Conversion and Prodigality
Today is September 11th. Let us take a moment to pray for those who died in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. Let us pray for those who still grieve. And, let us pray for our enemies, that their evil plans may be thwarted and their hearts be converted.
Conversion is the theme of today’s readings. We often apply the story of the Prodigal Son to ourselves, seeing ourselves as one brother or the other. Today, I ask us to do something different, and probably more difficult. On the 15th anniversary of that terrible Tuesday morning, I ask us to think about the parable in light of terrorism.
We like the prodigal son because he is so relatable, right? His desire to leave home and explore the world is something many of us have felt. His squandering of the inheritance is something we can imagine. We empathize with him because he seems like a good young man, even if immature and in need of some guidance. We also empathize with the older brother, because we see the point of his protest. He has been slaving away and never had any kind of party thrown for him. From his perspective, the younger brother is being treated like a favorite who can get away with anything. And maybe it’s true. Which brother would you rather invite to a party?
The problem with the parable is that we miss key points of the Jewish tale. The younger brother, according to Scripture scholars, was not as nice as he seems to our ears. To Jesus’ Jewish audience, the request for his share of the inheritance was the equivalent of saying, “I wish you were dead.” It wasn’t simply that he wanted to get out on his own. He hated his father. Like satan, he would not serve! Now we can see the real evil involved here. The image of a frat boy who is still winsome, even if a bit immature, is shattered. Can we now think of the terrorists in our world and imagine them as the younger brother? They are also filled with hatred and murderous intent. Like satan, they will not serve! Yet, they too, are children of the Father.
The older brother, by the way, was no better. Although he expressed it differently, he didn’t love the father either. He felt like a slave and never realized that everything the father owned was already his. And he didn’t love his brother.
This, then, is a story about slavery, freedom, and the meaning of love. God is not a slave driver, but created us free and has continued to say to all the pharaohs of the world, “Let my people go!” (Ex. 9:1). In love, there is no compulsion, no force, and no threats. As we remember the tragedy of September 11, 2001, we can begin to hear the radical nature of this parable. Evil is a possibility because love has freedom as a condition. At its worst, freedom can be completely abused and turned against love itself. This is the essence of sin. Nonetheless, Jesus tells us that the Father’s love does not end. He loves us not just when we make stupid mistakes and immature decisions, but even when we wish him dead and declare with satan, “I will not serve” (cf. Jer. 2:20). This is the essence of pure love. It is unconditional. It wills the good of the other, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught. It never imposes itself, but instead respects our freedom to return love for love. It risks rejection.
In the end, neither son had learned to love the father perfectly. The younger son’s reasons for coming back were still selfish—“imperfect contrition” in theological terms. But imperfect contrition is enough. God will work with even the slightest move towards conversion, drawing us back with nothing but love and mercy, restoring our dignity even though we had been living among the filthiest of pigs and had become like pigs ourselves, losing our humanity. In the words of Pope Francis, “God waits; he waits for us to concede him only the slightest glimmer of space so that he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us.”¹
God awaits even the conversion of the terrorist. Will we be like the older brother, slaving away self-righteously for the father, yet not understanding his love and magnanimity? Or will we be “perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) and follow Jesus’ most difficult and radical command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44)? He did it on the Cross. We have an example to follow. Our prayers could break the hard hearts of terrorists, and what a celebration there will be in heaven and on earth when that happens!
¹Pope Francis. The Name of God is Mercy. New York: Random House, 2016. Page 34.