The Prodigal Son Mar. 31, 2019
I volunteer in a program called the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP). We invite people, who are recovering from addictions, to a three-day retreat at Villa St. Joseph in Cobourg, Ontario, a peaceful and beautiful setting on Lake Ontario. There is no charge. The program is funded by grants and donations. Typically, the people who come have been clean and sober for two months or more. Their memories of drug and alcohol abuse are still recent.
In one of the Saturday afternoon sessions we read and discuss the parable of the Prodigal Son, (Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32) which is the gospel for this Sunday, March 31st. Many of the retreatants can identify with the prodigal son in a profound way.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In the discussion about the passage, a retreatant often notices that Jesus doesn’t mind eating with sinners and fringe people. He even welcomes them. They like the fact that this is an accusation by the Pharisees but that Jesus seems to accept it happily.
So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
During the time of reflection, retreatants often volunteer their own stories about how they started drinking or using drugs in their early teens, or even younger. Sometimes they came from broken homes but many also came from families where their parents cared for them. They identify with the son. They also reflect on how they spiralled downwards, spending their money, getting evicted from housing and begging on the streets.
They understand this part of Jesus’ parable… about falling into poverty, losing their accommodation and being hungry…as being true-to-their-lives.
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
Many retreatants tell how they ‘hit bottom’ and realized that they would probably die if they didn’t change their lives. Their stories are often grim with words like “disgusting” to describe their own evaluation of their behaviour. The realization also came with deep regret for the pain they had caused their parents or spouses and especially their children. Sometimes they could talk about it, but often they would say something about the people that they had hurt, shake their heads and look down. They felt unforgivable.
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
The word compassion strikes many, not as a painful hammer blow, but as a big pillow, which brings them to a halt softly. They talk about the person who picked them up when they were at their lowest point. Often, the person seems to appear by chance. It is not someone who was waiting for them as the father in the parable was. Nevertheless, they can identify a father (or mother)-figure in their own recovery. Almost universally, they knew that they were incapable of managing their recovery alone. They each needed help and support from someone who looked beyond their obvious failures.
This parable sticks with many retreatants. They try to determine if the acceptance is true for them. (Remember, they are frequently just weeks away from having bottomed-out.) Some identify with the prodigal son as he travels homeward, in hope… but they are not sure if they can bring themselves to believe that they will be accepted by a loving God. That part of the parable is still hard for them.
On the Sunday morning of the retreat, the retreatants pair up and go for a walk to talk about the retreat experience as it comes to a close. In one of my walks with a retreatant, he told me that the retreat experience and the stories, including the parable, gave him hope to continue. He felt that the retreat setting and the conversations made him feel welcome. He had kept turning the parable over in his mind.
While the parable continues with the part about the elder son …who became angry and refused to join the celebration of his brother’s return the focus of the retreatants remains with the mystery of the father’s love. They each have their own experience of that embrace when they were at their lowest point… of someone who cared for them even when they were disgusted with themselves and felt unworthy. Happily, too, the retreat frequently reinforces this sense of the fact that they are loved, without qualification.