The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. For much of my life, I admit I did not understand the parable. All that changed in an instant after I had entered the Sisters of St. Joseph.
As a novice, I met with the Novice Director once a week. Once, we were at a workshop at a summer home on Lake Placid. My weekly meeting with the Novice Director took place in a rowboat on the lake! We were talking about this parable, and I blurted out “I don’t like that parable!”
“Why not?” she inquired.
“Because I don’t understand it! It’s not fair to the older son! The younger son leaves his father and goes off to live the ‘high life’ with his friends, with no regard for his father … or anyone else, for that matter, except himself!”
“Who do you relate to in the parable?” she asked.
“I’m the older son. He stayed home and did what he was supposed to do!”
Sister Mary Ellen looked me straight in the eye and said, “Yes, he did, Katie, …out of obligation, and not out of love.”
I almost fell out of the boat! “Oh, my God, I am the older son!” In an instant, I realized that all my life, I had “followed the rules.” I was the good Irish Catholic girl. In that moment, I knew that my “spirituality” (if you can even call it that) was based on obligation. Not love.
Sister Mary Ellen went on to say, “Katie, the whole point of the story is the Father’s love, the Father’s forgiveness—for both his sons. Neither son was grateful. Neither son responded in love. The Father loved both of them anyway. The parable is about the Father!”
I have pondered that moment for many years. It was a call to conversion. “Following the rules” did not and could not ever make me a disciple. Jesus does not call us to obligation. Jesus calls us to love.
Jesus calls us to relationship with the God who loves us unconditionally and who forgives everything. Jesus calls us, as people who are created in the image and likeness of that God, to love unconditionally and to forgive everything.
I fail often. I hope I have learned to return home to the Father and to welcome his embrace with gratitude.