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The Incarnation Brings God’s Prodigal Mercy to the Peripheries

by Angel Valdez

Several years ago a priest visited us at Casa Juan Diego and noticed our book, Mercy Without Borders newly published by Paulist Press. When he asked where it was available, someone told him, through amazon.com. The priest laughed and laughed, saying how funny that was—our being down here hidden away with the poor and our book was on amazon.com! (Not that we are recommending that company here.)

His reaction reminded us that living and working at Casa Juan Diego might be seen as almost in a distant country filled with raggedy poor, possibly sinners, in what might be a dangerous place – among people who often are ignored and invisible. And Casa Juan Diego might be seen as a raggedy operation as Fr. Tony Fasline phrased it when he visited many years ago. He saw us surrounded by donations coming in the door and people in need coming and going, as he helped prepare meals in the midst of it all.

We are all just here, generally joyful, meeting the poor (very interesting people), doing the Works of Mercy, although frequently tired. A place where we hang out with the suffering and the stranger, and advocate on their behalf to the sympathetic and the powerful. And many come to join us in the work.

It isn’t always easy. As Mark Zwick put it in Mercy Without Borders, “We try to follow the model of the saints. Some ask us about burnout in this work. We suffered burnout years ago. We survived it probably because we like what we do. The great thing about Casa Juan Diego is that no matter how bad you feel, you know that your work and effort just might be worth it. We may go to bed exhausted and with eyes and head aching, but we know that the dawn will bring a new day, a new perspective, and a new head and eyes—resurrection, we might say. The work of Casa Juan Diego might kill us, but at least we will die happy, contented, free, and hopefully with our boots on.”

Somewhat what like what Dorothy Day referred to as the “downward path to salvation” among the poor.

Our work only makes sense in the light of the Incarnation. For followers of the Nazarene it is the Incarnation and all that it implies that gives us hope when the way forward is unclear.

by L. V. Diaz

The beauty of the Christmas event is retold in what Scripture scholars call the Infancy Narratives in the Gospel. As we sing Christmas carols we think of the angels and the glory of God shining over the Christmas crib. Very soon, however, the prophecy of the shadow of the cross is made over the Holy Child (Simeon). And the Holy Family is forced to flee to Egypt as refugees to save the Child from Herod’s wrath. We do not always remember that at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus himself told us that the Lord had anointed him to bring Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18).

It is surprising that even followers of Jesus sometimes speak of the poor in judgmental terms, as those (in whatever country or whatever generation) who have not succeeded because of their own fault.

The Incarnation of the Son brings to all of us the Father’s love and mercy, but especially to those on what Pope Francis calls the peripheries. As Mark put it, “The Lord Jesus gives us an example of mercy. He is very compassionate. He does not call the poor names, but heals them.”

Dorothy Day wrote in her book, House of Hospitality, on knowing the poor and day after day performing the Works of Mercy:

“Very often in the course of our meetings I had complaints to make, discouragements to pour out. Peter Maurin would look at me with calm affection and in a few words speak of the principles involved, reminding me of the Works of Mercy and our role as servants who had to endure humbly and serve faithfully.

“He liked to talk of St. Vincent de Paul. When the film Monsieur Vincent came out, we all went to see it. The last lines of the saint to the young peasant sister were words we can never forget: ‘You must love them very much,’ Monsieur Vincent said of the poor, ‘to make them forgive the bread you give them.””

Meditating on the meaning of the Incarnation and the Gospel this Christmas led us to another understanding of the parable of the Prodigal Son, which can help us to look more deeply into Jesus’ coming into the pilgrimage we all share as we travel through this “Valley of Tears,” (Salve Regina). We are so used to hearing only one literal interpretation of the parable that it may seem jarring to think of Jesus himself as the Prodigal Son in the story. Scripture scholars, the Fathers of the Church, and the Bishops tell us that the Scriptures can be understood on various levels, in the literal sense, as well as on a spiritual level which can include an allegorical sense, mystery or mystical sense or a prophetic sense. We can search for deeper meaning beneath the events.

In his book Jesus and the Prodigal Son: The God of Radical Mercy, Brian Pierce, O.P., presents the imaginative idea that Jesus himself, on one level of interpretation of the parable, might be the Prodigal Son. Pierce develops the theme of Jesus as the Prodigal Son who left the comfort of his Father’s house and traveled to a distant country and lived among the poor and among sinners.

But, some say, this interpretation cannot be correct. The Prodigal Son was a sinner, a profligate, and Jesus was not. I know the story and this is all wrong!

Pierce is not the first with this idea. Protestant theologian Karl Barth, suggests this understanding of Jesus going to a far country, joining and representing us and identifying with lost humankind on our prodigal journey of sinfulness, suffering, brokenness and misery in a world where we have dissipated our glorious inheritance from God.

Other theologians have suggested that the inheritance that Jesus as the Prodigal Son “squandered” or dissipated is His being, His nature, His substance, which he squandered on (gave away to) the poor, to sinners, even prostitutes, on those who suffered, on actually all of us.

Henri Nouwen speaks of this idea in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. A student at the University of Virginia is currently writing her dissertation on “The Prodigal Christ: The Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Theologies of Julian of Norwich and Karl Barth.”

by Fritz Eichenberg

Jesus was criticized by those who were scandalized by his spending time, especially with the poor, with sinners and outcasts, with the sick who, it was said, might be sick because of their sins. He had a bad reputation for eating with sinners. Even worse, he healed them.

When we have trouble with the idea of Jesus identifying with sinners and “losers,” wasting his inheritance on them, a reality that angered many during his life on earth, St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, can perhaps bring some insight: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21).

Hans Urs von Balthasar has mentioned the possibility of Jesus as the Prodigal Son and has noted that Jesus’ identification with the poor and  with sinners will bring him to the Cross.

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Pierce quotes Balthasar: “This incarnation of God’s solidarity with the poor (in every form) has, however, a catastrophic logic: if God takes this seriously, it will bring [Jesus] to the cross…because he now must really ‘be reckoned among those who have broken the law’ (Lk 22:37)…Whoever puts himself at the head of the poor, in order to lead them along an unmarked path into the kingdom of God which is ‘near’…puts himself also at the head of the sinners, in order to lead them along, as the first of the ‘lost sons,’ to the Father who is drawing near and hastening to meet them.” (Pierce, 135)

As Mark said, “In this work, unless we believe, we are masochists. We are not here for money nor fame. We have no other answer than, To whom shall we go, Lord?”

To the One who left his Father’s house to come to this far country, the Word made flesh.

Reflecting on Balthasar’s writing, Leonard DeLorenzo writes:

“Since Christ, in the absolute openness of his person, stretches himself communicatively from his eternally begotten origin in the Father all the way to the extreme limit of creation, he allows himself to become the space of life’s communion. Upon this truth we may therefore state that, ‘in Christ,’ every site of alienation—even that far country (Luke 15:13) of life’s dissipation—becomes a possible site of the creaturely acceptance of the divine Word.” (Leonard DeLorenzo, Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction Of the Communion of Saints, 93).

As we look around our world in the midst of natural disasters and man-made disasters, one after another, we can become discouraged and depressed.

As Pierce writes, however: “There is hope…for here in the midst of the suffering and violence, here in the heart of the distant country, we discover that the prodigal Son, the one who left the safety of his Abba’s house, has come to be with us, to live in our midst. His name is Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’ (Mt 1:23). His presence strengthens our faith. He is a poor man living among the poor, a refugee among refugees (Mt 2:13-15)”.

by Angel Valdez

The Lord’s presence as a refugee among refugees is apparent here at Casa Juan Diego. Toward the end of the parable the Prodigal Son says, “I will arise and go to my Father.” The Lord is risen, he is with his Father, but He is still Emmanuel, God with us today. This is what gives us hope. We know, as the Lord promised in Matthew 25, that he is with us when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the imprisoned, when we welcome the stranger.

Houston Catholic Worker, October-December, 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4.