Feasts, Famines, Families and Forgiveness

This week we are thinking about our families and what they mean to us. During the summer I spent time researching my own family roots. We recently returned from a holiday in Ireland, where some of them originated. One especially memorable visit was to the Famine Village, which sounds like a sad experience, but in fact it was really interesting to hear about how people in Donegal used to live many years ago. Life was very different – we were told that an adult would need to eat, each day, about 6 kilograms (nearly 14 pounds weight in “old money”) of potatoes. That is a lot of spuds! In those days, Irish families were large: as the older ones grew up, they had to make way for the younger members, leave to find work which would often be at long distances from home, probably in Britain or America. They would rarely visit their homes again, perhaps only travelling back to see their families when there was a funeral. We can imagine the welcome and the joy of such homecomings.

The readings this Sunday are about mercy and forgiveness. In the first one, there is a fine argument between the Lord and Moses about the recalcitrant Israelites. “Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt”, says the Lord to Moses. “Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt”, says Moses to the Lord. This is rather like parents each blaming the other for a misbehaving child. As soon as Moses’ back was turned, Israel made itself an idol in the form of a golden calf, or bull – in the style of the local storm gods. The Lord, for all his blazing anger, cannot maintain his wrath against his disobedient people to whom he has promised an eternal inheritance. Parents usually show forgiveness and tolerance of their children, whatever they have done. Once again God’s love of his people triumphs over his anger. 

Before we read about the well-known story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two others, about the lost sheep and the lost coin. Luke puts all the accent on the joy of the return of the sinner, and the rejoicing when the coin turns up.

The story of the return of the Prodigal is very rich in its imagery and meaning and we have much to learn from it. Again, we see the relationships in a family group. Firstly, the wastrel son, who returns to the family when he is hungry: the need for food and family support is very strong, especially in young people. Then the loving father, perpetually on the lookout, actually runs to meet his son and orders a feast to celebrate his return. Finally, the disgruntled stay at home who slanders his sibling and is gently corrected by his father’s “your brother”. An unforgettable picture of the overflowing love and forgiveness of God.

 J McHugh



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