Luke 15:1-32, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
My first assignment as priest was as a prison chaplain at the national penitentiary in Bilibid, Muntinlupa. It was had work. There were days when I said as many as six masses, heard confessions for hours and just listened to many painful and horrible stories of violence, loss and very deep sadness. On some days, the only thing that to which I eagerly looked forward, was being excused from my rounds because I “needed” to raise funds or entertain benefactors, or just to be away. I became quite adept at “escaping” prison. Thankfully, on one such escapade, something of a shift happened within me akin to discovering something I thought I had completely lost.
It happened that I was saying Mass and making a pitch for our prison ministry at a cocktail party hosted by Jesuit school alumni. After mass, and as I was making my way ‘wisely yet innocently’ through the benefacting throng, one fellow caught my attention when he quipped:
“So the Jesuits are finally doing something good!” We both laughed. “That is good work, Father.” he continued, “Priests really should spend more time with sinners.” “Haha! Only because I’m a greater sinner.” I demurred. Again, we laughed, shook hands and carried on like we had always known each other. That was until he caviled on a very strange point: surprised that there were only two of us Jesuits priests assigned to a camp of thousands, he seriously wondered how deftly communion was distributed. “Easy.” I said, “We have Eucharistic ministers!” “You mean, from among volunteers, like us?” he clarified. “No, inmates.” I explained, and proudly added, “Also a parish pastoral council run by prisoners!” Visibly dumbfounded, he looked at me in disbelief and then, disgust. Suddenly we were strangers again. “Your kind of priests” he declared vehemently before storming off, “is everything that is wrong in the Church!”
Gratefully, not many heard nor noticed the little spat. Those who did of course offered their embarrassed apologies on behalf of their colleague. In truth, however I could take no offense. Without meaning to, what my pugnacious host held went straight to my bones, and laid bare our kinship: we both were lost, he and I, like the two sons in today’s parable.
Traditionally referred to as the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ the title does little justice to the purpose of the parable as the introductory sentence makes clear: ‘There was a man who had two sons’, and the father loses them both, one in a foreign land, the other, to a foreign heart. The elder contrived, without leaving, to be as foreign from his home and his father as ever his brother was in an unclean pigsty. Both brothers were lost in selfishness, though in different ways. In each of us can be something of both. We may stray apart from God, spiritually or emotionally, even sinfully in wanton abandon, or we may do our duty in a cold, calculated and self-righteous way. In any case, we can always come to ourselves and find our way home knowing that the shepherd comes in search of us and we come home, only because he first found us.
The accusation, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’ prompts Jesus to relate the parables we hear in today’s Gospel. These words, St Augustine tells us, should be written on every altar. They should well be written in our hearts as well, that we may, in humility and hope, receive the Eucharist not as a ‘prize for the perfect’, as Pope Francis reminds us, but as a ‘healing remedy for those of us who are weak’. That is to say, from whoever distributes communion.