Carlos Adrian Vazquez Jr. from Los Angeles was a troubled youth. At the age of 16 he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. For the first two years of his 11-year sentence he felt suicidal and angry. But recently, just a few weeks ago he finally became repentant. Then, out of the blue, he decided to write a letter to Pope Francis begging forgiveness. To his surprise, the pontiff responded with a letter of his own.
“Dear Carlos,” Pope Francis wrote, “I pray that as you and your fellow residents celebrate the opening of the Holy Door, you may receive these gifts and be filled with peace and hope. Know that the Holy Father is thinking of you and praying for you. And please remember to pray for me, because I greatly need your prayers.”
Carlos was stunned. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think the Pope would write to someone who’s behind bars,” said Vazquez, now 18. It didn’t end there. The pope’s letter inspired Vazquez to write to the victim’s family and asked them for forgiveness and told them that no words would ever give them back the life he had destroyed, but he hoped one day they can forgive him for his actions. He now wants to live the life that his victim didn’t have a chance to live and be good.”
This story is but another illustration of the power and beauty of forgiveness. For Carlos, even though he is still serving time, he is now a new man. Likewise, with the prodigal son today. On his return he was hoping to be treated as a hired servant but immediately the father says: ‘this son of mine!’ Humanly speaking he didn’t deserve to be called son. He was utterly rude and arrogant to his ageing father. He demanded his inheritance – which his father had worked hard for all his life – and sets off to live the selfish, sinful and extravagant life of a playboy. He squanders all he has and ends up feeding pigs – something totally abhorrent to his Jewish background.
When he hits rock bottom he decides to return home. But where did he get the gumption to turn back? Was he not totally ashamed of himself? Had he not totally cut himself off from everybody; his father, family, homeland, religion? Did he not realise that he now was dead to his father and had no business ever turning up at the doorstep again? Did he not fear the terrible ire of his father? The answer is found in a single word, namely, memory. My hunch is that the young kid remembered the unconditional love of his father all through his life and somehow, deep in his psyche, he knew that the father’s love for him would never change. Even though he had sold his birth right, even though he now longer deserves to be called son, he somehow sensed that his father would overlook everything and still welcome him back.
I once heard a retreat master say: ‘the Christian lives on memory, not on virtue!’ I’m not too sure of the second part. If Christians are to resemble Christ, then they should be, and be seen to be, virtuous. But the first part is spot on. Memory has played a powerful role in the history of God’s people and it still plays a powerful role today. Whenever the Israelites hit rock bottom they remembered the great deeds of their God in the past and then realised that this same God was with them today. Exodus 34:6-7 sums it up in a nutshell: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation.”
Perhaps what Jesus is telling us above all in this parable is to remember: to remember that no matter what happens, or how far down the slippery slope we have fallen, no matter how mixed up and complicated our lives are; there is always a way back. ‘Please come back!’ is God’s constant call to us. Then to our surprise, just like Carlos was surprised with the Pope responding to his letter, God will be there for us. Then to our surprise, just like the prodigal son was surprised, the father will be waiting for us while we are still a long way off, calling for the finest robe, the ring, the sandals and the best calf; all in an effort to say: for this daughter of mine, this son of mine, was lost and is found, she was dead, he was dead, and they have come back to life. How appropriate then is this parable in this year of mercy! the very purpose of this holy year is to remember, and never forget, that God is merciful and full of compassion.
The story doesn’t end with the son’s return. There is another brother, the elder, dutiful son and he is not a happy camper. He is very upset to hear about the celebrations for the return of his wayward brother. The sins of the younger son are obvious, but what about the attitude of this elder, stay at home brother. Could it be that there is also an elder son lurking somewhere within us, jealous and living out of fear and duty rather than love. “I have laboured for you all these years” he complains. The tendencies of the elder son are subtler and dangerous and we don’t always notice them. He seems to harbour a much greater anger. So full of jealousy is he that he cannot allow for the forgiving disposition of his father. Nor can he accept his father’s generosity. Luke does not say whether the elder son entered the party. Perhaps he is leaving that up to you and me. Am I jealous when someone else seems to be forgiven so much and is treated as a royal son or daughter? Am I willing to enter the party and celebrate God’s steadfast love, compassion and mercy, not just for me, but for everyone?
Sunday, 6 March 2016