Saturday, September 21, 2013

The parable of the loving Father
Victor Edwin SJ

Both Christians and Muslims adhere to faith in One God and both strive to do the will of God in our lives. This theological affinity places both the group of believers on a common space, despite profound differences in how we understand One God and how we respond to his most holy will.

Sometimes, Muslim friends ask why God should become human to guide humanity reach heaven. I am aware that in this one question they express their Islamic conviction and raise a host of deep theological questions. Their Islamic conviction is that the human person has in his/her fitrah (nature) is directed to know One God and obliged to obey and worship the One God.

Human persons consistently rebelled against this nature and strayed away and worshiped gods. God sent prophets to instruct communities to return to worship and submit to the one true God. All prophets preached essentially the same message: worship God and obey His will. Revelation is thus effectively guidance.

Consequently, Muslims reject the doctrines of incarnation and redemption which are central to Christian faith.  Their questions range from ‘how can God suffer and die on the cross? Why do we need ‘sacrifice’ when God forgives when man and woman repent? They believe that repentance automatically wipes away sins of the repentant sinner. Some theologians would add sins are forgiven ‘if God wills’. Moreover, they also ask, how can a sinless person suffer for the other? Their belief is grounded on their holy book, the Qur’an. Qur’an admits that Adam’s sin has consequence for his descendants, but “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” [Qur’an 6:164; 7:28; 7:15; 35:18; and 39:7].

Some time ago, I found myself in the midst of similar questions. I suggested to a Muslim friend who asked the question that we read a little ‘story’ that speaks of the heart of Christian faith. The following story, a parable, if you like to call it, is taken from the writings of Christian W Troll, a Jesuit scholar on Islam and Christian Muslim relations. 

This is the story of a loving father…     

There lived a wealthy and widely respected banking director in Frankfurt. He was married and had several children. They resided in a magnificent villa in the lovely green and quiet outskirts of the city. They lacked nothing. 

But one day the youngest son disappeared. In fact, his busy father had not noticed that this son became friends with at group of youths in the neighborhood. These were youngsters who were given to drugs and dreamed of a life of arrant independence, for away from straight German society. Without informing his father, one day the son had disappeared, he left for the Goan coasts of western India. 

He lived off the money which his father had put into a special bank-account towards his university education.

This sudden and sly departure deeply saddened and hurt the father. It took some time for him to discover his son’s whereabouts. He wrote him letter after letter. But his letters never brought him any reply. This is what he wrote:

My dear son,
I think of you constantly. I do not know why you left me. Perhaps I have been too busy with my work and thus failed to be with you as much as you would have liked and deserved. Maybe it is precisely this that made you feel unwanted and lonely at home. But whatever may have happened, please do come back. And please be sure that I have pardoned you and desire to be close to you, to spend much time with you. All you have to do is come back home. I think of you all the time, every day, and I long for the day of your return home.

The son did not respond in any way to the father’s plea. But one day the father learned of some friends of the family who intended to spend their holiday in India. He immediately contacted them and informed and told them about his son in Goa. He mercifully implored them to visit his son while they were there. “Here is his address. Please go and personally tell him in my name how very much I yearn for his coming back home. Because of his absence and silence, I suffer deeply in mind-and-heart. Please try to persuade him to believe that in no way do I harbor any grudge against him. On the contrary …

The family’s friends went to India and met the son. Their unexpected visit surprised and profoundly moved him. At first he was inclined to return back to Germany with them. But as much as he tried he found it difficult to separate himself from his friends and their frivolous life-style. This is in spite of the fact that he was left with practically no money and so was compelled to beg for his survival.

When his friends back in Frankfurt informed the father about this, he said to himself: “I myself must go to Goa, India, to be reunited with my son. In any event, life without him has become meaningless for me... I will resign from my position and become a ‘hippie’ like him. Just to be with him will be my joy in life. When he sees and understands my concern and deep love for him first hand, his heart will surely not remain unmoved. As I see it, this is the only way, hopefully, that he will be able freely to decide to return home with me.

But his family, friends and associates in Frankfurt protested: “How can you abandon your important position in the company, which is crucial to the economy of the State? Just because you want to join your incorrigibly ungrateful son? Forget it! You are exaggerating! Have not you already done all that’s possible and expected of you as a righteous and merciful father? You discovered his whereabouts. You sent him letter after letter. Even messengers! Your way of acting now is outrageous, even scandalous, not worthy of your high standing. Furthermore, your son is intelligent enough to understand your many invitations and your generous offer to forgive him in spite of everything he had done. Now let him act like a responsible person: he knows quite well what to do.

Still, the father insisted: “Everything that I have done has had no effect on my beloved son. It is clear to me that he lacks the courage to return home alone. When he sees me, touches me, hears my voice, surely he will be moved. It is really up to me now to take the imitative. I will become like him and join him. He will surely repent. I know my son.

The father, affluent and renowned banker, resigned from his honorable position, put on back pack on his shoulders and so made the long journey to the shores of Goa in India. When he met his son, his son was completely overwhelmed, deeply ashamed. His first reaction was again to reject his father, but his father just stayed on, without uttering many words. Eventually the son’s resistance began to soften. But one day he went to his father who lovingly embraces him and so both returned home together. 

We remained in silence for a long time. As a relater I found a deep sense of peace and joy. My Muslim friends’ silence was also profound. We felt that our love for one another, I, a committed Christian and he a committed Muslim, have deepened. I continue to honor him and his faith convictions and he mine. My reflection is that in this approach both of us allow the truth to overwhelm us. We do not monopolize truth and adherers of one God we seek Truth. We feel that we are co-pilgrims.  

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