I passed a colleague the other day who was reviewing a retreat talk on the Prodigal Son. “Is it wrong,” I asked him, “that I just have grown a little weary of this Gospel passage? Over the past few years, I’ve heard dozens of retreat talks and homilies and read articles about this passage.” I sighed. “Are there any other new ways to look at it? Like, maybe there other people in this story?” He thought a minute and said “the servants that prepared the dinner?”
I thought about this conversation a lot through the rest of the day before I sat down to reflect on this Sunday’s Gospel. I laughed a little out loud when I clicked on March 31st on the homepage of usccb.org and realized that (for the second time this week, mind you) the Gospel was… you guessed it… the Prodigal Son. Still, instead of weary this time, I kept thinking about these forgotten characters – the servants who prepared the feast for the son’s return. The servants who also, along with the older brother, had remained when the younger brother went out to find himself. The servants who, I imagined, witnessed all the emotions of the family during this time. The ones who witnessed the jealousy, the sorrow, the trepidation, and the eventual mercy. The servants hidden in plain sight – witnessing, feeling, supporting, and journeying alongside the family members. And I, despite hundreds of readings of this Gospel, had never really noticed them before.
How often have we failed to notice the people journeying alongside us? How often has our focus been on the main characters without regarding the supporting roles? What brings them to the forefront of our consciousness sometimes and what has them fade into the background others?
When I was in Colorado with my family over Spring Break, I’d get up early each morning and head down to the hotel lobby to work. It was peaceful as the only people in the lobby were the woman who both manned the desk at night and prepped the breakfast in the morning and her (what I assumed to be from context clues) boyfriend. He could’ve just as well been her friend or her husband, but regardless of who he was to her – he was there every morning at 5AM reading a book while she worked. And occasionally, she would come and rest next to him on a chair.
A couple hours later each morning, I would return to the hotel lobby with three rambunctious little boys all clamoring for orange juice and waffles. My husband and I would immediately be buzzing around fulfilling their every wish (not exactly) while saying useful gems like “Shh! Quiet down! Sit down! Be patient! The whole lobby doesn’t want to hear your every thought!” over and over. It was a far cry from the quiet I had enjoyed just a few hours before. And during this bustling time, the woman and her boyfriend would inevitably fade into the background and fade from my notice.
The last morning at breakfast, we were a little early as we were trying to beat a storm brewing outside. So, we were the first family down. My husband and I hurriedly went to make a plate of food for the three apparently starving kids (based on how much they were repeating and emphasizing that exact fact). Absentmindedly, I tried a sausage on my plate and remarked “Ugh… I don’t like that at all. You and the boys can have all the sausage this morning.” Then, I gathered the rest of the food and we sat with the boys doling it out.
Out of the corner of my eye a few moments later, I spotted the woman walking slowly and intentionally by our table. She turned on the tv behind us and then paused, looking at me with a smile on her face. The smile, however, was more a “do you see me here?” smile over a “good morning” one. When she finally caught my eye, she held my gaze for just a moment, and then walked away. I turned after her confused just in time to see her boyfriend mouth “I’m sorry” to her as she returned to the front desk.
Man if it didn’t take me an absurdity long time to think through every step from the first to the second time I was in the lobby that morning to finally realize what I had done. I finally traced it back to the moment when I had tasted the sausage and made the offhand remark about not liking it. “She must’ve been in that scene with us,” I reasoned. I didn’t even see her there. I realized at that moment, driving away in our car, how perfectly everything had been placed with care each morning in that small breakfast nook. There were even perfect chalkboard signs marking the offerings. There was clear pride taken in the work. I, however, had been so involved with the situation I was in – helping my kids keep quiet and get fed quickly – that all else had faded into the background. Out of sight, out of heart, out of compassion.
May you be blessed today to notice all the people that make up your story today – main characters and supporting roles… as all of them contribute to the person you are becoming.
And isn’t really incredible that, if you don’t give up, even a Scripture passage you have heard a hundred times, can still generate new meaning?
*This post was also posted on the Jesuit Dallas Faculty Blog for Lent 2019.