Jos 5:9a, 10-12
Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
2 Cor 5:17-21
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
“How could a loving God send people to hell?”
It’s a question I’ve heard many times from people who balk at the claims of the Catholic Church because they believe she worships a supernatural despot intent on punishment, not love. Years ago the founder the local “Freethinkers and Atheists’ Society” sent me a letter filled with angry attacks on the Christian God. “It must be comforting,” he wrote, “thinking that you’re going to heaven where you can look down at the billions of souls screaming and writhing in pain … consumed by flame for all of eternity, but never dying; all this courtesy of your all-compassionate and loving friend Jesus. . . . Do you find this condemnation the act of a moral god? Why would such a creature bother creating an entire system where the vast majority of his creation will spend all eternity burning in flames?”
Sadly, this is the case for many people who, for various reasons, believe God wishes to deny them happiness, fulfillment, and love. Today’s Gospel reading of the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son offers a very different perspective, which flows from the knowledge the Son has of both His Father and man’s fallen, sinful state. Seemingly simple, the parable is rich with meaning and conviction, for it captures the tension and love at the heart of human relationships while illuminating the difficulty we sometimes face in correctly understanding the mercy, justice, and love of our Heavenly Father.
Part of the great power of Jesus’ story of the father and his two sons is how it brilliantly captures the viewpoint of each of the three men without ever losing any moral clarity. And I think that most readers can relate in some way to the desires of each man, even while recognizing that some of those desires are sinful and others are holy. For instance, we know what it is like to be rebellious and to think that God is hindering us from enjoying our lives on our terms. This is what the Catechism calls “the fascination of illusory freedom,” (CCC 1439) the belief that we can find meaning, joy, and peace apart from God.
We also know what it is like to begrudge the joy of others, as the brother does, understanding our relationship with God in purely legalistic terms while failing to the embrace the sonship given to us in baptism. In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, Pope John Paul II highlighted what this parable teaches about the dignity of the son who dwells in the father’s house. He points out that when the one son leaves, his greatest loss is not material, but the loss of familial life—the “tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship” (par 5). Yet the son who never left had also squandered his sonship, having failed to see himself as a son first, not just an heir to material possessions.
The prodigal son, upon recognizing how far he had fallen and how he had wasted his life—his very being—on sinful pleasures, rediscovers his sonship, paradoxically, by recognizing that he is not worthy to be called a son: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” His brother’s failure is shown not just in his anger at the feast prepared by the father, but by his refusal to address as “Father” the one who gave him life.
Many who believe that God desires to punish them have confused the alienation caused by their rejection of God with divine anger. In exercising their free will, they miss that their freedom is a gift of love given by a merciful Father. He will not force anyone to come home; He will not make anyone embrace the gift of sonship. But He does wait, longing for the return of every lost soul “to the bosom of his family, which is the Church.” (CCC 1439).
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 18, 2007, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)