GOD IN OUR MIDST
Lost and Found
By Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

Of all the parables Jesus preached, the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is perhaps the most profound in the New Testament. It is preceded by parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin. All three stories of separation and reunion reflect a crucial truth: There is something we know by losing, missing and yearning for—something we cannot know in any other way.

The story of the Prodigal Son is more that of the Prodigal Father, who, we come to learn, is extravagant when it comes to his sons. The sons are prodigal in failure; the father is prodigal in generosity.

The story is familiar to most of us: The younger son has asked for the share of his father's estate. He wants his own life apart. In effect, he says: "Give me my part of your stuff, Dad. I'm going to take off and live by myself." His father obliges and the young man runs off to a distant country, quickly squandering his inheritance. He is soon hungry and destitute—and chastened by his intemperate actions.

He returns home, prepared to acknowledge to his father that he has failed and no longer deserves to be called one of his sons. The younger son has come to his senses. He is content, even eager, to be treated as no more than a hired worker. But he is in for a big surprise, as we all will be, apparently. God is greater than our sins.

Luke writes that while the younger son "was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." He calls for a feast to be prepared in celebration of his son's return. The older son protests that he has never disobeyed his father or given him cause for grief. This is true, but the older son is trying to find his legitimacy in obedience instead of love. He doesn't know about simple relationship—and the Bible is all about relationship. When we don't have a living relationship, we often try to substitute with duty and obligation.

A Glimpse of God

"Everything I have is yours," the father insists. What a marvelous response, and what an amazing image of God! According to Jesus, God is like a Prodigal Father who welcomes home his son without explanation. No questions are asked about why the son is returning home and no apology is even asked for. He throws his arms around him, and invites everyone to celebrate because his son who "was dead has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

This is not just a son. He's a returned son. It is when we come back that we know how important union is, what strength and joy relationship gives. It is one of the most consistent messages of the Bible: It is in losing that we discover what we have. Alienation isn't the end of the world; it's the way we commonly come to God. Almost all biblical figures are transformed "sinners," not people who walk a straight line to God. That is not the path.

Universal Lesson

This parable of the Prodigal Son/Father has the power to change us because it names human relationships so perfectly. We see ourselves in both sons: We try to live our life apart and autonomously, and yet that leads to an eventual alienation and unhappiness. Slowly we gather our truth and our identity. But we are also capable of being the older son who prides himself on his orthodoxy but who is unable to celebrate and enjoy a free gift. So we end with an amazing story of one son who does it all right and is wrong, and another son who does it all wrong and is right!

At the end of the parable we never learn whether the older son comes to the banquet, but we do know that the Father continues hoping that his son will come and not live in resentment or superiority toward the brother who has done it all wrong. It is an invitation to all of us who have perhaps been good Catholics, "older sons," but can also lack compassion and forgiveness.

RICHARD ROHR, a Franciscan priest from Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. His newest book is Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Listen to a RealAudio excerpt from Father Richard Rohr

(Taken from New Great Themes of Scripture, a 10-part audiocassette series available from St. Anthony Messenger Press, A7090, $49.95.)

Questions for Reflection:

  • Think about a time you were lost. How did you feel? What was it like when you were "found"?
  • In the story of the Prodigal Son, with which brother do you most identify? Why?

Responses to this month's Questions for Reflection
from GOD IN OUR MIDST.

 

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FAMILY CORNER
It's Not Fair
By Judith Dunlap

I can still see myself carefully recounting jellybeans into five same-size baskets. It didn't matter because on Easter morning I was bound to hear how James had gotten three more red ones and was therefore more loved. The sibling battle cry, "It's not fair!" is heard in every household where two or more children reside. It's even in the Bible (perhaps not in those exact words), with Jesus telling us how an all-loving parent responds.

In the story of the Prodigal Son we find an older brother angry over the attention shown his sibling. The resentful brother accuses the father of never rewarding his faithfulness. The father listens to the complaint but hears and responds to the real issue. He does not enter into a debate about parties or even faithfulness. He simply reassures his son of his love and tells him why his brother is taking center stage at this time.

Parenting experts agree with the father in the parable. In her book, Loving Each One Best, Nancy Samalin offers points for parents to consider: Listen to your children's real need, usually an unspoken desire to feel special, loved best. Rather than argue, assure them of your love with words or a hug. Help them understand that equal treatment is not always best. Remind them that occasionally one child takes center stage because of a special need or cause for celebration but that, in time, the others have their turn.

Ms. Samalin suggests not offering the sage advice, "Life isn't fair." It's better that children understand that fair doesn't mean equal. That was the lesson the older brother needed to learn. It's something we all need to remember. No matter what life offers, we are all special in God's eyes and all loved equally.

 

For Family Response: Ask all members of the family to name one way (besides hugs and kisses) they let other family members know they love them.

Responses to this month's FAMILY CORNER.

 

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MEDIA WATCH
A. I.
By Frank Frost

This 21st-century Pinocchio story about a little boy robot (Haley Joel Osment) that wants to be a "real boy" implants images that linger long after the screen darkens.

The story of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) is set in the distant future after the polar icecaps have melted, flooding has devastated most major cities and the world is populated with as many servant robots as there are humans. But there still remains a challenge for technologists: to create a robot that knows how to love, i.e., is fully human.

Director Steven Spielberg effectively immerses us in a future universe, largely through a tour de force of special effects and a rich visual style that helps underscore the question about what may or may not be real. "David" (Osment) is the mecha (short for mechanical) given to a couple whose only child is cryogenically stored until medical technology comes up with a cure for his life-threatening disease. The couple choose to activate an irreversible protocol that releases David's capacity to love. A wonderfully strange relationship develops, although David's love still does not make him human.

While David expresses totally dedicated love, he doesn't experience the same from his mother. And when the couple's human son is healed and returns home, David's desire to be "real" becomes increasingly problematic. Unable to reverse David's protocol, and unwilling to contemplate having him destroyed by his makers, his mother abandons him in the woods to fend for himself in the company of his robotic teddy bear.

David's story swings into a wild odyssey to find the Blue Fairy he believes can make him real and allow him to be reunited with his mother. His adventures become an implicit commentary on what—besides being able to love—it means to be human.

David is soon captured by a hunter who sells renegade mechas to a Flesh Fair—an immense garish carnival wherein mechas are smashed, decapitated or blown up to the wild cheers of spectators. Seeking desperately to avoid destruction, the mechas nevertheless smile incongruously as they are led out to be annihilated.

David, however, is saved from this horrible fate by pleading for his life. His appeal moves the raucous throng. If he has feelings, they shout, he must be human. Instead they stone the unfeeling hunter who would destroy the boy robot.

David's search for the Blue Fairy eventually leads him to the laboratory where he was originally built and where he discovers in a chilling scene that he is not unique, only a prototype for a production line. Can he be human if he is not unique?

This leads to the controversial ending of the story (too sentimental?), which jumps ahead 2,000 years to a world where humans are extinct. But highly evolved mechas survive, artificially intelligent beings that have achieved superior wisdom and compassion. We are left with a final question: What does it even matter to be human?

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SAINTS AND HEROES AMONG US
By Judy Ball

St. Vincent de Paul (1580?-1660)

The name of St. Vincent de Paul is associated with care of the poor and suffering, and he is the Church's official patron of charitable groups. But when Vincent de Paul was first ordained in 1600, he envisioned little more than a life of comfort and status as a priest in Catholic France.

But as his life unfolded, he followed unexpected paths. He played a leading role in the establishment of seminaries and improved education for priests. He founded religious communities, including the Vincentians. He was a powerful and effective opponent of heresy and a noted preacher.

A chance event, as legend has it, led Vincent to appreciate more deeply the world of the suffering. At age 25 he was captured by pirates while returning from Marseilles and sold into slavery in Algeria. Within two years he escaped and returned to France. There he met influential and holy people who reinforced his desire for service and offered him financial assistance and moral support to carry out his work.

Vincent de Paul became a devoted servant of the poor. He established confraternities to serve the poor and sick in parishes. He established hospitals and orphanages. He worked among imprisoned galley slaves and regularly made the rounds of the prisons. He was especially devoted to serving the spiritual needs of rural French peasants.

He died in his 80th year and was canonized in 1737. Almost 100 years later, Frederic Ozanam, inspired by the example of Vincent, established the St. Vincent de Paul Society to serve the poor.

Madison Armer

Like many seven-year-olds, Madison Armer loves horses and computer games. She can spend many happy hours reading, drawing and doing puzzles. Zoo camp was a big hit this past summer. She can't wait to be a Girl Scout.

But unlike many others her age, Madison Armer has a heart that is touched by people who are suffering and the desire to help them. Last winter, Madison was distressed to learn that immigrants in Phoenix were lining up overnight in the cold in order to meet the deadline to regularize their status. She pleaded with her mother, Paula Eaton, an attorney, to help her do something for the "shivery" people. While Madison assembled 60 packets of cookies, Ms. Eaton, a single mom, prepared major amounts of hot chocolate. They delivered goodies for several nights. "I didn't want the people to freeze to death," Madison told Every Day Catholic.

Earlier in the year, while a student at St. Matthew School, Madison organized a yard sale to help raise funds for homeless men from Andre House. That meant parting with her scooter and some dolls and stuffed animals, but it brought in $80 and "helped people who live on the street." These efforts have earned her praise and awards, along with her work for Prevent Blindness America. Madison, who has a neurological eye problem that requires that she usually wear a patch, helped the organization with a fund-raising video.

"Helping people makes me feel really good. But sometimes I don't like it because people honor me too much. I don't need to be honored. It's just something I did," says Madison, who now attends a public school for gifted children.

Madison has heard her mother's message: "It's not what people say about you. It's what you do for people."


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RESOURCES related to this month's themes:

The following material is available at www.AmericanCatholic.org:

Our Journey to the Father, Millennium Monthly, March 1999 Reconciliation: An Experience of Forgiveness, Youth Update, January 1999

The following products can be ordered from St. Anthony Messenger Press/Franciscan Communications (1-800-488-0488):

How to Forgive: A Step-by-Step Guide (book)
"The God Who Reconciles" (videotape)
"The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming" (audio)
"Love Your Enemy: The Gospel Call to Nonviolence"(audio)




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