by Father Walter Ray Williams
Fifth Sunday of Easter, A -- April 24, 2005
If our Lord ever emphasized anything in His life and teachings, it is the point of today’s Gospel: that God is Father. Yet, we may in our times have some difficulty in really taking this in, due to the widespread failure of fatherhood in our own society. But then, let us remember, it is not so much from our experience of human fatherhood that we properly understand God’s Fatherhood, as it is from God that true and genuine fatherhood is revealed and is to be lived and practiced by Christian men who marry and have children. We grasp, that is, the revelation of God as Father from Christ who revealed Him as such.
Perhaps the best illustration of this in all of Scripture was given by Jesus (of course) in His story of the prodigal son. There we see it – a kind of portrait – of what Jesus means when He insists on calling God Father and lays down as the foundation for Christian life this fact that the God who created all things out of nothing in a brilliant display of might and generosity would have us relate to Him as Father.
We know the story. The younger son of the household approaches his dad and demands all of that part of the household that is coming to him as an heir. The father complies. Yes, this young man certainly wants – demands even – all that has been given to and held in trust for him: his share of the family goods, all the benefits with which he has grown up, his very life, received as pure gift from the one who is his father. The boy, that is, will have everything but a father. For the sake of oh so secondary things, he sacrifices the very means of his having anything at all: his relationship with his father.
And he strikes out on his own. Ah, freedom, right? Yes, of a sort… until he wakes up one morning, after things had not gone quite the way he had planned – he wakes up one morning to the sound of pigs grunting around him, where he has landed, after wasting all that had been given to him, in a pig sty. Yes, another instance of the school of hard knocks, from which most of us sooner or later, one hopes, graduates. Well, this boy too came to his senses. Rationality, of a sort, finally returns to him. He says to himself, “Are not my father’s servants well-fed and
-clothed, and here I am starving to death and nearly naked. I know what I’ll do. I’ll go back to my father (you know, where there are at least food and shelter) and tell him that though I am no longer worthy to be called his son, I’ll just be his servant.”
And this he does. But he’s in for a big surprise: the father will not receive him back on such terms. No, the father, waiting at home, gazing down the road of his son’s waywardness, is not interested in yet another servant, another slave, another ever-obedient robot. Rather, the father’s heart has only one yearning, one cry: “I want my son back.”
This story, retold so many times, is worthy of such constant meditation. Have we not been prodigal? I see it in myself. I see it all around me, especially these days in the young, and among them, in young men especially, who have not quite awakened to the fact that the path they’re traveling has as its end, its goal, a small, fenced-in corral full of mud, the grunts of swine and, yes, a bit straw and corn husks. And yet they, these young men, so emblematic of our times, flit about, like an ungraceful butterfly or a bumbling bumble bee, from one flower to the next, to this and that, and over to the other. Meanwhile, the fence is closing in upon them, and it’s all beginning to stink.
One wakes up on that morning of true reckoning, and the morning light of that dawning illuminates in bright relief the dead end that has become one’s life. There’s the temptation, then, to ask, or rather, complain: “Why has God done this to me?” And the answer from the still-flickering light of conscience is – “But you left the father’s house. Why not go back?”
Yes, in the midst of the suffering that comes with having struck out on my own, I could think this God, who calls Himself Father, is just simply taking out His vengeance upon me, that He’s just another tyrant trying to bend me to His will and destroy my freedom. We could think that in the light of a whole world of suffering – especially the suffering of those who seem to be innocent – that God is angry because we will not be the well-behaved servants and robots that he manufactured us to be.
Nothing could be farther from Catholic truth. God is Father. And if we refuse to remain in His household, we cannot blame Him for the deprivations that come with our wandering. If the world is a mess, and it is such a mess, because of human sin, we cannot blame God because He lets it wander away from Him – since He has truly given us all the freedom to do so. And so we begin to see: God the Father created us for Himself, to be in the kind of relationship with Him that Jesus has defined as fatherly, somewhat after the manner of the father of the prodigal son. The occasions of what the Scriptures describe as His wrath and punishments, His vengeance and justice (and these are very real), are really then, simply God granting us what we demand from Him so that we can seek to live apart from Him. But the pig sty, the wars and miseries that so often flare up in the world, the losses and disappointments that come our way are then His means of reminding us that this world – and our own will as we live in it – is not the household of the Father, that all apart from Him is darkness, remorse, a loneliness that will lead to despair, and ultimately to eternal damnation. Because we were made for Him as Father, to live in His household.
But God goes much further than the father of the prodigal son. He does not wait and yearn. He does not spend an eternity in splendid isolation. Rather, He says to His eternal Son in the bond of their love of the Holy Spirit in the eternal councils of the Godhead: go now and bring them back to me. That’s exactly what our Lord is saying in the Gospels. “I have come to you that you may have life and have it to the full…. And if I go now from you, it is only to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.” Yes, the road back to the Father’s house – that is, the whole of our lives in this world – is not an easy road. But again, Jesus is saying, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” After all, I have done the hard part. The road is difficult, but it is I at least who have made the road back to the Father. This way of return is through my coming into the world, through the agony of my suffering and death and my rising again. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And so Christ’s command to us is simply this, “Follow me.” All of you together, sheltered and fed in that one household of faith, hope and love – my Church – follow me… all the way to God the Father.