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The Word Engaged
Fourth Sunday of Lent C
March 27, 2022
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Lost and Found

“Everything I have is yours.” (Lk 15:31)

I believe it was the first directed retreat I made. Until then, our eight-day yearly Jesuit retreats consisted of four or five conferences a day, delivered by a preacher and mulled over by us retreatants.

Now I had a director who would assign me readings from the scripture and expect me to report how my five hours of prayer developed as the days went on.

I had found a dissatisfying pattern to my preached retreats. Somehow, after the third or fourth day (usually crowned by a yearly general confession), I seemed not to know what to do. My work, I felt, was over. My life was tidied up. All I could do was wait for the retreat to end.

Although my director for the private retreat did not like the idea of a general confession, he eventually relented on the sixth day. My work, once more, was done. Or so I thought.

What this guy did was give me five more meditations on sin—after the sixth day! And what a day it was.

I remember clearly resenting the fact that I was still thinking about sin when things should be winding down. Here I was being forced to muck around some more in my own depravity, and I was beginning to seethe. My philosophical study of atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre began to haunt me. I had read in his play The Devil and the Good Lord that the existence of God degrades the existence of humanity, and I was now suspecting that Sartre could be right.

As day turned to evening, I found myself resisting the whole notion of sin. What’s the point of such negativity? Sin. Sin. Sin. God seems to exact from us a degrading admission that we are dirt, junk. The more I thought about sin, the more it nauseated me. The more I reflected on God’s mercy, the more I was turned off by it.

If what I’ve done or accomplished doesn’t earn God’s love and salvation, then why have I been trying to do the right thing?

At this point I started to worry about my resistance. To be honest, I began to wonder whether I really believed in God in the first place. Well, rather than face that abyss, I concentrated on an old prayer which hitherto had always calmed me down. “O God, you know me and you love me.” That would do the trick.

But it didn’t. I got more resentful at God. And more worried that I might not even have faith in God.

After an hour of fret called meditation, a little variation on my prayer came to mind. Say: “O God, you know me and you love me; and it’s not because of anything I have ever done or accomplished.”

Now, dear reader, I do not know where that idea came from. But I hated it. Every time I approached uttering the final clause, I gagged. “It’s not because of anything I have ever done or accomplished. ... ” I just could not say it. It seemed as if everything would fall apart if I did.

My efforts don’t count? Then why not have an affair, abandon my vows? Why not kill somebody? Didn’t sacrifices count? Didn’t my hard work matter? Then why on earth have I been trying so hard? If what I’ve done or accomplished doesn’t earn God’s love and salvation, then why have I been trying to do the right thing?

  “I’ve slaved for you. ... ”

The story of the prodigal son invaded my memory. That second son. The son who slaved. The son who resented the father’s forgiveness for an ingrate brother who botched everything. The son who would not join the party. The son whose father pleaded. The son who complained.

For years now I have slaved for you. I never disobeyed one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. Then when this son of yours returns after having gone through your property with loose women, you kill the fatted calf for him. (Gospel)

Somehow I knew my sin as I had never known before. Yet, oddly, I felt God’s love with startling newness and equal intensity. “My son, you are with me always, everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice. ... ”

When hearing the story of the Prodigal Son, we often think of the compassionate father waiting at the gate or the desperate son planning his confession in advance. But might there not be an elder child in all of us? We work hard, we manicure virtues, we collect the graces, we notch up victories. And we forget what is already ours. The gift, the grace, the kingdom, the love not earned but lavishly given. Before long, our labors become slavery; our accomplishments, chains.

I thought I would surely stop working if I would ever say a prayer like, “You know me and you love me, and it’s not because of anything I have ever done or accomplished.”

As it turned out, the next year I worked harder than I ever had before. But that year, it was less from fear and more from joy.

Luke reminds us that the parable of the prodigal was told to Pharisees who complained about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. Now, in relief, I thank God for such a banquet.

John Kavanaugh, SJ
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Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
The Word Engaged: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York (1997), pp. 45-47.
Art by Martin (Steve) Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go
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