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This Sunday (the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C) the Gospel reading is the Prodigal Son. It issues a very difficult challenge: It asks us to love those who oppose us.
Look at the father in the parable. His son has hurt him in the deepest possible way. The father is faced with a son who has disowned him, taken a good portion of his material goods, and then proceeded to waste the money and drag the family name through the mud. Yet look how the father responds: He looks for him each day, then welcomes him with open arms when he returns.
Sometimes it is said that the hardest commandment is the one to “love your enemies.” But what might be even harder is to love your family members when they have hurt you deeply.
How is that even possible to do? When you have done right by someone and they have turned their back on you — whether it be in a small but painful way or a large and unmistakable way — how do you keep loving them? What if they are continuing to cause pain and heartache in your life?
The first thing to do is to realize that we are exactly in this position with God. How often do we forget him, how often do we oppose him with sin, and how often do we fail to do the things he has asked us to do? And yet he still showers us with gifts every day.
Today’s first reading is an excellent example. The Israelites wandering in the desert have sinned and murmured against God off and on for 40 years. And yet he has fed them with mannah and now shows them their new land, a place so fertile and rich that it formed the cradle of civilization.
If we have a hard time embracing the ones who have hurt us, we can at least still give them gifts as God does to us. As Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
Another way to cope with the betrayal of those who love us is to focus on the ones who have never, and would never, betray us. There are some of those in our lives, too.
We have all reflected on the bad attitude the older son had toward his father’s actions in the Prodigal Son story. But think also of the father’s attitude toward that older son.
When the older son complains about the party being thrown for his wayward brother, the father doesn’t reply by saying, “How dare you be so stingy? It’s all about you, isn’t it? Stop whining and if you’re so obedient, follow me in what I’m doing now.”
No, he responded with great charity. He strongly reaffirmed his relationship with his son and tried to explain himself.
“My son, you are here with me always,” he says. “Everything I have is yours.”
His words seem filled with understanding as he tries to help the older brother accept what he is doing: “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
The underlying lesson to the whole encounter is one we have to take to heart in situations of pain in our own lives: Love is the only answer.
Answering slight with slight never heals. Wounding others doesn’t help our woundedness. It may not be easy, but treating others with mercy and as much love as we can, even if they are incapable of offering love in return, is our only hope to repair a difficult relationship.
The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).