In last Sunday’s reading, Jesus reminded Catholics of God’s magnanimity. The Prodigal Son story showed God’s love and care for all who turn from sin and towards Him.
Each of us has been or will be the Prodigal Son with God or our fellow man. But will we also be the Prodigal Father, the resentful brother, or the fake Prodigal Son?
Prodigal Son, Prodigal Father, & Resentful Son
The Prodigal Son parable makes clear what “prodigal” means. Or so I thought. Yes, “prodigal” means “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure” and “recklessly spendthrift,” according to Merriam-Webster. But as the priest said during his homily, it also means “yielding abundantly.”
The priest said that the Prodigal Son story could also be titled “The Prodigal Father.” More prodigal than the Son’s selfish waste of his father’s money on frivolity and prostitutes is the Father’s abundant love, charity, and forgiveness.
The Prodigal Son story is also about the son who didn’t go astray. As Father Mike Schmitz pointed out in a homily some years ago, the elder brother’s resentment came because he was dutiful – but not joyful. He doesn’t seem to recognize his father’s love. He simply went about his work. And when his brother returned as a changed man, his reaction was one of spite and divisiveness.
Watch Out for Fake Prodigal Sons
The Prodigal Father didn’t just take in a son who came home after wasting an inheritance’s worth of money. He ordered his household to “celebrate with a feast, because” his son “was dead and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”
The Prodigal Son’s return was met with joy because of his presence and his behavior. He abased himself in front of his father. He was completely humbled. Good for him, and good for us to see him as an example for ourselves.
But the Prodigal Son is also completely honest. He believes he is not worthy of his father’s generosity. He asks to be treated as hired help – unlike many others in history, our own lives, and perhaps even ourselves. Do we ever return to God, family, and/or friends with false promises in order to gain someone’s help?
The easy example of modern fake Prodigal Sons is those who say they have given up drug abuse. The opioid crisis has crashed upon rural and urban America in waves. Stories abound of families ruined by selfish fake Prodigal Sons.
But drug abusers like those my nurse wife saw in emergency rooms – people who use hospital resources to trick medical professionals out of powerful narcotics – are just the easy ones to spot. Sometimes, it is the lazy sibling who won’t keep a job. Sometimes, it is the abusive spouse who promises to be done with violence. It may be the friend or family member who blames everyone but himself or herself for life’s failures, and demands others’ resources instead of taking the steps to get their own ship back on course.
It is these people whose Prodigal Son behavior is as sincere as the Pharisees’ citation of Jewish Law. And we are obligated to treat them as charitably as Jesus and John did the Pharisees – accusing them of hypocrisy and calling them “vipers.” Sometimes, only the toughest love can create true and sincere repentance.
This is how we all must be: gentle as doves with those who genuinely seek out Christ. But we must also be wise as serpents, comparing and contrasting past behavior with current words and actions. We should welcome our family and friends back into the fold if they are truly repentant of harm which they have done. But that doesn’t mean that we should hold ourselves out for abuse – of our livelihood, our time, or our focus on those to whom we are most responsible.
As for me, the priest’s homily was a good reminder of my recent lack of charity towards some folks in my life. I’ve gossiped and condemned because I have resented the imposition on those for whom I care by fake Prodigal Sons. All that’s done is divide instead of unite. So, here’s hoping I can be more like the Prodigal Father instead of the Prodigal Brother.