His father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.—Luke 15:20
For years the image I kept in my head from the Parable of the Prodigal Son was of this benevolent, rich father, wearing a beard and fancy robe, embracing a son who looked something like a fraternity boy after a weekend of hard partying.
That image got upended some five years ago by a tattooed teenaged girl I encountered at the Gastonia city transit terminal. It was a hot October afternoon, and I had arrived early to meet our son’s caregiver, hoping to pray and watch the sunset. I had just opened the Divine Office app on my iPhone when I spotted her at the end of a bench.
The tattoos or eyeliner or “goth” haircut didn’t seem as unusual as the trenchcoat. She had it buttoned-up despite the 80-degree heat. Seriously tough girl, I thought, as I counted the piercings on her face. Seriously scared girl, I realized, after I saw her eyes.
“Can I use your cell phone?” she asked.
She explained she’d spent 17 hours on buses from Ohio. She was making a short-notice visit to grandparents who’d moved back to town to start a business. It hadn’t gone well, and they were broke.
“And you’re coming here why?” I wanted to ask. A plastic trash bag at her side — filled with all her belongings — told me she had nowhere else to go.
I was three months from ordination. I wanted to do something. Get her a meal. Tell her how much God loves her, proclaim the Gospel. I bowed to the stronger impulse to shut up. The girl and her trash bag made their way to the parking lot. I started Google-searching for homeless shelters.
Five minutes later a gray Delta 88 sputtered up Main Avenue, going just five mph. Good thing because Grandma didn’t wait for the car to stop before exiting and running to embrace the girl.
“I’m sorry” — “No, I’m sorry” filled the air. I glanced over to see the girl whispering in Grandma’s ear and Grandma, stepping back, bug-eyed, as the girl slowly unbuttoned the trenchcoat.
Out came a baby bump. The look on Grandma’s face made me think she was going to turn and run. I thought I’d have to give the girl a ride to a shelter or obstetrician. Maybe I’d proclaim the Gospel.
Grandma didn’t run. Grandma knelt, wrapped her arms around that belly and kissed it.
The Gospel got proclaimed.
When we say God loves us, it’s not the spit-shined, have-it-all-together version of ourselves that God loves. God see those places in our lives, those circumstances, those consequences that we’d rather hide but embraces us anyway.
Just as surely as the father in the parable embraced the party-boy son. Just as surely as Grandma embraced her granddaughter — who made the gutsy and moral choice of carrying her child but kept her condition tucked away under that trench coat.
God chases after us and welcomes us, no matter whether we come to God toting the designer luggage filled with the things we think God expects from us.
God chases after us and welcomes us, even when we’re toting the trash bags filled with the things we’re really about. The stuff we had to pack in a hurry, the stuff we didn’t have time to fold or wash.
The forgiveness that God gives us in Jesus does come with a real forgetfulness. The slate does get wiped clean, our Scriptures tell us. Our sins are remembered no more.
But so often — despite God’s free forgiveness — we’re still left many of the same tendencies, the same personal defects, the same circumstances that cultivate and cause us to sin. God sees those but doesn’t kick us out of the house.
That’s why we need ongoing conversion. That’s why we show up here at Mass, week in and week out to hear the words of forgiveness, to eat the food that is Christ himself.
It’s why we take seasons like Lent to reflect upon the places where we’re falling short, to gather together in small groups and communal worship to lift each other up. To let things in our lives be unhidden no matter whether we’re covering them up with trench coats or happy faces or even fancy robes.
We might be as lost as that wayward son in the parable or just someone like that teenager who found herself in a tough circumstance she wasn’t immediately able to share. But if we let ourselves, we can be found by the God who never stops pursuing us.
Some of you might not be able to identify with the image of a forgiven son or an embraced granddaughter because you haven’t had that experience from people in your life, at least not recently. There may be people in your life who didn’t give because they didn’t have it to give.
The goodness and mercy in women and men can run out. What God gives doesn’t run out. God overflows with mercy. God is rich in mercy, and he’ll always find a way to spend on us. I was reminded that the word prodigal didn’t originally mean repenting sinner but refers to reckless spending of money, the actual sin of the lost son. He recklessly spent money on partying.
We probably should call the parable the “Parable of the Prodigal Father,” because it points to a God who recklessly spends on us, spends his mercy.
As we wrap us this Lent, look for this God. Perhaps in your experience of prayer. Perhaps in the embrace of a parent or sibling or classmate or best friend. Perhaps, even, in an encounter with a stranger like the grandma whom I still think of nearly every day.
Know this: This God sees you, knows you and will never reject you. All you have to do is let yourself be found. The journey could be as long as a 17-hour bus ride from Ohio. It can be a short as the 3 to 50 feet you’ll walk up the communion line a few moments from now.
You can even bring your trash bags.
Chip Wilsonis a deacon in the Diocese of Charlotte, serving at Queen of the Apostles Catholic Church in Belmont, North Carolina. He is a recovering newspaper journalist and husband of Terri and father of Christopher.