Monday, March 15

A Son Comes Home

As you know, I spend my Sunday afternoon/evenings leading the music for the Teen Mass at my home parish. This is both a blessing and a challenge. Sometimes, it is difficult for me personally to enter deeply into the liturgy, as I am focused on my responsibilities.

But then God breaks into my reverie, interrupts my contemplation, and presents me with something new to consider, something that didn't jump out to me while planning the music.

Yesterday's Gospel was the story of the Prodigal son. I looked up the word "prodigal," and it literally means "to squander, to drive away" (Thanks Merriam-Webster). I have always had a tough time with this reading. I identify 100% with that older brother. He dutifully obeys and honors his father. He works hard and achieves much. He is the "perfect" son, and worse, he knows it.

I myself was never the one to toe the line, to push the envelope, to spread my wings and sow my wild seeds. I was happy to be the "good girl," the responsible one, the achiever. I basked in my accomplishments and in the admiration of others.

So in my reading of this particular Gospel, I never really understood the father's reaction. Here are his two sons. One is a "lost cause," the other perfection. One wastes his father's money and his own ability; the other works efficiently and dutifully. One is selfish, the other selfless. Which would you choose? For anything?

Yes, the prodigal son came home. Ok, I can understand that. It's good for wayward sons to come home. But the Gospel essentially reads as if this son is being rewarded for doing the wrong thing. He goes off, squanders his inheritance on waste and corruption, comes back home with his tail between his legs, and suddenly all is well with the world. He is instantly restored into his father's good graces, and it is as if he never left. One "Get Out of Jail Free" later, and this son is back living the high life.

And then I realized something. This Gospel is not about reward. It's not about what is deserved
 or earned or accomplished. Pure and simple, this Gospel is about redemption.

The key is in the prodigal son himself. He experiences something truly profound in his wanderings: real repentance. He recognizes the atrociousness of what he has done, what he has wasted. And he doesn't expect anything from his father. He does not go home shamefaced, expecting a slap on the wrist and perhaps grounding, but then life will go on. He understands that the penalty for what he has done is relinquishment of son-hood. But even that is better than what his current condition is. "How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger." He would rather go home and be a slave, than remain "free" in obstinate pride and destitution. 

And so he goes home a man broken, but humbly acknowledging his responsibility for his fault, ready to accept the consequences. He is ready to be a slave, but knows that he will at least be well treated.

It is in this posture of obeisance that he comes home. He expects nothing, and ever fears rejection.

And his father emerges running from the home, approaches him, and embraces his son. There is no condemnation, no judgment, just pure love. "My son who was dead has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."
What sweet words in the ears of this miserable son, who has been contemplating all that he turned his back upon. He expected slavery and receives a ring. He had accepted the food of swine and receives a banquet.

How profound and irrevocably imprinted upon his mind will the lesson of forgiveness be, with such an example to remember. If I were that son, I would never forget that moment, when all that was considered lost forever was in a moment regained. He did not deserve or earn forgiveness - it was simply offered with unconditional love.

As a self-professed good girl, I didn't understand this reception at first. And neither did the elder brother in the parable. But I understand now. And I take comfort in the knowledge that someday, when I mess up and return sorrowfully to my Father, expecting nothing, He too will enfold me in His loving arms and say, "Welcome home."

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