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Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The story of the prodigal son must be one of the best-loved that Jesus told. We know it so well and yet, as our lives unfold, we can gain new insights. In the first reading, the God of the Old Testament appears as a fearsome judge who will destroy those who flout his law. Jesus wanted his listeners to have a very different picture of his father.

The young man in the gospel wanted to spread his wings but he was not prepared to make his own way. He wanted his father to bank-roll him with an advance on his inheritance. The father could have given the boy a clip round the ear, told him to stop his nonsense and to get out and milk the cows; instead he gave him what he wanted. He had probably worked very hard to have such money available and he allowed his son to go off and waste it all.

The young man in a sense is Everyman/woman. How often do we make bad choices which are not in accordance with God’s will? In the parable the father watched out patiently for his son’s return and welcomed him joyfully without a word of reproach. We too are welcomed back with his loving forgiveness.

Jesus was addressing an issue in the society of his day. The scribes and pharisees, who scrupulously kept the Law, ostracised those whom they considered sinners. The elder brother who refused to come into the party was an image of those people, who felt they should be handsomely rewarded for their virtue and that sinners should be punished. Jesus wanted to confront their lack of compassion and to convince his audience that his father was not like them. He himself seemed to delight in the company of sinners. He  saw the hidden treasure lying within each of them, and helped them to find it. Matthew (the tax collector) and the Samaritan woman were two examples of people whom he called to realise their potential. After all, we are all sinners, loved and redeemed.

The poet Francis Thompson imagined God as a hound, chasing his quarry until he caught it (The Hound of Heaven).