Illuminating Lent: The Prodigal Son
Seeing the Word is a program of guided reflection that makes it possible to pray with images from The Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey in over 500 years.
Thank you to my friend Rachel Gabelman of Saint John’s University School of Theology for the invitation to participate in this program and offer a week of Lenten reflections on the parable of the prodigal son. These reflections originally appeared on Seeing the Word’s blog.
Day 1: Reading of Scripture
Click here to listen to me read the scripture.
Day 2: Listen
We can easily relate to the two brothers in this story. We understand the impatience of the younger brother who asks for his father’s inheritance upfront, his giving into temptation, his inability to be a good steward of his resources, and the shortsightedness that ultimately leads to his demise. The life he has chosen for himself, which may have seemed a dream come true to him at first, leaves him quite literally hungry and unsatisfied.
Then there is the older brother, who is responsible, practices an exceptional work ethic, follows the rules, and respects his father. Yet, because of this, he develops a complex that causes him to think he is better than others, at least better than his younger brother. He finds it unfathomable that his father would celebrate the return of his younger brother, who squandered his inheritance, when he has been so diligent and responsible all along.
Indeed, there are moments when we can see and hear ourselves in the very human and real laments and frustrations that both these brothers give a voice to in this parable. How do you find yourself reacting to and identifying with each brother?
Day 3: Meditate
It is no mistake that this parable is read during Lent. Like many of the stories we see depicted in this illumination, this is a story about resurrection and renewal, about death and coming back to life. The younger brother thinks he has it all, but when he loses all that he has, he is humbled. What is more humbling than being willing to eat the food that pigs eat and yet not being offered any? To be sure, he is also embarrassed and ashamed at the thought of having to share the news with his father that he lost his inheritance and is now incapable of supporting himself as an adult. But he goes back to his father anyway, because that is all he knows to do. He begs for his father’s mercy. He pleads for compassion. And what awaits him is an unexpected, surprising celebration.
Like the father, God is always waiting for us, ready and willing to accept us with open arms. No matter how badly or how often we fall, no matter how much of our talents we waste, no matter the extent to which the life we seek leaves us hungry and unsatisfied, God is always ready to rejoice with us when we return. Like the father, who tells the servants to quickly bring out the best robe for the youngest son, God promises to clothe us with God’s grace.
Day 4: See
In the same diagonal panel in which we see the image of the father reaching out to embrace the son, we also see two gold bars—the Twin Towers. Suddenly, we realize that we cannot divorce our modern reality from this Gospel message. In this illumination, we are confronted with the truth that following Christ does not only mean we are daughters and sons of the abundantly merciful Father. It also means that we are called to do the difficult work of forgiveness. We are called to interpersonal, intergenerational, interracial, and intercommunal forgiveness.
It is not easy to be like the father in the parable. And certainly not every situation calls us to express our regard for others with a physical welcome and embrace. Some relationships cannot be reconciled because they are too abusive and exploitative. But forgiveness is still essential and it is work we can do with God’s grace. These difficult scenarios call for a different kind of openness—one of our hearts rather than our arms. With open hearts we let the offenses of these relationships go, loosening their control in our lives. Rather than keeping our bitterness, resentments, and anger locked away in hearts, we implore that the Holy Spirit guide us to release them appropriately. In doing so, we experience more freedom. By the grace of God, we are then able to live more fully the life to which God calls us in a healthy, safe, and meaningful way.
Day 5: Pray
O God, our world needs more love, mercy, and compassion. Soften our hearts, renew our minds, open our eyes, and allow us to be transformed by the workings of your grace. Free us from the compulsion of jealousy, help us to value the goodness in others, teach us the way of prudence, and lead us along the path of humility. Thank you for always being there for us. Your unearned, unconditional love is always there ready and waiting to be received. Lasting joy is union with you. Amen.
Day 6: Contemplate
It is often hard to accept another person’s generosity toward us. It is also often hard for us to see someone, besides ourselves, be the recipient of another person’s generosity, when we ourselves did not benefit from that act of kindness. Jealousy and pride go hand in hand. Engrained in our American spirit of rugged individualism is this idea that fierce independence is a measure of strength. But when we value not needing anyone’s help, we also resist when others are helped. This is a vicious cycle that Jesus beckons us out of by offering us the parable of the prodigal son. It is not about taking advantage of generosity by plundering everything we have been given like the younger brother because we know a bail out is on the horizon. Nor is it about striving for perfection in everything we do such that we become haughty like the older brother. Instead, this is a story about the magnificence of God’s love, which lies at the heart of the miracle of our personal, daily resurrections and social transformations. This story calls us, like the two brothers, to contemplate continuous conversion in the face of God’s magnanimous love.
Day 7: Become Christ-like
Jesus summons us to be open: open-minded, open to ourselves, open to daily renewal, open to others, open to transformation, and open to love. In Luke 15:1-3, we see that Jesus tells the parable of the lost son as a way to expand the minds of the Pharisees and scribes, who started to grumble about Jesus’ association with sinners. In doing so, Christ reveals the tender nature of God, who extends a generous welcome to all. Like Jesus, we are called to proclaim this message of good news with joy to the entire world: God’s love is free and available to all! The hope-filled promise of eternal life, which overcame suffering and death on the cross through Jesus Christ, becomes real and transformative in our lives when we love without conditions.