There was once a man whose son wanted to make his own choices in life. Now it pained the father to let him make these choices because he suspected that his son was not really prepared for this kind of responsibility — but still he gave him the freedom he wanted. (There are times when this is a good thing for love to do.)
At any rate, his son was pleased, and he began to make his choices. He chose, first of all, to have his share of his father’s inheritance turned into spending money. Then he chose to leave his father’s home, taking all his money with him. Next, he began to choose some new friends, and together with them he chose some ways to spend his money. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. Until at last he found that his choices had ruined him.
That was the turning point.
One day, while feeding a stranger’s pigs (that was where his choices had led him), he remembered something. He remembered who he was and to whom he belonged . And he began to make some new choices. He chose to set aside his pride and return to his father to beg his forgiveness. He chose to be willing to be a servant in his father’s house rather than to go on being the master of his own fate. He chose to go home. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. And these choices were good choices for him; eventually, they brought him security, fulfillment and joy.
He was not the only one, of course, who was making choices. His father saw him “while he was still far off,” and he too was faced with a choice. He could have waited in the doorway to receive him with offended dignity — but he didn’t. He could have rebuked and scolded, demanding an apology for his son’s foolishness — but he didn’t. He could have talked about making amends or doing penance — but he didn’t. He chose instead to hitch up his robes and to race down the road to meet his repentant son. He chose to throw his arms around him and shout and laugh and weep with joy. He chose to cover him with a robe, and to put a ring on his finger and new shoes on his feet. He chose to welcome him with a feast. And each choice that he made reflected that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, which had been shaped and fashioned by many, many choices made over the course of many, many years.
Now this story about a son and his choices is also about you and about me. And one of the things it means to tell us is that we are shaped by our choices, moment by moment, day by day, and year by year. Every time we make a choice we are turning some deep and inner part of ourselves, the part of us that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking our lives as a whole, with all our innumerable choices, throughout the whole of our lives we are slowly turning this deep and inner part of ourselves into something that is in harmony with God and with God’s purposes in the world, or into something that is contrary to them. Each of us at each moment is progressing one way or the other.
But another thing that this story means to tell us is that God also chooses – in fact, God has chosen. God has chosen to forgive us. God has chosen to accept and pardon and welcome us. No matter how miserable our choices have been in the past, no matter how vacillating and unpredictable they are in the present, no matter how misguided they may be in the future, God says we are forgiven. God’s forgiveness does not begin with us or with what we deserve, it does not wait for us to be very, very good so that we may be deemed worthy of it. God’s forgiveness begins with God, and with what God chooses freely to give. “God proves his love for us,” St. Paul says, “ in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us ” ( Romans 5:8). God chooses to love us precisely when we are least deserving of it, when we are least lovable. When we come dragging home in our lowest, most unattractive, most undeserving state, God runs to meet us.
This is the beauty of the gospel – that God loves us, without the least regard to what we deserve. We are forgiven.
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