A reflection on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 27, 2022.

We have heard the parable of the prodigal son many times. It seems that Jesus left the parable wide open with unanswered questions. Did the older son join in the celebration? Did he finally see his father’s point of view? Did the two brothers reconcile? What kind of a son was the prodigal once he returned? Like a good movie or a novel, this parable cries for a sequel. 

Although the parable’s conclusion is left open-ended, the introduction is very clear. In fact, this introduction is as important as the parable itself. Luke introduces the parable in these words: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So to them Jesus addressed this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3). Luke tells us Jesus’ target audience (the Pharisees and the scribes), the problem he was trying to address (the complaint of Pharisees and the scribes that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners), and the problem itself (tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus). 

I believe that Luke’s introduction is an invitation to understand this parable in a different way. We are familiar with understanding it as a lesson in personal conversion or God’s unending compassion and forgiveness. Join me today in reflecting on this parable from a less explored perspective: reimagining community. 

The Pharisees and the scribes began to complain. Their complaint was that tax collectors and sinners – those who thus far were unincluded – were drawing near to listen to Jesus. For the Pharisees and scribes this meant two things: first, it was a sign that Jesus was not from God. Second, Jesus’ modus operandi would make them reimagine community. Thus far, there was a clear line between sinners and righteous people. Jesus was redrawing that line. It scared the Pharisees and scribes. So, they began to complain.

Imagining community has been a perpetual global, national, and ecclesial issue. Unfortunately, history tells us that there have been clear lines of who belonged and who did not belong. Cities and neighborhoods, churches and places of worship, highways and railway lines, shopping centers and banks, and even electoral districts were constructed based on ethnic, racial, and religious lines. The tragedy is that this history of systemic segregation continues even to this day. So too, do the politics, economics, and ecclesiology of separation.

This week, let us reflect on Jesus’ redrawing the lines of the Judaic society of his time and its implications for our times. There are two possibilities: that we join hands with Jesus, or, in fear, maintain the lines of segregation and separation.    

Becoming a Listening Church

In the early days of his papacy, Pope Francis said something that drew great appreciation from some and stringent criticism from others. He said, “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a ‘field hospital’ after battle… Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”

I want to share a recent experience I had with a teenager whose parents encouraged him to talk to me. They asked him to come to me because they said that I would be understanding. He had questions about his sexuality and his sexual orientation. There was not an ounce of rebellion in him or any peer pressure. He was going through a genuine phase of discernment. He cried through most of the conversation. I learned from him that when young people struggle with their sexuality, the first place they avoid is the Church. It should be the opposite, shouldn’t it? They are our children. No matter what they are going through and no matter what their final decision, we have to embrace them. The Church should be the first place that these young men and women turn towards. But, as Pope Francis also says, the Church is often looked upon as “a museum for saints!” 

At the recent town hall meetings on the preparation for Synod 2023 held in my diocese, one of the questions asked was, “Whose voice is not heard in the church?” The answer was varied: The young; LGBTQ; women; disabled persons; the homebound; the divorced; single people; lay parish employees; the ‘nones’; traditional Catholics; people of color; those of a different culture or different language; priests–by those above them; the abused.” The follow-up question was: “What prevents people from speaking up?” The main answer was fear–fear of being ostracized, criticized, ignored, or of losing relationships. Others spoke of a general feeling of distrust and the exclusionary culture preventing them from making their needs known. 

The lesson for us in the parable of the lost son can be a lesson for us all as we engage in our various local churches in the Synod. Like Jesus, our Church and our parishes must be places where those who are excluded feel welcome to come to Jesus. Let us reimagine our communities as places of welcome by redrawing the lines that separate us.

Families of Parishes and the Parable of the Lost Son

These days, in my archdiocese as in many others, we are redrawing the lines of yet another reality in our lives: our parishes. The latest data on declining church membership, declining sacramental life, and declining clergy has made the Archdiocese of Cincinnati adopt the “families of parishes” model in our reorganization. 

I have lived in my neighborhood for twenty-two years. I have talked to parishioners from every parish in my community. There is one sentence I have heard from people in every parish: “You will not catch me going across the tracks!” These boundaries divide us even though we are all so similar. We are all Catholic, yet we have drawn our own boundary lines and treated others as aliens in our community. Now the lines are being redrawn as we reimagine our community. What shall we do?

As a priest, I understand the real fears people have for any change like this–the fear of losing identity, history, parish traditions, and our sense of community. But we can recognize that this is an opportunity for imagination. It is an opportunity to forge new communities with new, shared identities, histories, and traditions. It is a moment to move from being a maintenance Church to a vibrant missionary Church. 

Catholics stand at a critical juncture in our Church. With the Synod which we have been invited to participate in, we have the opportunity to reimagine our community, the Church, and to redraw lines that are inclusive, welcoming, and affirming. We can become even more a Church that builds the kingdom of God rather than the domain of man. 

Of course, we should not lose sight of the fact that the parable of the lost son is still a parable of conversion and a parable of God’s reconciling love. If we need to individually repent for the times we have been exclusive, inward-looking, segregating ourselves and our needs far from others, let us come to God in sorrow. Let our repentance also lead us to a resolve to join hands with Jesus in building the kingdom of God. 

Image: Photo by Riley Edwards on Unsplash 

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Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.

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