In Rembrandt’s painting of the father embracing the prodigal son, we see the father, elderly and blind, drawing his son close to his heart in a warm, merciful embrace. The son, on his knees, his head shaven and his clothing torn, receives the embrace, and is welcomed back into full communion with his father. The son’s head is turned sideways and his ear is pressed against his father’s chest, where, I imagine, he can hear his father’s heart, each beat reminding him of how unconditionally loved he is.
I don’t know if I would have immediately made the connection between Rembrandt’s painting of Jesus’ parable and today’s Gospel if I did not keep an image of it on my desk. Yet, when I read the first line of our Gospel slowly, I was immediately drawn to the discord between the word “brother” and the word “sin,” and I thought of how the father’s heart must have hurt when his son left him for distant lands.
A son, or a brother, both by family relation or in the wider connotation of the words, is one who I am called to love and is one who should give “reciprocity in existence” (St. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 162) as St. John Paul II writes, reflecting on the deep interpersonal communion we are called to. This calling to reciprocity, written in our nature, is so powerful it can create a close bond of unity where familial words like husband, wife, father, mother, daughter, son, sister, and brother are needed in order to express the profundity of our relationships.
These words point beyond themselves to an essential truth about ourselves highlighted by St. John Paul II: “Men and women are called from the beginning not only to exist ‘side by side’ or ‘together,’ but they are also called to exist ‘mutually, one for the other.'” (St. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 7) In this communion, one for the other, we find an image of God himself:
“Man is in the image of God because he is a mystery of personal communion…Man’s reality therefore is not that of an isolated entity, a solitude that has received form, but a capacity for communion, and ‘openness to.’ He becomes himself only when he becomes communion with another.”
(Corbon, Path to Freedom, 53-54)
Each one of us, within the context of our vocational calling, are called to be open to make the gift of ourselves in order to create a profound communion of persons, an image of the Blessed Trinity. Sin brings disharmony into this plan. It is a refusal or incapacity to be open to the gift of communion, a twisting of the bright light of love into the darkness of self-centeredness.
Perhaps this is why Jesus says, “If your brother refuses to listen…” To not listen is to close one’s ears to this calling, to be inattentive, to choose to tune into false dreams and disordered passions, like the prodigal son at the beginning of Jesus’ parable. Perhaps St. Augustine expressed it best when he wrote in his Confessions, “I was deafened by the clank of my chains. I strayed still further from you and you did not restrain me. I was tossed and spilled, floundering on the broiling sea of my fornication, and you said no word.” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 2, Chapter 2)
Words were being said, of course, for both the Holy Spirit and St. Monica were knocking at the door, but young Augustine was not ready or able to hear.
When a “brother” has offended me by sin, I am still called to be open to love despite the effects of his sin. In today’s Gospel, Jesus places incredible responsibility upon the offended person to seek reconciliation. We are challenged to seek all means possible to renew communion, for wouldn’t hatred, anger, or rancor, be a refusal to listen to our calling to reciprocity?
Without doubt, to navigate the healing and reconciliation process of a wounded relationship is not easy. Yet communion of persons plays an important role here too. “Bring two or three with you…tell the church…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” A communion of persons in Christ is more powerful than sin. Part of communion means reaching out to others and if necessary to the Church to step in and objectify the discussion and insure that the way forward is guided under the objective basis of truth.
A merciful seeking of reconciliation isn’t a lowering of our dignity, as St. John Paul II writes in Dives in Misericordia, but rather an understanding of what true “brotherhood” is:
“At times…we see in mercy above all a relationship of inequality between the one offering it and the one receiving it…The parable of the prodigal son shows that the reality is different: the relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him. This common experience makes the prodigal son begin to see himself and his actions in their full truth…”
(St. John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, Chapter 4, Number 6)
Our calling and our challenge, written in the very dignity of our nature, is to embrace our “brother” in a communion of persons. This is, of course, how God embraces us. We can find hope and strength in Christ to live up to the standard of our high calling.
During those unfortunate moments when our brother offends us—or we offend our brother—let us pray for the grace of the same disposition of open arms and merciful heart that we find in God our Father, whose love is unconditional, and in whose image we are made.
To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Father Jason Smith, LC was ordained in December, 2006 at Saint Mary Major in Rome. He serves as the Director of Regnum Christi in New York and Sunday associate at the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral. Fr. Jason has attended numerous courses, as well as serving as a chaplain for courses with the Theology of the Body Institute.