16 Sep 2007
“Then [Jesus told them a parable:] ‘A man had two sons …’” (Luke 15:11) (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
Last Sunday on the Feast of Brotherly Love we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. This week we enjoy the words and wisdom of the parable of the Prodigal Son. I would wager that these are the two most famous and most loved of all the parables of Jesus. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we hear of Jesus’ expectations of our own behaviour. It’s offered by Jesus to explain what it means to love our neighbour. Today’s parable of the Prodigal Son reveals to us the nature of God. It is because of this parable that I cannot imagine any attribute or expectation of God that is more pervasive than His loving forgiveness. I think even God’s righteous judgment of our sins must give way before the example of a father who runs out to greet the son who had abandoned him and who again goes forth to bring inside the son who only used him. If we had no other parables besides these two, if all the others were lost, we would still be able appreciate what Jesus taught of personal virtue and of His Father God.
Our church has long taught that God rewards the good and punishes the bad, and that this judgment may play out in its fullness after death. But our church also teaches that God’s punishment of sinners will not be everlasting. It will not continue for all of eternity with no hope of it ever ending. Divine punishment is meant to punish, but its punishment is meant to rehabilitate. We human beings have a lot of limitations. When we punish, we sometimes view a crime as so despicable and a criminal as so beyond reform that we lock them away from society for life without parole, and in some cases we even pass a sentence of execution upon a person. But God knows no such limits, and eternity knows of no constraints of time. God cannot be fooled by a sinner faking redemption, and God in eternity has all the time He needs to wait for reform. This is why we teach that we cannot see our God throwing anyone into an eternal hell with no hope of ever being set free. To do so places limitations upon God that are true for us, but not for Him. An eternal condemnation actually infringes upon His perfection.
The other reason we do not teach eternal punishment is because of the revealed nature of God, part of which becomes clear in today’s parable. It is hard for us to think about eternity. It is not just a long time; it is without time. Scientists are helping us to understand that time is not constant. They can measure it going faster and slower. They even talk about time stopping at the speed of light. But eternity is beyond even that. It is outside of time. There is no past or future, all is the present.
I’ve tried to explain this to catechism classes, and I don’t know how well it works, but imagine a world of only two-dimensions. Such a world exists on a sheet of paper. For people in such a world there is no up and down. These just are not concepts that they can imagine. Then imagine us looking down at that piece of paper. We can see their entire world at once. We can move from one corner of the paper to the other without going through every space in between by just raising our index finger off the paper and plopping it down on the other corner. With no idea of up or down, these two-dimensional people cannot fathom how this is possible. Now transfer this example to God and His eternity. He stands outside of our constraints of time just like we stand above the piece of paper. Time doesn’t hold Him back any more than lifting our finger off the paper. This freedom from time is eternity.
Now let us talk of eternal punishment. This is not just forever. This is all that there is. There is no hope; there is no change; there is no relenting of the punishment. We limited human beings have universal conventions against torture. Even in war, we realize that it is wrong to torture another human being. In the Bible, Jesus says to us, “‘If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him.’” (Matt. 7:11) If we, in the language of the Bible, who are wicked, realize the atrocity that is torture, how could we then attribute to God the ability to punish and torment a soul for eternity? If a sick individual tortures another human being and drags it out for a few days, we are disgusted. How then can we possibly talk of God condemning someone to eternal torture in hell? How can we reconcile this teaching with the words of Jesus in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the father runs out to the boy who had disgraced and abandoned him, and who also leaves the banquet to beseech the other son who only uses him for an inheritance to invite him inside to make his family whole and his joy complete? It can’t be done. These words of Jesus say it can’t be done.
But does this then mean that we are free to do as we please? Again, the parable of the Prodigal Son does not allow for this. Jesus deliberately leaves unanswered the reaction of the younger and the elder son. Does the younger, prodigal son return for more than food and shelter, and does the elder, resentful son ever come to sincerely love his father and his brother, or do they both remain unchanged? Is the younger son still selfish and the elder son still greedy? Do they remain the camera negative of their father? Or does Jesus leave the parable vague so that everyone can hear it as a challenge to become like the father? Is the parable not only about the loving forgiveness of the father? Is it left open-ended so that to be forgiven or to be invited inside is not enough, is not the final destination, is not the final purpose of the parable? Is it instead to recognize the nature of the father and then to challenge us to become like the father so that we can learn to forgive and to reach beyond what is only fair when we deal with others?
Jesus reveals to us an amazingly loving and forgiving God. This is not a pass to do as we please. He is the reason why we should also love and forgive. May this parable of the Prodigal Son speak to all of us and challenge all of us to be more like our God, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)