Prodigal Are We

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Family reunions are meant to be pleasant occasions. At least that’s the hope of those who send out the invites. They might coincide with a holiday weekend at a quiet and non-threatening location, the old family homestead, a beach house, or a mountain getaway. Planned activities will keep the young people busy, while grown-ups swap stories, share photos, and compare battle scars. If nothing else is happening, a birthday, a graduation, or anniversary, there is no pressure to get anything done. Then there’s that delicate dance we do to avoid hot button issues, at least for the first day, or the first few hours. At times trouble can be resolved in advance of the reunion, or with some luck, trouble just can’t make the event. If the source of tension is absent, we can all breathe a little more easily. We can focus on the table. It is at table that friendships are nourished, connections strengthened, differences patched, and dreams inspired. Maybe someone will mention an enduring family characteristic that is now evident in the younger generation, a dimple, a curl, a flair for art or music, maybe business, medicine, or public office. Some laughter and silliness ensue, maybe some singing, then a pick-up game of hoops or touch football while another group huddles in the kitchen over a bottle of wine. If all goes well, plans are made to get everyone back together again, but unless someone else steps up to make it happen it’s just all wishful thinking.

Does your family do reunions? The idea may seem impossible and utterly absurd to some. And despite our best notions of family and home, not all families and homes are memorable for the right reasons. Some have little trouble leaving home and not looking back. But perhaps even such an absurd possibility could become a reality. And when families gather without benefit of invitations, it is usually a funeral. Whatever the issue between family members, a truce may be negotiated at least for the duration of the function. And if a more permanent ceasefire is not worked out before everyone goes their separate ways, the next family gathering will most likely be another funeral.

When we consider our own family, we can examine each member’s standing in relation to others, who is well-regarded, who raises eyebrows, and why. We can be quick to judge without knowing all the facts, to speak unkindly of another, even to throw more fuel into the fire; or we can explore ways to open the door to some kind of peace whether temporary or permanent. It can at times be challenging to practice restraint among family. We presume our shared experiences growing up, our shared heritage or trauma might naturally result in similar perspectives and sympathies. So much goes unspoken. And we might expect more from our own family. So, when they disappoint us, we are not as eager to forgive and move on.

In the gospel story of the prodigal son, we are familiar with the wayward son’s choices and behaviors. Some of us may relate to his selfish pursuit of happiness, his disregard for parental guidance, his unfortunate string of bad choices, his trials, his coming to his senses, and his eventual restoration to a place of honor in his father’s house. Or we may relate to the unhappy older son’s closed-mindedness, his hardness of heart, his slavish obedience to his father, and his unwillingness to recognize his younger brother’s struggle. And whenever we reflect on the lives of these two brothers, we naturally focus on how each of them relates to their father, and how we in turn relate to God. If we are the younger son in the story, we hear the invitation to repent and come home. If we are the older son, we hear the invitation to re-order our priorities.

But let’s stop and consider what happens now between the brothers. They are once again living in the same house. What becomes of their relationship? The younger brother might think everyone should be as forgiving as his father, and everything goes back to how things were before. While the older brother might think his father made a terrible mistake in taking his brother back and isn’t ready to let go of his resentment.

“Forgive and forget,” we are told. We say we can forgive, but we cannot as easily forget. I don’t believe we should forget, like nothing ever happened. Instead, we should be wiser but make an effort to let go of resentment. Forgiveness is first about recognizing our hurt, but freely choosing to let go of our right to be offended because resentment hurts us more than it hurts anyone else. “To forgive” is to allow another to be flawed and imperfect, because they have greater need of healing and compassion. “To forgive” is to let go of resentment against the offender because God lets go of resentment despite having every right to hold resentment against me for my sins.

In this season of mercy and reconciliation, God invites all prodigal daughters and sons to come home, and all self-righteous daughters and sons who never left home to receive their prodigal siblings with patience and kindness. Before God we are all his prodigal children. But before one another, we are also prodigal sisters and brothers. Healing begins when we are willing to let go of resentment, even the perfectly rational and legitimate kind, while we ask God to mercifully overlook our sins. It can be loads of fun pointing out other people’s faults and giving them advice about what will make them better. But that is not what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and embrace the cross. It is not what Lent is all about. Instead, our primary focus remains our own conversion and transformation. And only we can guarantee that we will emerge from Lent a better human being, a better person, a better Christian.

Are we closer now than we were last week? Are we even trying?

Mr. Sulu, you have the conn.

Rolo B Castillo © 2022

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