The Word Embodied

Prodigal Love

He welcomes sinners.

The first directed retreat I ever gave was a harrowing experience. An older Jesuit had invited me to he on a team that was to direct thirty monks at a secluded monastery. I first begged off, saying I had never given a retreat before. He replied, “With that excuse you’ll successfully avoid ever giving one.” Then I told him that giving a retreat to holy monks would be like teaching Pavarotti to sing. He didn’t think that was very funny, though it did display a little pride masked as humility. Finally I said I was too young. He said that was balderdash.

As it turned out, I was right, at least on the third count. One of my retreatants, so old I’m sure he’s now in heaven, announced to me on the fifth day of the retreat that he could never open his soul to me, so young and hippie-looking. What’s more, from day one he had been disappointed that he had not been given a more mature religious as director.

What distracted me from my ego’s wounds were the marvels of the spiritual lives of these men (including my reluctant retreatant). And still vital, after almost twenty-five years, is the memory of one monk who spent a whole day wrestling with the parable of the prodigal son.

  “I’ve prayed and prayed about this, and I’ve found out who’s really at fault in this story.”

I couldn’t wait to hear.

  “The father! He’s the problem. Why didn’t he ever tell the good son he was doing a good job? Why didn’t he put on a lavish banquet for him? Why did he make such a commotion over a ne’er-do-well who squandered half the fortune and now will probably gset another half of what rightly belonged to the first?”

He had a point.

During another retreat, a man with a wife and children once told me, “If you run a family like the father of the prodigal son did, they will walk all over you.”

He had a point too.

I’ll certainly have a few memories to heal in heaven if I find out that some profligate or oppressor was forgiven and even given a higher place than mine. I gag at the thought that Hitler might be there. And what a surprise if Nietzsche, that inveterate atheist, like a lost and recovered sheep, shows up at the banquet. What will I do if the Marquis de Sade, a bad penny if there ever was one, is found up there like a prized lost coin?

The whole thing is disconcerting. So it must have been to those priests and writers, the pharisees and scribes, who murmured when tax collectors and sinners—of all people—were gathering around to hear Jesus. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Harrumph. Then he regales us with stories of a lost penitent, more celebrated than 99 of us righteous, and a recovered coin more pleasing to the angels than nine coins never lost. As a final insult, Jesus caps off his sermon with the story of that spoiled kid.

If one of my siblings returned from a wild and woolly time, I probably would have sulked and stayed away from the party too. I would have made it quite clear that I was not enjoying the music and dance. And I wonder: Would I also refuse to join the joy, even if my father pleaded with me? Would I listen to his words? “My son, you are with me always, and everything I have is yours.”

Would he have to remind me of my own blindness? Of my squandering of life? Of my reluctance to celebrate the good? Of my own sinfulness?

One need not be St. Paul, once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance, to thank God for being treated mercifully in this life and hereafter. One need not be as derelict or depraved as Moses’ stiff-necked bunch worshiping a molten calf, to appreciate God’s forgiveness. High in grace or sunk in sin, we all know the kind of favor Jesus granted in overflowing measure. “You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Each of us, in little and large ways, ought to be thankful for unmerited love and leave the accounting to God.

There is something good in the worst of us and something bad in the best of us, my own father used to say. He too had a point.

Perhaps that is why repentance is always the start of good news. Perhaps that is why our song of God’s glory so aptly follows the confession of our sins.

Glorying in God’s loving forgiveness calls forth a third son or daughter in us. This would be the one who, after a life of bright fidelity, generous sacrifice, and courage in the face of great odds, comes to the heavenly banquet and sees a spectrum of other children there. Some of them have had a far easier time of it on earth. Others seem surprised at being there themselves. A few (many? all?) really didn’t even deserve to be there. To each God says, “Welcome, dear and precious one; all I have is yours.”

Upon being asked whether the rewards are unfair or whether she would have lived her life differently, this third child says, “No. I would do it all over.”

John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson