Could we be prodigal daughters and sons, and still be loved by God? Like the younger son in Jesus’ famous parable, the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes has stepped beyond the official boundaries of our parental church. What is the message of the parable for us? Is God simply waiting for us to repent and return back home, destitute and contrite? Or is it more complicated than that?
Those of us who are parents know what it’s like to watch our children leave home. On the one hand we admire their courage in stepping out into a larger world, and we want them to be able to test their mettle in a new environment. On the other hand, we are afraid that inexperience, poor judgment and, yes, the lure of excitement will lead them astray and land them in serious trouble. But when all is said and done, do we really want our kids always to play it safe?
In his parable, Jesus tells the story of a “prodigal” son, an extravagantly forgiving father and an obedient but resentful older brother. The prodigal has ventured out, lived high on the hog and gone through all of his money. So he is forced to return home, destitute and broken in spirit. The stay-at-home older son is faithful and obedient, but not without sin himself.
Jesus is speaking to two sets of listeners in this parable. Gathered close around are his usual companions, who are largely “prodigals”: tax collectors, who are trying to make the oppressive social system of Roman-dominated Palestine work to their advantage; and “sinners,” who sell their bodies to make ends meet. This inner group must have rejoiced greatly at Jesus’ story of a warm “welcome home” and the promise of a fresh start without rancor or reproach.
Jesus’ second set of listeners are the scribes and Pharisees, who are looking on from a distance. “He welcomes and eats with sinners,” they murmur to themselves. Addressing them, Jesus recounts the older son’s reaction to his brother’s return. In the process, he says out loud what the scribes are muttering under their breath: “This son of yours,” the older son charges, “has wasted what you gave him on prostitutes!” And there sits Jesus, surrounded by prostitutes, as if to identify with the younger, wayward son. To the disapproval of the religiously correct, Jesus himself has stepped beyond the boundaries of proper behavior to engage with the wider world around him, with all its joys and its sorrows, its goodness and its sin.
The older son may be “good” and “obedient,” but he is also envious and resentful. The prodigal’s return has upset his apple cart, his notion of how things ought to be. He represents the old order, the status quo. As heir presumptive, he has something to lose. Perhaps that is why he speaks so reproachfully; he thinks he knows better than his father what ought to be done and said.
The father — that is, God — continues to love both children: the risk-taking prodigal and the play-it-safe, dutiful child. “All I have is yours,” he reminds the older son, even though the latter does not seem fully to use or appreciate his access to these assets.
The scribes and Pharisees are representatives of the old order, the religious tradition of their time, but the same phenomenon occurs in almost every era. Religious leaders feel called to speak in the name of God, but they often do so in ways that are condemnatory and stingy, that exclude rather than include. Jesus tells of a God who reaches out to embrace everyone.
It is not inevitable, however, that religious institutions must always play the role of the older brother. Fifty years ago, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic bishops of the world resolved to step out of their comfort zone, to venture beyond the familiar confines of the church they had grown up in. Like Jesus, they wanted to share “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish, of the people of our time.” Those are the opening words of Gaudium et spes (“joy and hope” in Latin), the groundbreaking document they created (also known as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).
Thus began an era of renewal that was probably best exemplified in the religious sisters, of which last summer’s Nuns on the Bus are a recent American example. The sisters revisioned their lives, stepping out of their convents and leaving behind their religious habits, so that they might befriend and serve people in need. Though this did not happen without controversy and criticism — there will always be “older brothers” — these “prodigal sisters” continue to provide inspiration and hope.
In recent days the church has welcomed a new pope, one who has spent most of his life far from the church’s ancestral home in Rome; one who has shared the joys and sorrows of rich and poor alike in Argentina — “almost at the ends of the Earth,” as he said in his first words from the papal balcony. We prodigal daughters and sons rejoice in his election, hoping and believing that he and we alike are embraced and held together in the arms of a loving God.
— Anne Heck is a member and homilist at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns.