The three journeys

The parable of the prodigal son is a perfect match for the season of Lent and for this Year of Mercy. The characters in the story are ones with whom we can all identify - the wasteful son, the forgiving father and the elder son. These are not simply storybook characters but roles each of us has played at some point in our life.

Sometimes we are like the wasteful son, bewitched by the illusion of independence, seeking an identity apart from our roots and friends, anxious to trace our own path in the world. We also have seen how the promises that our popular culture makes can disappoint, how we can become disillusioned and how we can yearn once more to establish contact with the very institutions and friends we once rejected. We come to realize that the places we thought were our prison turn out to be our home.

Sometimes we are like the forgiving father. Over time, we learn to forgive those who have tried to use us, as the son did the father. Parents forgive their children all the time. Strong friendships can survive any storm. Marriage is like a graduate school of forgiveness.

Finally, we can be like the elder brother, the point of the story. It is important to remember the setting of this parable. The Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for associating with sinners. The Lord then addressed this parable to them.

Over the years, we may have been faithful to the Gospel and to the church. We have worked on parish committees, faithfully contributed to the collection and to the "second collections" as well. We have tried to follow the church's teachings. Then, we hear of someone who has ignored the church all of his or her life. Something brings that person back to the church and they are praised for their conversion, given accolades and testimonials. They are lionized by clerics and lay people alike. And we feel resentful, like the elder brother.

Yet, three important points need to be made about each of these persons.

In the parable, when the prodigal son returns, does he simply sit down at the table as though nothing had happened? Or is there some work of repair that he needs to do with the workers on the farm, with relatives and with his older brother? It is the same with people who return to the church after a long hiatus. They, too, have some repair work to do with family and friends who may have been profoundly disappointed, even betrayed by their departure. The journey back home can be difficult and demanding.

The elder son also has some work to do. We can become so judgmental about those who leave that we make it difficult or even thwart their hesitant and tentative first steps back to the church. If we are to be ambassadors of reconciliation, as St. Paul says, we must recognize the importance of giving support, encouragement and welcome to those returning to the church. Their return is not the end of the story - it is a new beginning. The journey of forgiveness can be difficult and demanding.

The forgiving father also has some work to do. He must now be the agent and catalyst of a renewed family life. His journey is not simply one of welcoming a son home but of restoring a relationship between the brothers so that they are brothers not only in biology but in heart and mind. This journey of reconciliation also can be difficult and demanding.

Three people and three journeys: For the prodigal son, it is a journey of return; for the elder brother, it is the journey of forgiveness; for the father, it is the journey of reconciliation. These journeys are difficult, like the journey of the Israelites in the reading from the Book of Joshua. But, taken seriously, they will lead us to the promised land of return, forgiveness and reconciliation.

This Lent, each of us is called to make one of these journeys.

Fr. Krempa is pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016