PRODIGAL SON LUKE 15 11-32
The Prodigal Son, The Merciful Father, The Angry Brother.
Such a powerful story recalls our wounds and our hopes, if not personal ones, at least ones that we have seen in others with our own eyes. Sometimes the story recalls hypocrisy, too, our own or that of others. Such stories were part of parish life when I served at the parish of the Church of the Gesu in North Philadelphia. Surely such stories are part of parish life everywhere. But during my ministry I got to know only this one parish, an African American congregation that had a series of wonderful lay and Jesuit leaders over the one hundred and twenty years before my pastorate. The lay leaders were extraordinary men and women who exemplified mercy. A few of the elders among them had been turned away when the parish was still all white. Their African American Roman Catholic parish was not so far away and that’s where the Gesu ushers told them they belonged. But the walk to Gesu was far easier. They kept showing up and finally got some welcoming encouragement. They integrated the parish and never harbored any bitterness. I will return to the parish to tell its story of the prodigal daughter.
But first for his insight on the story of the prodigal, I consulted Jose Pagola’s book about Jesus subtitled “An Historical Appreciation”. Pagola’s comments about the story of the prodigal son include an element that was new to me. That is, the relationship of the father with his two sons takes place publicly within a community of broader blood and communal ties. Pagola describes how the community reacted to this son who dishonors the family by carrying out his scheme. His demand that the father surrender his share of the inheritance before the usual acceptable time certainly became known and condemned in their community. No son should be allowed to abandon his family and claim his inheritance before the death of the father. And no father should be so permissive. But the father must have known something about this son of his. Years later when the son returns he is waiting for him. The community hears within hours of the father’s merciful welcome. Indeed many of them attend the welcome home party organized by the father. To this celebration the father invites everyone in the community so all can take a role in restoring the dignity of his son. One imagines that some of these guests reject this role and are secretly thinking like the older son or the Pharisees to whom Jesus addresses the story. How can this father forget the dishonor that this young man brought on him and his household?
At the Gesu parish I saw some of the elements of this story repeated more than once. In one series of events, the place of the merciful father was taken by Katie Robinson, mother and grandmother known to all in the neighborhood. One of Katie’s daughters, Latrell, found herself trapped in drug abuse. Latrell never went far from home over her long period of active drug use. Over those years she bore children, all of them troubled by the lack of a mother’s love. We in the parish got well acquainted with four of the children because Latrell gave over the care of these four to their grandmother, Katie. Latrell would visit her mother and the children in her mother’s care from time to time. Katie, a master of tough love, (I heard her, when speaking of her children paraphrase the Marine drill sergeant’s proclamation: “their souls belong to God but their behinds belong to me”) would not allow her daughter Latrell to stay in the house even overnight but would always allow her a visit. Latrell could come in the backdoor anytime and enjoy a meal in the kitchen. Latrell, spotted on the street coming and going, would always greet neighbors with a smile as if everything were alright.
The return of the prodigal daughter begins at a North Philly rehab center. By this time the children are teenagers. Latrell’s time of staying clean extends into months and months. She writes notes to her children expressing her sorrow at not being a mother to them. Katie, Latrell’s children and her brothers and sister are all able to greet her in person during her time of rehab. There are tears and hugs. All are hopeful even after Latrell’s health deteriorates and she is admitted to the hospital. But the years of abuse have so damaged her body that she grows weaker and dies.
To celebrate the funeral Katie, her grieving mother, leads the whole family to the Church. Friends, neighbors, parishioners, those whom Latrell greeted with a smile show up to mourn her. This is more than a family event; the whole neighborhood joins in prayers for Latrell and her family. Latrell’s sister gives the eulogy with tears of joy. And her message is clear. Amazed at God who saved her poor sister surviving so long without a home, the sister praised and thanked God with words like this. “All these many years Latrell could have died alone and abandoned in the streets. But God took pity on her. Latrell in her trouble left us her family. But she died surrounded and loved by us. She was lost but she was found. Latrell came back to us and now lives in her true home.” Family and friends, neighbors and parishioners shared tears of joy in that congregation of mourners. It was a funeral celebration unlike any I have ever attended. At this return of the prodigal no one took the place of that older brother. In that church there were no Pharisees.
Events like this at Gesu parish help us grasp the stories that Jesus tells us about God’s mercy. Yes, the broader world might think of Latrell and her life as a great loss. And her life surely had that element of talent wasted and love lost. Not everything could be restored. But we community members in the Church that day praised God, the God who confirmed our hope that Latrell went home to meet the divine face with that same smile she showed when meeting us on our streets.
Merciful Mother, Prodigal Daughter.