Welcome to Seven Quick Takes Friday, hosted by Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum! Be sure you go over and check out the other Quick Takers at her blog, and add your own list to the mix.
Last weekend at Mass, the Gospel was the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s no exaggeration to say that I used to absolutely hate this parable. I am an older sister, and my younger sister was the one who was always getting into trouble while I tried hard to be a good girl. I’d get punished for things that my sister would later get away with, and I was resentful of that. (Mind you, this was probably partly my perspective. I think my parents did a great job raising us both, and a lot of learning happened in the three years’ difference between my sister and I.)
I started praying a few years ago to “get” this parable. It’s a part of our regular liturgical cycle, and Jesus told it for a reason. Once I started looking at it as a parent, my heart started to soften to it. (It helps that I have two daughters: one who is more docile and always loves to do the right thing, and another who loves to push boundaries all. the. time.) Gradually, I learned to see it for what it is: a story of mercy and love. Here are seven lessons you can learn from the parable of the prodigal son.
The father gave his son what he wanted, even though he knew it was bad for him. This is a big key to understanding how God works. Throughout the Bible, we can see again and again that the Israelites were constantly testing God and pushing boundaries. God would give them a command and someone would try to find a way around it. (Look at the delay in entering the Promised Land! The forty years of desert wandering was only imposed after the majority of the Israelites got cold feet and chickened out.) When the Chosen People finally did settle in the Promised Land, they still didn’t follow all of God’s directions, and they allowed some of the pagans to stay there, even though God told them they had to be driven out or killed because of the bad influence they woold have. (Let’s face it, Israel was dabbling in idolatry in Egypt, and letting pagans stay in the Land and living side-by-side with them was like having your kid get out of rehab and then letting him hang out with only 1 or 2 of his friends who did drugs with him.)
When they were settled, God was to be the King of Israel. But that wasn’t what everyone else had. All the other nations had people kings who you could see and that was what the children of Israel begged for until God gave in. Again and again, God would give people what they wanted, knowing it was bad for them, because He loved them. He loves us, too, and often lets us have what we want in the hopes that we’ll eventually see the mistake and return to Him with a stronger love than before. Our love for Him cannot be forced, and God wants us to willingly give up what’s bad in our lives to embrace His love whole-heartedly.
As human parents, there comes a time when we have to let go of our children and let them live their lives with little-to-no input from us. We have to let them get into trouble and find their way out and just keep praying that God will lead them home.
The younger son didn’t appreciate his father or the rules of the house. The son who leaves home early has a personality that pushes boundaries, and if you read the parable carefully, it comes across very strongly that he has been wanting to get away from his father and the rules he imposes. It wasn’t typical at that time in history for children to leave their families behind. Extended families frequently lived all together in one home. So this son must have been really pushing to get out. And he doesn’t just leave, but insists on having his share of his father’s property if his father had died right then. I think it was Jeff Cavins who said in a Bible Study program that he basically told his father he wished he was dead with that demand.
But the father lets him have it and lets him go. When the son has a way to get out from under the rules, his father allows it because he loves him. The father knows he can’t force the boy to stay because that would make things even worse. So he gives in and hands over his money to the boy, who wastes no time hightailing it out of town to live the life he’s always wanted — one of luxury and ease, without working the fields with his older brother and father getting on his nerves all day long.
We’re like this with God, too. We don’t like His rules, and so we disregard them without trying to understand why the rules are there. We don’t appreciate His Church, so we skip Mass or find some other place to go on Sundays where we aren’t challenged to live a certain way. I know that for years I disregarded plenty of Church teachings, preferring to do what I wanted to do instead of seeking to understand the wisdom behind them. But when I matured and began to investigate the why behind the rules, I gradually saw wisdom in the very rules I used to hate so much. I began to see the reasoning that hedonistic living lacks. And I began to appreciate the Church for safeguarding those rules for thousands of years, despite pressures from all around to change.
When things got bad, the son didn’t go home right away. When the boy ran out of money and his party friends abandoned him, the son didn’t want to go home. He still wasn’t desperate enough to return. And maybe it was partly pride, too. He didn’t go home to ask his father for help, so he looked for work where he was.
To show you just how awful his situation was — just how bad the economy was because of the famine — the Jewish boy got a job feeding pigs. Pigs. And even that wasn’t enough for him to make ends meet. He was still hungry, dreaming of eating pig slop. (But not the pig, because he still had some observances he kept, didn’t he?) Can you imagine being so hungry you would be willing to eat pig slop?
Sometimes, we get so far from God that we hit rock bottom, and we just stay and wallow in it. We don’t go back to Confession — whether that’s because we’re too proud or too scared doesn’t matter. We don’t return to the Church. Maybe by now the boy is starting to realize that he’ll be completely humiliated if he goes home. After all, his inheritance is supposed to last longer, isn’t it? He should have been able to live comfortably, but he blew it on parties and drinking and girls. How could he possibly face his family? How can we possibly face God in the Confessional? It’s too humiliating.
Even when he started home, it wasn’t for the right reasons. Notice that when the boy finally decides to go home, it’s because he’s starving, not because he is sorry for hurting his father. “How many of my father’s servants get plenty to eat?” he thinks. And while he does rehearse what he’ll say to his father, the sins he’s committed against him aren’t the upmost in his mind. Food is.
When we’re away from the Church, we’re often afraid to come back, but we might really miss the faith of our youth. There are beautiful things about being Catholic, cultural things that stay with you and give you warm, happy feelings when you think about them. Even if we don’t leave the Church, how many of us can say that we enter that Confessional with true contrition? Can we say that the only reason we’re sorry is because we’ve offended God, Who is all good and deserving of all our love? At best, most people have imperfect contrition, which is when we’re sorry we sinned, mostly because we’re in trouble for it. Like toddlers who get swatted on the rear end for taking cookies after being told “no,” we apologize to God half-heartedly. However…
The father never stopped loving his son, and he watched for him to come home. Think carefully about the part where the son goes home. He’s on his way, rehearsing his lines. “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven. I do not deserve to be called your son. Treat me as one of your servants.” He’s busy repeating this to himself, trying to get it down perfectly, steeling himself to face his father’s wrath.
Suddenly, he’s nearly there; he can barely see the house in the distance, and he picks up the pace, thinking about the bread he’ll get for supper. His stomach rumbles loudly, and he keeps rehearsing the lines. “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven…” He has his head down and keeps putting one foot in front of the other. But back at the house, his father catches sight of him on the horizon.
Think about that for a moment.
Back at the house, his father catches sight of him on the horizon.
How is that possible? Did he just happen to look out? Of course not! Not a day went by that this man wasn’t watching for his son to come home again. He mourned that his boy was gone. Maybe he knew businessmen who found out where the boy had gone and who kept tabs on him. Maybe he knew all along what the boy was doing, and he grieved for him. Maybe he would sit in front of the house, looking out over the fields to the road that his son had walked down all those years ago, praying for his son and wishing he would just come home. “Lord,” he would pray, “I don’t care what he’s done. He’s in danger, and I just want my boy back. I just want my son to come home. Please let him come home to me.”
But for the father to catch sight of him so far away, he had to have been looking. Not occasionally. Not every once in a while. Every. Single. Day. And maybe most of the day. Maybe his heart was so broken that he stopped working alongside his older son and merely sat and prayed and waited.
God never, ever stops looking for us to come home. He is that father, searching the horizon for a glimpse of us returning to Him. He’s not looking to send you to Hell, and He’s not looking to play some “gotcha!” game where you end up losing. God is mercy. God is love. And He never stops searching the horizon for you or hoping for you to come home to Him.
The father didn’t wait for the son to get all the way home, and he didn’t even wait for him to finish his apology before he started to celebrate. The father caught sight of his son on the horizon. He sees him at a great distance, and the boy hasn’t looked up to notice this yet. But the man doesn’t wait any more — his son is coming home!!! He leaps up from his stool and starts to run! One of the servants probably caught sight of this and started off after him. But I’m willing to bet no one could catch up to him. He ran clear out to the boy.
And there he was! Seeing his father, he fell to his knees and began his rehearsed lines. “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven…” and his father grabs him and embraces him and doesn’t even let him finish his sentence.The father lifts the boy up and starts ordering the servant (who has finally caught up) to get proper clothes for him, to get a ring for him and sandals, to get the shepherds to select the fatted calf and slaughter it! “Tonight we celebrate!”
God, too, will meet us where we are, imperfect contrition and all. He runs to us, and embraces us. We don’t have to be strong enough or perfect to go home to God; He loves us as we are and will help us there. He’ll meet us where we are and bring us the rest of the way home. All we have to do is start, even if our reasons aren’t perfect. Start making your way back.
We don’t know how the son acted once he was welcomed home again. We only know that the father celebrated his return. The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, is unknown to us. We do read about the older brother being hurt that his brother was welcomed home so lavishly, but as far as what went on in the house after that day, we just don’t know. I’ve always liked happy endings, so I always imagined that the younger son just lived a good life after that, obeying the rules, and eventually his brother got over being mad. But that’s probably not true-to-life. There were probably still hurt feelings between the brothers, and the younger son most likely still had days where he was a bit of a brat to everyone. After all, perfect endings aren’t for this world.
But just because it’s not a perfect ending doesn’t mean it’s not happy. The father must have been overjoyed to have his family together again, and even if his sons fought, he probably worked to help each one see the other’s point of view and to work towards reconciliation. And even if the younger son was still a bit of a troublemaker, maybe he caught himself quicker and remembered his father’s great mercy. Maybe he apologized sooner, and maybe, after a while, he really meant it with all of his heart.
When we come back to God and His Church, we’re not perfect. There’s no happy ending where we suddenly become The Perfect Catholic©. All of us fall short, and we all need to get back to Confession to make things right again. But hopefully, as we grow and mature, our contrition becomes more and more perfect, and we are really sorry for hurting God far more than we’re sorry for getting caught with our hand in the cookie jar. But God won’t stop loving us, even through our bratty stages and our stubborn stages and our prideful stages and our zealous stage when we first come back to Him.
The biggest thing we can learn is here in this seventh lesson: it won’t be perfect when we go Home again. But we can always apologize when we mess up, and the longer we stay and the more we try, the more sincere our apologies are.
Even if it’s been a while, go to Confession. There are a lot of parishes having extra hours of Confession during Lent, and many have Penance services with an examination of conscience as a group and then individual Confessions afterwards. Take advantage of that! And don’t be afraid! God is searching for you. He’s watching the horizon for you to come home again, and He’s ready to run to you and meet you halfway. Start the journey home to Him, and He’ll get you there safely.