Godtalk: A Prodigal God

Published on 17 Jul 2014

Pope Francis has brought a breath of fresh air into the Church.  There had been a disturbing trend for the embrace of our churches to become less inclusive. We seemed to be requiring a purity and exclusivity not demanded by Jesus in the Gospels.  

Indeed the very word ‘inclusivity’ is often dismissed as being part of the ‘I am spiritual but not religious’ ethos, as if being inclusive were some kind of light-weight, New-Age, thing rather than a central demand within Christian discipleship itself.

What does it mean to be inclusive? We can begin with the word ‘Catholic’.  The opposite of being ‘Catholic’ is not being ‘Protestant’. The opposite of ‘Catholic’ is being narrow, exclusive, and overly selective in our embrace. 

‘Catholic’ means wide, universal. It means incarnating the embrace of an abundant and prodigal God whose sun shines on all indiscriminately, the bad as well as the good. Jesus once defined this by saying, ‘In my father's house there are many rooms.’  God's heart is prodigal, and all embracing, a heart that takes care to pray for those ‘other sheep who are not of this fold’. To be ‘Catholic’ is to imitate that.

In the Gospels we see that Jesus' passion for inclusivity virtually always trumps his concern for purity and worthiness. He associates with sinners without setting any prior moral conditions that have to be met before those sinners are deemed worthy of his presence.

His disciples, much like many good sincere church-goers today, were forever trying to keep certain people away from him because they deemed them unworthy; but Jesus always protested that he didn't need that kind of protection and that, indeed, he wanted them all to come to him. 

We need to be more inclusive. Today our faith families are shrinking and instead of weeping about this loss of wholeness we are more prone to be secretly gleeful about it. Good riddance, they weren't real Christians anyway!  Or, in the words of some Catholic commentators, they were cafeteria-Catholics, picking and choosing which parts of the Gospel they like.

Such a judgment, however sincere and well intentioned, needs two large caution flags. The first is this.  Who is a true, fully practicing Catholic?   Only Jesus and Mary were fully practicing Catholics. Everyone else falls short. We all live the Gospel somewhat selectively. For example, many of us emphasise church-going and private morality to the neglect of the Gospel demand for justice, while others simply reverse this. Who's closer to Jesus?

The answer to that question lies in the secret realm of conscience. But none of us gets it all right. We all stand in need of God's forgiveness, and all of us stand in need of the patience of our Church communities.

The second caution flag is this.  The God that Jesus reveals to us is a God of infinite abundance. In God there is no scarcity, no sparing of mercy. As the parable of the Sower makes clear, this God scatters his seed indiscriminately on every kind of soil - bad, mediocre, good, excellent soil.  God can do this because God's love and mercy are limitlessness.

God, it seems, never worries about someone receiving cheap, undeserved grace.  Jesus assures us that God is prodigal.   Like the father of the prodigal son and his older brother, God embraces both the missteps of our immaturity as well as the bitterness and resentment within our maturity.  Good religion needs to honour that. 

Today, conservative or liberal alike, we need to remind ourselves of what it means to live under an abundant, prodigal, universally-embracing, and ‘Catholic’ God.  What it means, among other things, is a constant stretching of the heart to an ever-wider inclusivity. How wide are our hearts? (Dear God, please make bad people good, and ‘good’ people, kind!)

Exclusivity can mask itself as depth and as passion for truth; but it invariably reveals itself, in its inability to handle ambiguity and otherness, as rigidity and fear, as if God needed our protection. More importantly, it often reveals itself as lacking genuine empathy for those outside its own circle; and, in that, it fails to honour its own abundant and prodigal God.

Peter Knott SJ