12 Sep Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Homilies are never the creative act of one person. Thus, in posting these homilies on St. Mary’s Cathedral’s website I would like to state first and foremost that there will be little original in the following. My homilies are a result of my prayer, reading and study as it pertains to the particular gospel of the week. Thus, I beg, borrow and steal from the wisdom of those who have gone before me and together with the Holy Spirit acting in my own prayer considering the needs of our particular parish community here at St. Mary’s, a homily appears by the weekend. If there is something that edifies you I can take no credit for it. ‘Tis the result of the work of the Holy Spirit and those from whom I have gleaned wisdom over time. If there is something that you might wish to discuss I am always available and would welcome any opportunity to speak about the Scriptures and/or the Spiritual Life.
God bless you.
Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel, which we have just heard in its entirety, is often referred to as the “Lost and Found Collection” of the New Testament. The parable of the lost and found sheep (vv 1-7), the parable of the lost and found coin (vv 8-10), ending with the parable of the lost and found son, more commonly referred to as the parable of the prodigal son (vv 11-32).
I’d like to focus on the parable of the Lost and Found Son. At different times in our lives, most of us have played each of the roles in this parable: that of the parent figure who is doting, loving, apparently overindulgent, overlooking the faults of our children no matter how serious; that of the younger son who experiences being brought low by sinfulness and pride, and desperately in need of mercy; and that of the older son, who is thinks he is responsible and above reproach, and who is self-righteously frustrated by the generosity and leniency with which the weaknesses and sins of others are dealt. There is some of each of these characters in each one of us.
In the ancient Jewish world, the eldest son, the first born, received a double share of his father’s inheritance. Thus, the younger son would have received roughly one-third of the value of his father’s property and possessions. But the very fact he asked for his inheritance (v 12) would have been a grave insult to his father, suggesting that his father was “taking too long to die,” and that he had become impatient with waiting for the old man’s death. He goes off to a pagan (Gentile) nation (v 13), far away, imagining that he would find in some other country the happiness and excitement he had not found in his own land. The result was just the opposite: he is reduced to slavery, is forced to tend unclean animals, and is slowly starving to death (v 17).
We are told that the younger boy “squandered his property” (v 13). The original Greek (ousia) also has the sense that not only did the young man recklessly squander his money and property but he squandered his very self, his being, as well: he “lost” who and what he was. There are times in each of our lives that we have felt we have squandered our very selves, sold ourselves out, chose to participate in something far less than the dignity to which God has created us to be.
The parable tells us that the younger son “came to himself” (v 17), realized how foolish he had been, came to his senses. At this point he is not necessarily repentant…but not happy to be in the situation he has created for himself. He decides to return home and to stand in the truth. How many of us have found ourselves in situations of our own doing that have hurt us: hurt us emotionally, psychologically, physically, morally, or spiritually and been too proud to admit we had made a mistake that got us into this mess in the first place….. but certainly we are not happy being in the mess.
The most powerful scene of this gospel is when the old man sees the son, even while the boy is a long way off, walking home slowly, awkwardly and ashamed. (v 20). Like the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, the woman who searches for the lost coin, it is the father who takes the first step, who chooses to go out and meet his wayward son on route home.
He doesn’t wait for him to come crawling home. How many of us have said: They are at fault! They must come to me. I WILL NOT SPEAK TO THEM until they speak to me first! Why should I reconcile with them when they are the ones who have hurt me? How many of us have said that? How many of us have refused to make the first gesture? How many have refused to accept the gesture of reconciliation of those who have hurt us? And yet in the parable, the Father sees the Son a long way off, meaning he has been searching the horizon desperately wanting him to come home.
In 1984 Pope St. John Paul II wrote that: “The parable of the prodigal son is above all the story of the inexpressible love of a Father-God — who offers to his son, when he comes back to him, the gift of full reconciliation. […] It therefore reminds us of the need for a profound transformation of hearts through the rediscovery of the Father’s mercy and through victory over misunderstanding and over hostility among brothers and sisters.”
In Jesus’ time the father’s actions would have been considered highly inappropriate and a source of shame. The father’s reaction is an overflowing of love, compassion and tenderness…he “falls on his son’s neck,” hugging and kissing him, and demands that the symbols of his freedom and of his status within the family — be restored to him, as if nothing had happened (v 22): a robe, the best one, sandals for his feet, a ring for his finger. We are all thinking this father would have been well within his rights to turn the son away, on the basis of his deeply insulting actions, and the shame he had caused his family. But the Father does not do that. Reconciliation takes place because the Father offers it.
Now, let’s look at the elder son. His reaction (vv 25-29) is one of righteous indignation: His words quickly make it clear that, although he has done his duty as a son, it has apparently not been out of any sense of love or generosity; instead, he feels that he has been imposed upon, has “slaved away” for years for his father, expecting gratitude for his service and perceiving that he has received none. He focuses, not on what he has been given, but on what he feels he has been deprived of. He suffers from the terrible disease of entitlement!
How many of us are just like this? In his self-righteous indignation the elder son is very concrete in condemning his brother’s behaviour, speaking of how he has “devoured the father’s money with prostitutes” (v 30). The elder son has “written off” his brother in his heart, and now refers of him to the Father only as “this son of yours” – saying he may be your son, but he is no longer my brother! It is, Jesus says, possible to seem to be a son without really being a son in one’s heart, and that is what the elder brother reveals by his reaction. Are we sons? daughters of God?…but not really in our hearts? Do we fully believe what we say here? Do we fully put our trust in God?
Have we written anyone off?
It is so interesting in this parable that the younger son who originally perceives himself to be free, reveals himself to have felt like a slave, and the elder son who remained in the father’s house, and is truly free, reveals himself to have felt like an alien and an outsider, not to have felt like a son at all?
This deeply moving and challenging parable highlights two of Luke’s characteristic emphases: a) God’s absolute welcome of sinners who turn back to him, and b) the rejoicing and celebration that are meant to accompany that welcome; the rejoicing and celebration that are meant to respond to the repentance to which God invites each and every one of us.
The generous father of both sons welcomes back the youth who squandered his inheritance and does not repudiate the older son who protests the father’s generosity. The Father actually remains loyal to both. To the older son he says: “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v 31). The restoration of the son who “was dead and has come to life.” who “was lost and has been found” (v 32), does not invalidate the faithfulness of the older son. The younger son, restored to the father’s household, must make a new beginning in the life of faithfulness. Reconciled to the Father, both sons must work out together their reconciliation with each other.
Does the elder son finally make peace with his brother and welcome him back? Does he find it in his heart to forgive, and to share in the father’s rejoicing? Or does he, in the final accounting, find himself even more alienated than his younger brother had been? We are left hoping for a conclusion that Jesus never provides. The parables invite us to enter into the story and to find the answers in our own lives.
The questions really are: Have we finally made peace with those with whom we have had problems and welcomed them back? Have we found it in our hearts to forgive? Do we share in the father’s rejoicing? Or…in the final accounting do we find ourselves even more alienated than those who have hurt us have been.
The Scriptures hold a mirror up to us for us to see our own reflection: This parable of “The Wayward Son” or “The Prodigal Father” or the “Indignant Elder Brother” causes much grief for me…I see myself and my motives exposed for what they really are…I think maybe for many of us, as we see ourselves and our motives exposed for what they really are.
How humbling it is that the prodigal Father squanders his bountiful love on my pettiness, my meanness, my indifference, and my arrogance.
In a book, entitled” Love Alone is Credible” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Ignatius Press, 2004). These words jump off the page:
“Once a person learns to read the signs of love and thus to believe it, love leads him into the open field wherein he himself can love. If the prodigal son had not believed that the father’s love was already there waiting for him, he would not have been able to make the journey home — even if his father’s love welcomes him in a way he never would have dreamed of. The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be, and really is, there for him; he is not the one who has to bring himself into line with God; God has always already seen in him the loveless sinner, a beloved child, and has looked upon him and conferred dignity upon him in light of this love” (p. 103).
We need to ask ourselves: ‘Do I believe that the love of the Father is there waiting for me if I turn toward it?’
We have to claim that dignity that is conferred on each of us in light of the Love the Father has for us…As you have heard me say so many, many times: we are sinners, BUT we are loved sinners.
This is and is not the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Lost Son, the Parable of the Indignant elder brother. It is more the Parable of the Boundless, Incomprehensible, Compassionate Love of our Merciful Father.
Finally, as I mentioned, rejoicing and celebration are meant to accompany the Father’s welcome home. Rejoicing and celebration are the response to the repentance to which God invites each and every one of us.
Each of the parables end in this rejoicing and celebration:
The Lost and found sheep: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. (Luke 15:6-7)
The Lost and found coin: “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ (Luke 15:9-10)
Often when someone has confessed something particularly grave or they have been away for a long time…I end the confession with this quote and then add: “Imagine, through your honesty, through your humility, the courts of heaven, the angels are rejoicing over you, the one sinner, who has repented…The Lost and found Son gives the reason for this rejoicing…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:23-24)
Today, may our hearts well up with joy in the boundless, incomprehensible, compassionate love of our merciful Father.