We all disappoint one another. I think we can all agree. Oh, not all the time of course, but many, many times over a lifetime. We all disappoint one another, by what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say. We make choices that often cause others sorrow or pain or grief. Sometimes we do things that make others worry that we’re making a huge mistake, worry that we are making choices that are unhealthy for us. We often live our lives in ways quite different from how others wish we would live them.
In other words, all of us (in one way or another) sometimes do things that hurt friends, and co-workers, and strangers, and of course, family members. Parents, at times, disappoint their children. Husbands sometimes disappoint wives, and wives sometimes disappoint husbands. Brothers and sisters betray one another in small ways and sometimes in big ways. And the real biggie . . .
. . . children often disappoint their parents.
We hear this all the time. In fact, you may be a mom or dad who finds yourself in this very situation. (Now it’s important for me to say that I’m not passing any sort of judgment on anyone who is facing the disappointment of their parents. I’m not saying that in these situations the parents are “right” and the children are “wrong”. That’s not it at all. Every situation is unique. I’m specifically talking about the WAY parents often FEEL about some of the choices their children have made).
For example, when children are, just that children, they usually disappoint their moms and dads in relatively small ways, maybe refusing to obey, or running with the wrong kinds of friends, or sneaking some alcohol or cigarettes, or refusing to make a decent effort at school. These sorts of disappointments don’t usually last that long in most cases. After all, these are things that kids often grow out of, things most children usually put aside as they mature.
But then they become adults. And that means they make choices that truly determine the kinds of people they want to be, choices they consciously make as they navigate the challenging waters of adulthood. These are the ones that can really be distressing for parents, the decisions that shape the future of their sons and daughters.
I can’t believe my son wants to marry THAT girl (or that my daughter wants to marry THAT guy).
I wish my daughter would have picked a different major in college, one that could have gotten her a better job.
I wish my son would stop treating his wife with such disrespect.
I wish my daughter would “settle down” and stop partying so much.
I wish my kids would set more boundaries as parents (like we did).
I wish my son and his girlfriend wouldn’t live together.
I wish my children would think more like us . . . And act like us . . . And value the same things as us . . . And go to Church like us . . . And believe like us.
It’s tough for parents to see their kids not grow up to be exactly like them. It’s difficult to watch them make their own way in this world, make their own choices. It can be painful to let go and let one’s child be the person he or she wants to be. And it can feel very, very personal – as if the children are responsible for the pain their parents are experiencing. If you feel this way – you are not alone. Almost every parent has to go through something similar.
And so the question isn’t just, “What are you going to do IF it happens?”
The real question is:
What are you going to do WHEN it happens? (Or now that it HAS happened?)
We just heard one of the most well-known stories in the Sacred Scripture. And there are so many ways to look at this story. And it’s impossible to try to mention them all in one short homily. And so, I just want you to think about the dad in the story – especially if you are a parent who struggles with the choices your son or daughter has made.
There’s a way of looking at this story that can sometimes cloud what I believe is truly going on. If I asked each of you to summarize this story in a few short sentences, my guess is that many of you would put it something like this:
Son disappoints (or wrongs or insults) dad. Son goes off and does a bunch of stupid and/or bad stuff. Son realizes he was wrong. Son goes back and begs forgiveness. Dad forgives son. Older brother gets mad, Dad throws party, etc.
Hurt. Mess-up. Contrition. Forgiveness. Party. That sounds about right, no?
No. At least not the way I understand this story. You see, when the son comes back and starts to express his sorrow, it seems as though the dads sort of cuts him off. The son probably had a big speech prepared, but the dad doesn’t even need to hear it. And the reason is simple -the forgiveness he extends to his son has nothing to do with what the son says or doesn’t say, what the son does or doesn’t do.
His dad forgave him the minute the son took his inheritance and went out on his own.
The forgiveness came the instant the son had hurt the dad, and was not at all dependent on the son. He was forgiven by the dad either way – whether he came home or not, whether he recognized his mistakes or not. It didn’t matter. His dad forgave him. Completely. Unconditionally. Beautifully. For all time. Imagine that.
Put simply – the son returning home didn’t bring about forgiveness from the father. No, the son returning home simply brought about the rejoicing, and the great party that soon followed. The dad’s forgiveness had been there all along.
And we all can learn something from that. And so, I encourage all of us to think about the people who have wronged us, or hurt us, worried us, or disappointed us – especially the parents among us who struggle with the choices their children have made. And while in many cases (ma) there probably isn’t anything the kids need to actually be forgiven for, the hurt often still remains.
And that means WE need to be willing to forgive, need to be willing to let things go, not just for actual wrongs, but perceived ones as well, the hard feelings and disappointments that often keep us from treating our adult children as we should.
Can we be like the dad in the story?
Can we forgive and let things go, not at some point in the future, but this very day, this very hour, this very moment?
And can we do it without requiring anything, not one single thing from our children? (Or from anyone else who’s caused us disappointment or pain, for that matter?)
That’s the challenge. That’s what true forgiveness is. That’s what a loving heart does.
And if there comes a chance to throw a party at some point down the road – don’t pass it up. God rejoiced (and rejoices) not just when people want to be forgiven, not just when people recognize the mistakes they have made or the hurt they have caused . . . .
.. . . but also every single time we freely choose to forgive.