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 forsomething 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 destituteand
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 relationshipand
the Bible is all about relationship. When we don't have a
living relationship, we often try to substitute with duty
"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.
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
to a RealAudio excerpt from Father Richard Rohr
Great Themes of Scripture, a 10-part audiocassette
series available from St. Anthony Messenger Press, A7090,
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.
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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
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 whatbesides being able to loveit
means to be human.
David is soon captured by a hunter who sells renegade mechas
to a Flesh Fairan 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
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
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.
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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to this month's themes:
The following material
is available at www.AmericanCatholic.org:
Journey to the Father, Millennium Monthly, March
An Experience of Forgiveness, Youth Update, January
The following products can be ordered from St. Anthony
Messenger Press/Franciscan Communications (1-800-488-0488):
to Forgive: A Step-by-Step Guide (book)
God Who Reconciles" (videotape)
Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming" (audio)
Your Enemy: The Gospel Call to Nonviolence"(audio)