Seeing the Beauty in Others - The Prodigal Son

This past week, I heard a beautiful story from Patrick Tutella, a dear friend who has worked for many years with prisoners, recently started a new outreach to school children who have parents incarcerated in prison. Do you know that 1 out of 14 school age children in the USA have a parent who is incarcerated?!? 1 out of 14!!! That’s unbelievable! Patrick shared this story:

During my first week in an urban middle school, I encountered many young people between the ages of eleven and fourteen who would look me square in the eyes, proceed to give me the middle finger and say the most horrid vulgarities imaginable. This was shocking, to say the least. These children are our lost sons and daughters.

Emilio, an eighth grader, is one such boy. He hangs out with other boys and girls who express animosity for life. Instead of staying in class where he can prepare for a promising future with a decent education, he roams the halls of the school all day long.  When he is escorted back to class, he becomes disruptive and interferes with the lessons. Instead of treating school property with respect, he often kicks and punches lockers in the hallways.   

He comes from a family with three siblings; a sister and brother who are older and one younger brother. His dad is in prison, and his mother works three jobs just to make ends meet. They are poor and unable to get ahead. It seems that part of Emilio's aberrant behavior can be described as his way of expressing his dismay over the absence of his parents; having lost his father to prison and his mother to work.  He also seems to be lashing out against the social injustice he has experienced in his young life. Clearly, it is his way of saying, "Don't try to control me!"

Each time I attempted to let Emilio know that I care about him, his guard would go up and he would refuse all expressions of genuine solicitude. His tough exterior seems to be his means of protection, even from people who care about him.

When I focus on identifying the beauty in Emilio, I behold a lost son with a big, beautiful heart.  I see the image of God; a genuine love that he tries to hide but can't, because it is stamped in his soul. It proceeds out of him naturally. When he sees a student with a disability struggling, he reflexively jumps up to assist. When a 'little guy' needs help, he becomes a champion. Each time this beauty is exposed and pointed out to him with specific examples, he is surprised by the treasure hidden in his own heart.  He stops running and contemplates his true identity - a beautiful son of God.

There is this divine identity imprinted in every single person, no matter who they are, what they’ve done, or what society has done to them. No abhorrent behavior, no bad choice or mistake, no drugs or addictions and all their consequences, no family dysfunction, nothing can erase the divine beauty within every person!!!

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom put it this way: "Unless we look at a person and see the beauty there is in this person, we can contribute nothing to him. One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute or the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty."

As we reflect on the Parable of the Prodigal Son today, the Church offers a poignant story of what can happen to someone when they give in to the deceptive and tempting lies of the world and get lost in life. The younger son in today’s story was an arrogant, self-assured young man. He didn’t care at all about his family. He deeply offended his father when he asked for his inheritance before his father dies. He rejected his tradition, his heritage, and everything from where he came. And where did his cocky attitude lead him? Into what he thought was an wordly paradise – partying hard with friends, doing whatever he desired, living the so-called high life. It seemed that he had plenty of friends to hang out with. And as long as it was on his dime, he was the life of the party!

Yet where did this empty life really lead him? The superficial friends and the hard partying didn’t last long. Soon, he was without money, without friends, and living among the pigs. He hit rock bottom in life. He was lost. He was desperate. He was a pathetic shadow of his past life.

Now some might say, “Well, he deserved it! He was such a scoundrel, disgracing his father and arrogantly rejecting his roots! He was a self-entitled, good-for-nothing who received what he deserved!”

Too quickly and easily the world rejects such prodigals. Society judges them failures. Too many people look down and despise those who make such mistakes. And even in the case of Emilio, the young man acting up in school because his father is in prison, we are too quick to reject people who are the product of other people’s bad choices.

Yet, as followers of Jesus Christ, we know that no matter what one has done, no matter how someone has failed, no matter what mistakes or poor choices one makes, no matter from where someone comes, nothing can take away the divine image deep within. Nothing can change the divine beauty that awaits to be awakened!

In this Parable, the younger son comes to his senses when he is among the swine and remembers the home from where he came. He remembers his father and the roots of his family. In his repentance, his turning away from his poor choices and his turning back toward his true home, he humbly acknowledges his failures, his mistakes, and his arrogance. He says, “I’m no longer worthy to be called a son. Simply accept me back as a slave.” This extreme humility, which is rooted in his deep and divine inner beauty, frees him from his past and opens up a new future, a promising and new start.

When the son returns back to his Father’s house, there is no recrimination or reproach. The father doesn’t scold the son for his immature behavior. He doesn’t seek revenge for his offensive actions. There’s no punishment to pay for his sins. Instead, the Father sees the beauty deep within and names his son’s beauty. “I know who you truly are” the Father says to his wayward son. “You are my child, my treasure. Nothing you have done in the past can change your true identity as a beloved and cherished son (or daughter) of God, someone with a beautiful soul deep within!”

On this second Sunday of the Triodion period, two weeks before Great Lent begins, I could have preached on many different aspects from today’s Gospel Story - on the unconditional love of the Father, on the repentance and eventual humility of the younger Son, on the jealously and lostness of the older son. Yet for today, I highlight the beauty that is within every person – sometimes a beauty hidden deep within hardened exterior, a beauty hidden deep with a broken and confused soul. Whenever we encounter someone like Emilio, who comes from a dysfunctional family that has impacted his life in a negative way, or someone like the prodigal son, who comes from a healthy family but makes some poor choices, whatever the reasons, let us look beyond the exterior brokenness of any individual and see within the hidden divine beauty. As we prepare for Great Lent, let us strive to treat everyone we meet with the respect, kindness, dignity, and love they deserve as a unique child of God.

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