Readings for today's Mass
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity
There is so much that could be said about today's Gospel – but I want to concentrate on just one aspect, one figure in the story, and even as little as this one verse - While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.
I'm told that the father would have seen his returning son, probably because he could recognise his walk, and probably because he was standing on the flat roof of the middle eastern house. He could also see his returning son because he was waiting for him. The son had fled the home. He had caused great hurt. He had done great sin. He had been foolish, stupid, and also very hurtful. He had turned his back on his father and his family – but his father had always looked out for him.
And when the lad returned, the father was filled not with anger, or bitterness, or resentment. He was not filled with the pain of the hurt caused, nor with a desire that the son should put things right – but with pity, with mercy, with compassion, with a spirit of forgiveness, with joy, with love.
Today is Home Mission Sunday, and the national agency of the Church for evangelisation, called CASE, tells us that with other Christian bodies it is planning a campaign for Christmas called "Come Home for Christmas". In this we are encouraged to reach out to those outside the Church, especially the lapsed, those who were once part of our church, who followed the faith but are not with us now. We need to be ready, like the father, to welcome them and encourage them.
There are many who have left the Church for some many reasons. They got out of the habit after illness or work circumstances. They have had a marital breakdown, or now live in marriage or relationship not blessed by the Church and feel awkward that they cannot receive communion. They had a row with a priest or another parishioner and have stayed away. They drifted away in their teens and now feel it hard to return, though they may like too. They think everyone will stare at them when they turn up for mass.
The trouble is, we can often be like the elder son, rather than like the father. We focus much more on the fact that they should never have left, than on the importance that they return. And when they return, we might pass judgment or make demands.
The Father makes no demands, but waits for the sorrow of the one who is returning. He looks upon him not with anger or resentment, but with pity and love. He yearns for his return and rejoices when he comes.
Like the Father, we need to patient for the return of those who have left, invite them back, not pass judgment or lay down immediate demands or conditions. There is much time for so many things. We need to open welcoming arms to those who have felt cut off from the Church. Our doors are unlocked – but our hearts must be open too.