Reflection for Sunday, March 6, 2022 by Mary Lou Edgar for the 4th Sunday in Lent.
Recently I read The Return of the Prodigal Son by Father Henri J.M. Nouwen. I have always admired Henri Nouwen, and I love the parable, so I jumped right into this book.
The book is based on Father Nouwen’s perception of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. More than the story of the Prodigal Son, this is a story of Father Nouwen and the realizations he has about himself as he studies the painting. Father Nouwen calls this experience – in which he is incredibly vulnerable and led by the Holy Spirit – a long spiritual adventure that brought him to a new understanding of his vocation and offered him new strength to live it. Henri Nouwen studied each character and put himself in their place. This parable is in this week’s gospel. I thought it might be a good Lenten exercise to think about who in the parable each of us believes we are. My thoughts about myself are included below.
Who Is This Parable About?
For a very long time, I believed this this was the story of a forgiving father who loves his son. To me, it was a story of God welcoming us back home after we have sinned and asked for forgiveness. It is all that, but it can also be seen as much more. It involves a process. When thinking about the younger son, I saw his need to leave his home seeking conditional acceptance. The world wants us to be good looking, smart, accomplished, popular, etc. But God’s love is unconditional. None of these attributes matter to Him. His love is for us, the person we are, not what we accomplish. I saw in myself, much like the younger son, the need to leave my home and find all the exciting things that really didn’t matter. In the beginning, I was not as successful as I had hoped. After years of searching, I found that when I was ready, God still waited for me. In that renewed relationship, I found that I needed less of the exciting things. Other things, such as my faith and my family became all important.
The older son was angry that his father was celebrating his brother’s return. He had stayed home, didn’t ask for anything, and felt overlooked. Because there can be high expectations for first children in a family, it seems as though the older brother is as lost as the younger one. Although he did his duty and remained loyal, inside he became increasingly unhappy. Because of his envy, he is unable to celebrate his brother in any way. Older children often want to please their parents. In return for this, they get added responsibility. Eventually, they begin to feel anger and resentment begins to take root. For the older son, obedience and duty became a burden. It is only a matter of time before that resentment impacts the relationship between the son and the father. As an oldest child, I understand this. I had a great deal of responsibility and missed many of the things my younger siblings enjoyed. However, I also was rewarded for the work I did in ways that I didn’t always notice. Consequently, I became jealous, angry, and dismissive of others. Over time I began to reconcile all those pieces of my life and find peace.
All Of Us Are Loved Unconditionally
I am fascinated by the father in this parable. He appears to be a non-judgmental man forgiving his son and welcoming him home. However, I found him to be much more complicated than that. What led him to just give his younger son his inheritance and let him go? What was his life like in raising his sons? Although he appears to be very forgiving, he did not invite his older son immediately to the feast he was preparing. His son found out from servants. He clearly appears to devalue all his older son has done. As a parent, I too have made this mistake – although on a much smaller scale. However, God does not discriminate between us based on deeds. We truly are all loved unconditionally. This is a concept I am still struggling to embrace, and I continue to pray about it.
Reading this book made me look at this parable in a much different way. It was more than the lesson; it was about the people in the lesson. I saw myself in each of them in one way or another. Like Fr. Nouwen, I was surprised to admit that this parable was about me. It is easy to read a parable and think about others; it is more difficult to ascribe meaning to ourselves. For me, this was a beneficial and ultimately a joyful exercise. Possibly it will be for you too.
For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, “Do not fear; I will help you.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mary Lou Edgar, MSS, is a clinical social worker who founded A Better Chance for Our Children, an adoption and foster care agency that works to find permanent homes for children in the foster care system. Mary Lou was the Executive Director of ABCFOC, but she is now retired. She graduated from Neumann University and Bryn Mawr School of Social Work and Social Research. She and her husband joined SsAM in 2021.