When I was growing up, a lot of the readings and parables we heard at Mass and in religious education didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I could listen and hear Jesus’ explanation of the parables, or the priest’s discussion of what it meant, but I still didn’t quite get it.
To be sure, some of them weren’t that hard: the sower and the seed, for example, was easy to understand as a child. I shouldn’t just listen to the Gospel, but do something with it in my life.
But others just went over my head or, frankly, annoyed me. When I was growing up, I was one of those goody-two-shoes kids who didn’t like getting in trouble and who did like following rules. I was always a stickler for rules, even at 5 or 6. One Summer, my mother was working in the ticket booth at a movie theater a couple of days a week, and I would go to work with her and watched whatever children’s matinee was showing. My instructions were to go into the theater, count rows down the left side of the theater until I got to the tenth row down, and sit on the aisle so my mother could find me. One day, I counted and found a woman sitting in “my seat”!! I went into a panic over this, and screwed up my courage to whisper to this stranger, “You’re in my seat.”
The woman was completely perplexed, since I was definitely not in the seat, nor was anything in the seat saving it for me, when she took it. She didn’t move (which makes sense, really), but I insisted she was in my seat. I started to cry, and the usher came to see what was wrong. He knew me, and asked what was wrong, so I explained that the woman was in my seat, I was supposed to count ten rows and this was ten and how would Mommy find me if I wasn’t in Row Ten and I was going to be in trouble for not being there and I counted and she is in my seat and… You get the picture.
Not only had I counted wrong, but it never occurred to me that my mother would see me in Row Nine or Row Eleven, or that I wouldn’t get in trouble for sitting one row off in either direction.
So, yeah. Rules are a Big Deal to me.
Enter the Prodigal Son Parable. My sister has never been the rule follower I am (there are few people who are, really), and so when I heard this story in the Gospel, I would fume just like the older brother. It wasn’t until last year that I could grasp this story the way it is supposed to be grasped: that, as a parent (the perfect Parent), God doesn’t care what we’ve done in the past when we repent and seek Him out. He won’t even wait until we’re perfect Christians – or even safely inside the Church – to reach out to us and embrace us and bring us home Himself.
What has really changed for me is having teenagers. As my children grow up and strive to be more and more independent, I gain a deeper appreciation for what it means to call God our Father. Until I had children who were becoming young adults, I could’t understand the concepts present throughout the Bible: God yearns for His children to return to Him. He looks after Israel, who has sinned and worshipped false gods and intermarried and forgotten Whose they are, and weeps over their separation from Him. He sees them going in a bad direction, hanging out with the wrong kinds of people, and worries that they will forget their roots. He reminds them what He has done for them, why they are where they are, and must bear the hurt patiently as they turn away from him and go their own way. He lets them make mistakes and pay the price, even when He could save them.
As I grow older and my children grow up, I’m finding this message of God’s unending love and patience more accessible. It gets easier to trust in His mercy as I learn to be merciful to my children. I can relate to His undying love for us in spite of our sins when I worry over the direction one of my own children might be taking.
And when I call Him “Father,” there is a whole new layer of meaning to it.