Prodigal Son shows our options
We can all identify with characters in the parable, but is it the right one?
By Vicky Gossens
Summoned to Serve is the diocesan theme for 2000-2002. The theme is an outgrowth of Renew 2000 and the Jubilee Year. It invites Catholics to put their faith and spirituality into action by serving others through charity and justice. This series will look at ways to do that.
How many times we have listened to this powerful reading about
the Prodigal Son? Have we really heard it? Most of us can
identify with the different characters in this story at various
times in our lives.
When have we been the Prodigal, deciding to leave home to
experience the world, believing that we could handle anything,
only to realize later that some of the choices we made were not
in our best interest?
When have we been the Father, loving someone so unconditionally
that we can reach out to that person although we don't agree with
their choices? How many times as parents have we said, "They're
just going to have to learn the hard way"?
We wish we could prevent our children from making mistakes,
especially those that we ourselves have made. Typically, our
children don't want or listen to our advice, so we watch, pray
and are there when they fall (and hopefully learn). What a
wonderful example God, our father, is for us in the role of
parent, unconditionally loving us when we learn the hard way.
Identifying with Brother
The role I think most of us can easily identify with is the
Brother as he struggles with his father's loving welcome toward
the Prodigal. Haven't we all followed the rules when others have
not, and felt resentment when they seemed to get away with it?
We often want to punish these people or seek revenge on them. We
live in a culture that focuses more on punishment for breaking
rules than on reward for positive behavior. Just look at the
We can feel ambivalent about some of the decisions others make. I
often see this conflict between forgiveness/compassion and
punishment in my work with Project Rachel, our Diocese's program
for post-abortion healing.
As we know, our church opposes abortion. I meet with people who
have had an abortion, as well as others who have been indirectly
affected, who believe that because they knowingly broke this rule
they should be punished and are undeserving of peace or healing.
Facing complex issues
We often lose sight of the fact that as humans, we sometimes face
complex issues (like an unwanted pregnancy) and difficult
decisions that have no easy answers. We all make decisions that
can cause pain, sadness, fear, guilt and regret, as well as
alienation in our relationships with God and others.
Sometimes, it is only later - when we have more maturity and life
experience - that we realize the choice we made was not the best
one, and we have to figure out how to live with the consequences
of our decisions.
We can choose how we cope with these consequences. Do we admit
our mistakes and seek forgiveness from God, ourselves and others?
Or, do we pretend it never happened? Both are difficult to do.
Like the loving Father in this parable, God and the church have
given us rules to live by. These rules are not meant to restrict
or oppress, but rather to promote life and love. The New
Testament promises that if - when we break these rules (as we all
do) - we come to God and sincerely ask forgiveness, he will
welcome us with unconditional love.
Jesus shows compassion
He defended the adulterer from the stone throwers and said Go,
and sin no more. He met people at their own emotional and
spiritual levels and encouraged them to learn and grow from past
behaviors. Over and over we see how Jesus' compassion and
forgiveness transformed those who had broken the rules.
Compassion and the ability to forgive were Jesus' most
outstanding qualities, yet they are the most difficult for us to
consistently demonstrate toward ourselves and others.
Are we going to follow Jesus' example of using unconditional love
and compassion as tools for personal and social transformation to
promote life and love, or are we going to use punishment that
restricts and oppresses us and prevents us from fully living as
God intended us to do?
(Gossens is a counselor with Catholic Social Services, Fox
Cities, and is diocesan director of Project Rachel.)