By Karen Clifton
I currently feel like I am living in the world of the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
As a whole, the United States, like the elder brother, is all about tallying transgressions and successes. The successful people are given full access to everything – they earned it, right? They are welcome in this country, can vote, influence laws and lawmakers, and can access the best of everything.
But those who transgress (or were forced to make bad choices) are marginalized or removed from society through incarceration/detention. This ostracized status bars access to voting, education, good housing or job prospects. Most are branded with the scarlet “worst thing I have ever done” stigma for the rest of their lives.
This narrow view of right and wrong, who is in and who is out, makes life simple. It also makes us angry when anyone gets something for free, didn’t “earn it” or “follow the rules.” On principle, we will not participate in the party or the joy of a restored person having access to the table.
Through this great parable, Jesus gently calls us to be the father and emulate his love – for both the rule-followers and those who go astray. This loving with abandon brings a contagious joy to everyone, which results in celebration and an enrichment to all aspects of life. We are being called to welcome and restore everyone.
Jesus’ images of God in Luke 15 – as a shepherd, a woman seeking her lost coin, or the father of the prodigal son – is one of a God who always makes the first move. Have you felt called to seek out those who have been removed or barred from the table?
With the ripple effects of mass incarceration in this country, the need is great. Aside from the people in prison themselves, their loved ones have been left behind to face shame and hardships from lack of support. This also produces harm that is carried down through the generations. To stop this cycle of violence, we need to accompany the incarcerated with the unconditional love of the father and address their issues which led them to be incarcerated in the first place.
And as a country, we need to look at our systems which have been set up to benefit the elder brothers. We need to educate ourselves about how our systems affect those who are marginalized by racism, poverty, lack of education, broken family structures, and access to citizenship. The Bible is not about believing the words are real or divinely written. It is about taking the words to heart and allowing them to change us individually, as a church, and as a country. At Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, we are working and advocating to change the systems to include everyone at the table.
How are you ministering? As the dutiful, rule-following elder brother? Repentant younger son? Or as the loving, welcoming father? Please check out our website for tools to assist you in your formation and ministry.
Let’s work to change, individually and collectively as a nation. We don’t have to follow a God of rights and wrongs, exclusion and anger. The better choice is to emulate the father, the one who seeks to bring everyone to the celebration.
Karen Clifton is executive coordinator of Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition.