Sunday, March 10 (Year C, Cycle I), is the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 34:2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Today’s Gospel reading is the Prodigal Son. It issues a very difficult challenge: It asks us to love those who oppose us.
Look at the father in the parable. His son has hurt him in the deepest possible way. The father is faced with a son who has disowned him, taken a good portion of his material goods, and then proceeded to waste the money and drag the family name through the mud.
Yet look at how the father responds: He looks for him each day and then welcomes him with open arms when he returns.
Sometimes it is said that the hardest commandment is the one to “love your enemies.” But what might be even harder is to love your family members when they have hurt you deeply.
How is that even possible to do? When you have done right by someone and that person has turned against you — whether it be in a small but painful way or a large and unmistakable way — how do you keep loving that person? What if the pain and heartache continues?
The first thing to do is to realize that we are exactly in this position with God. How often do we forget him? How often do we oppose him with sin? How often do we fail to do the things he has asked us to do? And yet he still showers us with gifts every day.
Today’s first reading is an excellent example. The Israelites wandering in the desert have sinned and murmured against God off and on for 40 years. And yet he has fed them with manna and now shows them their new land, a place so fertile and rich that it formed the cradle of civilization.
If we have a hard time embracing the ones who have hurt us, we can at least still give them gifts, just as God does for us.
As Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel: “Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
Another way to cope with the betrayal of those who love us is to focus on the ones who have never, and would never, betray us. There are some of those people in our lives, too.
We have all reflected on the bad attitude the older son had toward his father’s actions in the Prodigal Son story. But think also of the father’s attitude toward that older son.
When the older son complains about the party being thrown for his wayward brother, the father doesn’t reply, “How dare you be so stingy? It’s all about you, isn’t it? Stop whining, and if you’re so obedient, follow me in what I’m doing now.”
No; he responds with great charity. He strongly reaffirms his relationship with his son and tries to explain himself.
“My son, you are here with me always,” he says. “Everything I have is yours.”
His words seem filled with understanding as he tries to help the older brother accept what he is doing: “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
The underlying lesson of the whole encounter is one we have to take to heart in situations of pain in our own lives: Love is the only answer.
Answering slight with slight never heals. Wounding others doesn’t help our woundedness. It may not be easy, but treating others with mercy and with as much love as we can, even if they are incapable of offering love in return, is our only hope to repair difficult relationships.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.