While the Parable of the Prodigal Son resonates so deeply with us and is a popular Gospel read at penance services and other moments of reconciliation, most of us fail to understand its multi-layered challenges.
We all like to identify with the father – we are compassionate and forgiving, longing for reconciliation with a loved one from whom we are alienated. Many of us look at ourselves as the prodigal, we know our wayward past – or present – and either remember or hope for such a warm embrace from our families and friends. But the reality is most of us can identify with the eldest son.
Forgiveness is a risky business. If you offend me and I forgive you, or I forgive you and you forgive me, it is between us. We have our moment of reconciliation and peace and then we move on in whatever way the relationship evolves.
What is far more difficult is to be the third person party in a disrupted relationship. We can imagine that in real life, a father who has two sons, one of whom runs off with his money and wants to make a clean break with the family, will have a hard time accepting this. The son who remains, gets easily caught up in the drama of disappointment and anger. He also has to deal with his own sense of loss. He lost a brother and has to deal with an alternating angry, grieving, disappointed and hopeful father.
When the son comes to his senses and comes home, the father overreacts with compassion and generosity. What the father does for the son is “over the top” and exaggerated. He might rue this decision later, but he has put it out there, so he cannot take it back.
The elder son now has to live through this new drama and another new normal. He feels slighted, abused, underappreciated and betrayed and rightly so.
Many of us have been there. Just because our parent has forgiven a wayward child does not mean that we are in a place to forgive a wayward sibling. Sometimes we can’t understand how, given all of the negative and painful emotions, that the reconciliation was even possible. Yet, as a third party – with our own feelings and issues – we are expected to join in the party, even when celebrating is the last thing we want to do.
It is interesting that it is precisely there – at the bitter barbs between the father and the eldest son – that Jesus ends the parable. While Jesus has the father try to take the edge off the disruption this will cause in their relationship, he does not broach the question as to how the two brothers can find reconciliation between themselves. We have no idea if he went to the celebratory feast or not. We are left to write the rest of the parable ourselves.
Forgiveness is not easy. The rancor of contemporary society shows that. We identify people by their worst attributes. We seek vengeance more than justice; retribution more than restitution.
Setting aside bitterness, anger, or envy when we aren’t ready or prepared to do so always seems inauthentic and meaningless. Receiving an apology from someone when we sense that they are doing so only in a pro forma or calculating way can only deepen our resentment and now draw us to healing.
The life of discipleship is oriented towards a “ministry of reconciliation” as Paul tells the Corinthians. Our Lenten journey challenges us to set aside our own bitterness and hurts, and to seek peace for ourselves and those in our lives with whom we find discord and disharmony.
It is hard work – but it is the work we have to do. We have to go to the party.[[In-content Ad]]
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.