To Live and To Love

GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim sj (The Freeman) - September 15, 2019 - 12:00am

Fr. John Powell, S.J. in his book “Happiness is an Inside Job” relates a true story of a young woman, who in her own words had lived “an evil life for many years.” One day she had decided to end her life.  She figured that her life was a failure, and there was no point prolonging it. 

So, she went down to the ocean.  She would swim out as far as she could and then let nature do the rest. Before swimming out into the ocean however, she walked along the deserted beach to say her tearful goodbyes to the world.

But as she walked along she heard a clear and distinct voice, which told her to “stop, turn around, and look down.” When she did this, all she could see were her own footprints in the sand. Then she watched as the ocean waves rushed in and washed out her footprints.

Again, she heard the voice speak to her, saying: “Just as you see the waves of the ocean washing away your footprints in the sand, so has my love and mercy erased all your past.  I am calling you to live and to love, not to die.” By instinct she knew it was the voice of God. That event was the turning point in her life.

This personal story from the young woman is an eloquent testimony to what Jesus tells us in the Gospel today.  The Gospel finds Jesus surrounded by tax collectors and the so-called sinners.  To share a meal and have conversation while teaching someone is to share your life with them. 

The Pharisees and scribes considered it a scandal that Jesus, the great prophet, the good rabbi, an upstanding Jew, was sharing his life and table with such people as these.  The Pharisees’ attitude is inspired by the old rabbinical rule: “Let no man associate with the wicked, not even to bring him near to the Law.”

Jesus goes right into the midst of sinners to be as close as possible to them, to bring them out of sin and darkness to God.  Jesus reveals God as one who goes in search of those who are lost to bring them back. 

When we understand this setting of the Gospel, we can then see the context of today’s beautiful parables.  God as the Shepherd never gives up looking for us. 

Some men will spend their whole lives escaping from God, in the “distraction” of ideologies, money, power, pleasure, noise, pastimes, science, honors, sex, war – in a word, everything we can think of, for everything can serve as a shield between God and us when we want to avoid meeting Him face to face.

However, there is fortunately always a part of us, which is not satisfied and feebly cries for God.  He never fails to hear this plaintive call of the wounded heart.

In the first half of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is saying that God always forgives us after we sin.  Jesus is saying even more.  He’s saying that God not only forgives us when we sin, but also treats us afterward as if we had not sinned.

This is clear from the three things the father does in today’s parable.  First, he embraces his son.  Embracing the boy shows that the father welcomes him back fully.  He withholds not a sign of affection from him.

Second, the father puts shoes on his son’s feet.  Putting shoes on the boy shows that the father forgives him fully.  In Biblical times, shoes were the sign of a free person.  Slaves went barefoot.  Putting shoes on his son’s bare feet takes away the sign that says the boy is somebody’s slave and gives back the sign that says he’s somebody’s son.

Finally, the father gives his son a ring.  Putting a ring on the boy’s finger shows that the father restores him fully to the status he had before he went away.  For, undoubtedly, the ring was a signet ring, containing the family seal.  To have it meant to have the power to act in the family’s name.

And so, the embrace, the shoes, and the ring show that the father welcomes back his son totally, forgives him fully, and restores him completely to the status before he ran away.

This brings us to the second half of the parable.  It deals with the older son.  It contrasts the father’s lavish forgiveness with the older son’s lack of forgiveness.  The older son won’t come into the house to celebrate, even though his father begs him to come in.

The parable ends without telling us what the older son did.  Did he eventually come in and celebrate?  Or, did he stay out in the cold and sulk?

The reason Jesus doesn’t tell us what the older son did is because of who the two sons stand for.  The older son stands for the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time.  The younger son stands for the sinners and outcasts of the time.

The outcasts and sinners are responding to Jesus’ call to repent.  Jesus, in turn, is forgiving them – even celebrating with them.  And this angers the scribes and Pharisees.  They think sinners should be punished, not forgiven.

And so Jesus tells his parable in such a way that each scribe and Pharisee must write his own ending to the story.  Each realizes that he is the older brother and must decide whether to forgive his younger brother and to celebrate or not.

What does all this say to us today?  It says two things. 

First, God will always forgive us after we sin.  Jesus tells us that God is a loving Father.  He knows us and our sinfulness.  In spite of this, God loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves.  And God is more eager to forgive us than we are to ask for it.

This is the message we all need to hear over and over again.  As we hear it over and over again, hopefully the day will dawn when we will understand and realize it – not just in our head but also in our heart.

And the day we do this is the day when, like the young woman in our story, we will hear the same voice she heard – a voice saying: “Just as you see the waves of the ocean washing away your footprints on the sand, so has my love and mercy erased all your past.  I am calling you to live and to love, not to die.”

Instinctively, too, we will know what the young woman knew: that it was the voice of a loving God speaking to us in the depths of our heart.

Second, the parable says that we should forgive others as God has forgiven us.  We should receive them back, with full welcome, full forgiveness, and full restoration to their former status.  That’s the way Jesus treated Peter after Peter denied him on Holy Thursday night.  Jesus not only forgave Peter, but restored him to his original status as “the rock” upon which he would build his Church.

Jesus could have told Peter: “Peter, I had great plans for you, but you blew it, you flunk the test!  I’ll forgive you, Peter, but you’ll have to be demoted to a lesser position, because you failed not only once but three times!” But Jesus didn’t do that.  He treated Peter as if he had never sinned.

This is also the way we should treat those, who sin against us.  We should forgive them and take them back into our hearts with the same generous love that God shows us.

Let’s close with a prayer:


Lord, show me your mercy

And fill my heart with your forgiving love.


I am the younger son

Who ran away and has returned home. 

Thank you for receiving me back.

I am also the older son

Who finds it hard to forgive

my brothers and sisters

as you forgave them.

Touch my heart with your forgiving love.

Then, when I fall asleep in death,

I will awaken in your presence

to enjoy your forgiveness forever,

Together with those brothers and sisters

Whom I too have forgiven. 


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