I missed going to church during the pandemic lockdown in 2020. I'm a haphazard and occasionally defiant Catholic, but that's kind of the point. In college, a Jesuit suggested that sin and redemption might be a dialectic process that brings us toward God. I wouldn't want to go too far down that road, but it comforted me at the time.
Anyway I found a faith community that suited me, a non-diocesan parish in Northern Virginia that was holding Mass online. They've been a lovely, welcoming, safe group, one of my pandemic treasures. Liturgy planning is a cooperative effort with a regular rota of order priests, the "padre cadre." A few Sundays a year, we don't have a priest, and instead of Mass we have a community-led liturgy. We had one yesterday, for the fourth Sunday of Lent, and I got to be part of the planning team. Not only that, but I got to give the sermon.
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I am a writer and an editor, working in a broad range of environments—I work on everything from legislative hearings to social media posts about sports. It’s all storytelling, and my first question on every project is, “Who is this for?” Who’s the audience, and what is the audience supposed to do with this communication?
I was so glad that we got this version of the Prodigal Son story today, because the chapter opens with Luke telling us who the audience for this story was: not the tax collectors and sinners, who were already hanging out with Jesus and listening to what he had to say, but the Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining about Jesus spending his time and wisdom on people they found unworthy.
When we hear a parable or a fable, we identify with a character based on the lesson we think we’re supposed to learn. The most obvious message of the story of the Prodigal Son is that God will always forgive us and welcome us home. That is a powerful message, and that is a message we all need to hear, that God offers this absolute and radical forgiveness. But the way that Luke frames this story makes it clear that this was not the only message Jesus was trying to deliver, and was maybe not even the most important message for the audience he was addressing.
The people Jesus was speaking to were the people in the position of the faithful son. And what does the father say to the faithful son? He says, “You are with me always, and all I have is yours.”
You are with me always, and all I have is yours. Not half. Not “your share.” All I have is yours.
This is what Jesus was telling the Pharisees and scribes: all God has is yours. The forgiveness of the prodigal takes nothing away from you.
I grew up in a family of six children. We fought constantly over “fair shares.” My father threatened to get a food scale to make sure that nobody got even a little bit more ice cream than anybody else. God does not need to do that, because God is infinite. God’s love is infinite. God’s forgiveness is absolute. God’s forgiveness of and love for other people takes nothing away from us. And God invites us, like the Prodigal Son’s father, to join in celebrating that love, celebrating that forgiveness, welcoming everyone home again.
In this story, we see ourselves as the prodigal son, being forgiven, because we know we need that forgiveness so badly. But we must also recognize that we are the brother, who needs to get a grip, and realize that forgiveness and love are not ice cream. Nothing God gives anyone else subtracts from the infinite love and forgiveness we get every moment of every day. We are invited to celebrate that radical forgiveness, and if we aspire to be more like Jesus, we must find that radical forgiveness in ourselves as well. And so we are called to be the prodigal son—and the prodigal’s brother—and the prodigal’s father. We are all three people in that story.
So let us all celebrate and rejoice—because we, and our brothers, and our sisters, have all been dead and restored to life. We have all been lost, and now are found.