Not the results that count, but the becoming
Fourth Sunday of Lent
By JOAN CHITTISTER
The Sufis tell a story that may go to the very core of the gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). It exposes the Lenten question we may well be missing -- if not deliberately avoiding -- as we go through the season. It asks the question, Who am I becoming? in a world that prefers to shape appearances and create images rather than trade in the real thing.
Once upon a time, the story tells, a Sufi stopped by a flooding riverbed to rest. The rising waters licked the low-hanging branches of trees that lined the creek. And there, on one of them, a scorpion struggled to avoid the rising stream. Aware that the scorpion would drown soon if not brought to dry land, the Sufi stretched along the branch and reached out his hand time after time to touch the stranded scorpion that stung him over and over again. But still the scorpion kept its grip on the branch. Sufi, said a passerby, Dont you realize that if you touch that scorpion it will sting you? And the Sufi replied as he reached out for the scorpion one more time, Ah, so it is, my friend. But just because it is the scorpions nature to sting does not mean that I should abandon my nature to save.
Like the Sufi, who defines himself at what seems to be a most unlikely moment, the gospel we so glibly call the story of the Prodigal Son makes the Fourth Sunday of Lent an especially clarifying phenomenon. It raises questions in us about ourselves and it provides some mirror images out of which we are able to identify the real self.
We are all works in progress. We are never really finished. We become ourselves only one moment at a time. As a result, in every experience of every day we become more or less of what we want to become. The problem is that this gospel makes a mockery of the social norms we have been taught to value and the common standards by which we are trained to live. It offers another criterion upon which to base our self-development. It is full of confusion and full of liberation.
From one perspective, the gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is not really about three separate people at all -- a parent, one dissolute child and one faithful one. Clear as these figures may be, they are at the same time more caricature than character, more types than persons. Who has really met any of them in toto -- the parent who is always loving, the child who is always worthy, the son or daughter who is always wanton? No, the gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent is not about three discrete individuals -- one profane, one righteous, one dauntlessly loving -- as much as it is, surely, about the tug of each of these archetypes in the center of ourselves. It is a blueprint that leaves us asking ourselves which one of them we ourselves are really most like and which one of them is strongest in us right now.
A Lenten journey that has led us to question how we practice the spiritual life, what we think holiness is all about, what we believe we are required to be is now asking us who we are really becoming as we go. It is the hardest question of them all because it requires that we face ourselves and our expectations of others as well as the standards by which we judge both ourselves and them.
Down deep we know that we are a spiritual jumble of all three breeds -- the loving parent, the spiritually sophomoric adolescent, the demanding critic. We know that every day there is a choice to be made among them. The real temptation, in fact, is to assume that we are only one or the other of these inclinations, as if whatever we do once defines us forever. But thats far too facile an answer for something so complex as life. The fact is that it is our daily, momentary, continual choice among them that, in the end, will determine the very nature of our souls.
We admire the parent, of course, but at the same time we question his lack of judgment. We admire the dissolute one who finally wakes up and returns to the roots out of which he sprung but we have our doubts whether this is a real conversion or just more exploitative behavior. We admire the faithful son and wonder how the injustice done to him can possibly be holy.
Clearly, this gospel is full of possibility and full of confusion at the same time. Like life itself, it confronts us with three possible choices by which to live our lives. We can be independent and self-centered: We can, in other words, leave the scorpion to its own devices. We can be compliant and rigidly dutiful and consider that virtue is enough to forgive us our failure to try to rescue the scorpions of life. Or we can be completely loving and reach out a hand to every scorpion we meet. Surely, if truth were known, we have been all of them at one time or another.
The reckless son in us presumes that we are perfectly free. We assume that the world revolves around us, that we are the center of our own universe. We go racing through the candy store of life, unaware of the price of the going and uncaring of the cost. We are takers who gather everything we can to ourselves, squander it on nothing and then discover that life demands back everything it gives in ways we never dreamed.
The dutiful son in us knows intuitively that life demands a price, and we pay it with a vengeance. We play by all the canons, keep all the rules, count all the points we amass and wait to be rewarded for doing exactly what we should be doing. When no one thanks us for being exactly what we are meant to be, we argue that life has not treated us justly, that God has abandoned us, that we have been overlooked and we live forever after with a bitter taste in our mouths for those whose lives, unlike our own, seem to be lived on wings and made of honey. There is in each of us, in other words, the irresponsible child as well as the self-righteous one. We throw responsibility to the wind in one breath and judge another for doing the same in the next.
But, deep down in us, there is yet another part. It is the part of the human soul that knows that life is a progression of struggles meant to be endured, a succession of stumblings from which we are meant to learn, a cycle of events meant to be drained of every insight, every glory that life has to give. This is the part of us that knows that life is not a series of mindless sins, nor is it simply a series of hard-garnered graces. It is a high wire act between the two that is meant to give us heart for those around us who have yet to negotiate the contest.
Always, from somewhere subterranean in the human soul comes the call of the Profligate Parent, the one who knows the way of human development, who knows that the nature of the human being is to be fully human -- read: fully frail -- and who therefore forgives wrongs. This is the part of us that calls us beyond ourselves to perfect love for the rest of the world that is just as stumbling and just as sincere as we are.
We are each the child who is squandering the treasure called life. We are each the child who is judging those who do not do life as we do. We are each called to be the one who forgives the stumbling self and celebrates the efforts of the other. We have no proof that the erring child reformed and stayed home. We only know that this child tried to begin again and that the trying itself was enough for the loving parent. We have no surety that the perfect child ever escaped the imperfection of jealous perfection. We have no proof that the parent was not stung time and again by both of them. We only know that the parent understood the struggles -- and forgave them.
We have no assurance in which way lies salvation but we do know, this parable says, that it is not the results that count. It is the becoming, the Fourth Sunday of Lent teaches us, that really matters to a loving God whose nature is to save us from the stings in all our souls as we become and become and become.
Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.
National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001