No Strings Attached

Today’s (9/15) Gospel reading features the story of the Prodigal Son. While the story is well-know, there is a deeper, more unfamiliar message to it.

As I was writing my book on St. Francis of Assisi, I was increasingly drawn to his radical interpretation of the Gospel. In the last few years, I’ve come to better appreciate just how radical the Gospel itself is. The truly radical nature of the Gospel is clearly evident in the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, Christ says, in essence, that the just person who has never sinned will be less well received in heaven than the person who has sinned and has repented. So it seems straying from the straight and narrow path has it rewards, as long as you return to the path. There was no fatted calf or feast for the son who did not kill, or steal, or commit adultery, and who instead obeyed all the Commandments. This is hard for us to understand, because it goes against our nature. We want to reward the good and punish the bad. The Prodigal Son’s brother was enraged and filled with bitter indignation at his father’s joyful reaction to the return of the brother who had brought shame to the family. The father’s response: your brother who was dead is now alive, he who was lost is now found. That response recurs again and again in the Gospel, like a leitmotif with endless variations: for the one who exalts oneself shall be abased; and the one who humbles oneself shall be exalted; and the first shall be last, and the last, first.

Jesus didn’t spend his time with the good and the just. He consorted with outcasts, with publicans and sinners. He ate with prostitutes and with vagabonds he found along the highways and hedges. Why? Perhaps because they, like the Prodigal Son, were capable, in the extremity of their evil or pain, of a sudden awakening that enabled them to convert their utter deprivation into a new reality and true clarity. Moments of great suffering and failure often lead people to scale the heights of their souls…perhaps because they have nowhere else to go. Crying out for God in the darkness isn’t something an honest person who believes he or she stands well with himself or herself, society and God, is likely to do. The Prodigal Son risked all and lost all, and yet in the moment of loss, he came nearer to God than ever before. It’s not the way most of us would have organized things. But that’s what makes the Gospel message so radical. And truly hard to follow…at least for me.

When you look more deeply at the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son, you see how the story illustrates God’s unconditional acceptance and forgiveness. God is a God of endless second chances. No human being can escape making mistakes. If we are wise, we learn from them. I’ve been a very slow learner. The deeper message of the parable of the Prodigal Son is that God allows us to make our own way through life, even when the path we choose is a dead end. God gives us the freedom to make mistakes, to make bad choices. But God is always there, always ready to warmly embrace us when we turn around and head in the right direction. God gives us the freedom to be co-creators of the gift of life God gave us. Whether we choose to walk with God or without God, God’s love remains constant. No matter what we do in life, no matter how bad our screw-ups, God is there to help us pick ourselves up and start over. The journey through life is a twisting path, filled with ups and downs, possibilities and potholes, consolations and desolations. The journey is hard. We must climb mountains of problems and traverse deserts of doubt. But God is there walking with us, pointing the way, and so there is no need to fear or falter.

Life, the Gospel proclaims over and over again, prevails over death. The story of Jesus does not end on the cross but in the resurrection. God is not finished with me…or you. God is always laboring to bring about a new creation in each of us…especially when others seem intent on judging and destroying us. Jesus wants us to know joy and fulfillment, even in the midst of our suffering. Jesus calls each of us out of the tomb of our mistakes. Like he did with Lazarus, Jesus wants to unbind us so we can be fully alive.

On my desk is a small picture card featuring a detailed look at the father and son from Rembrandt’s famous painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. The back of the card features the prayer of serenity. For me, the picture represents the ideal of the all-merciful, all-forgiving father from the Gospel story. But there is more to the painting than meets the eye. The father in the patriarchal social context of the biblical story would never run to embrace a son who dishonored him. Such a gesture would have been an act far too undignified for the venerable head of a family to preform, especially since the son had not yet even sought forgiveness. Moreover, the son had thrown away any privileges he may have had; he lost all his money and was on the brink of ruin. In those times, the son would have been considered a complete disgrace to all, and not worthy of the father’s trust or affection. Yet, the father forgave his son without asking him for any reparation or proof of the sincerity of his repentance.

For those who heard Jesus tell this parable, it was truly an astounding story, because he was telling them that God’s forgiveness was an easy thing to obtain. You simply had to walk into God’s loving arms. God gives Love away. There are no strings attached, no conditions to be met. It is ours for the asking.

The father’s embrace of the son healed the son of the disastrous effects of his wrongful behavior. When you experience that level of generosity, totally unmerited, you become more acutely aware of your failures, and you make a sincere effort not to repeat them. That is the transforming secret of confession.

The story of the Prodigal Son tells us that we don’t have to feel guilty over the reality of our human frailty and weakness. God is not standing behind some bush waiting to jump out and sternly judge us. No…God, Jesus says, is running down the road toward us, eager to wrap his arms around us and kiss us better. The enormity of God’s love, which is so vast it is beyond measure or comprehension, creates an awareness of the depth of my insufficiency. But that awareness does not trigger feelings of unworthiness or emptiness. Rather it creates a sense of poverty which allows me to trust fully in God, and abandon myself fully in God’s bountiful love.

The painting and the parable also reminds me of my need to forgive others, without hesitation and without question. And without question, that is hard to do, which only illustrates more clearly the radical nature of the parable and God’s love. A few years ago, three people conspired to do something truly terrible to me. They nearly destroyed my life. For at least six months I harbored such anger and resentment toward them that it nearly killed me. Then, one day while deep in prayer, I managed to forgive them. And suddenly I was healed and able to start life over again. Life prevailed over death.

 Much of life hurts. Forgiveness helps life hurt less. Sadly, our hurts often become who we are, forming our very identity. Forgiveness helps us forget our ego, our pain, our feelings. Forgiveness is possible when your heart overflows with compassion. Forgiveness is freedom, radical freedom, divine freedom. Outside of forgiveness God is unknown and unknowable. Forgiveness is the sweetest word there is.

 Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)



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