In a long meeting, Rick told Joe about the two days a year that he visits Amy’s grave—on her birthday and on the anniversary of her death.
During that meeting, something miraculous occurred.
“Amy’s father forgave me before I even asked him to forgive me,” Joe said.
Joe’s prayers for reconciliation were being answered.
He also met with Amy’s mom, who asked him to watch a three-hour video of Amy’s life before their meeting.
“I really got to know Amy that night,” Joe said, “and how precious she was and what a tragedy it was that I took her life.”
His relationship with Amy’s family continued to grow, and both Joe and Derek were asked to participate in a Restorative Justice event in front of hundreds of people.
That night, Amy’s father approached Joe, hugged him, and said, “I love you, Joe.” Even now, years later, Rick’s actions and words still affect Joe.
“I killed his daughter,” he said with emotion, “and he was able to give me a hug and say, ‘I love you.’ That is a true testament to the miracle of reconciliation.”
The readings we hear throughout the Lenten season focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. We are directed to seek forgiveness for our own sinful deeds of course, but also to offer forgiveness to others. For example, in recent weeks, we heard Jesus explain to Peter that we must forgive our brother not seven times but seventy-seven times. We also heard Jesus encourage his disciples to be merciful, just as the Father is merciful. And on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, Jesus offers the parable of the prodigal son, the ultimate tale of forgiveness.
The words forgiveness and reconciliation are often used interchangeably. Forgiveness frees the sinner of guilt and shame. Once freed from guilt and shame, then what? That is where reconciliation comes in. Reconciliation is an added step, essential to nurturing a relationship.
Perhaps we can think of it in this way. Think of the sinner as a car going in reverse. When forgiveness is given, the brakes are applied and the car slides into neutral. Forgiveness has neutralized the sin. It’s good that the sinner is not going backward anymore, but it’s not going forward either. Reconciliation puts the car in drive and allows it to begin moving forward.
In the story of the prodigal son, the son sought forgiveness from his father. In doing so, he said to his father, Father, I have sinned against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.
The father could have done just as the son suggested. He could have said, “I forgive you. I will now treat you as I would treat one of my hired workers.” Had that occurred, the sins of the son would have been neutralized, but the relationship would not have moved forward. There would have been forgiveness without reconciliation.
Instead the father did offer reconciliation. He immediately ordered his servants to bring his son the finest robe and put a ring on his finger. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is not a simple story of forgiveness – it is one of forgiveness and profound, unconditional reconciliation.
Think about what prompted Jesus to tell the story – the Pharisees were bothered that Jesus was welcoming and eating with sinners.
What if it were a different scenario? Let’s say the Pharisees watched as sinners came to Jesus and listed all of the sinful things they had done. Then Jesus shook his finger at them, told them to stop their evil ways, and sent them away. Had that been the case, the Pharisees would have approved, and the parable of the prodigal son would never have been told.
The Pharisees were not complaining because Jesus offered forgiveness; they were complaining because Jesus offered reconciliation. He offered the sinners the opportunity to return to the fold, to be welcomed and to eat with him – to slip the car into ‘Drive’ and move forward.
The Pharisees believed in conditional forgiveness; Jesus offered unconditional love.
In our second reading, Paul called upon the Corinthians to love as Jesus did. Paul told the Corinthians – and tells us today – that we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. When we answer that call, we become, as Paul described it, ambassadors for Christ.
As ambassadors for Christ, we speak and act on his behalf, offering both forgiveness and reconciliation.
We are ambassadors for Christ when we welcome home an estranged family member, no questions asked, or when we lovingly invite those that have left the church to return. We are ambassadors for Christ when we spend time with and offer reassurance to anyone on the fringe that is seeking forgiveness and needs to feel valued.
Forgiveness is a beautiful gift. However, it was the reconciliation offered by Amy’s family that allowed Joe to move forward. It was reconciliation that led the father of the prodigal son to say, “My son was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
Source of story about Amy and Joe: