Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Prodigal Son

Well, friends, we are drawing ever closer to the great mysteries we will celebrate during Holy Week and Easter Week—of the death and Resurrection of the Lord. And to prepare us on this Sunday, the Church gives us one of Jesus’ greatest parables. The parable of the Prodigal Son, which appears only in Luke’s gospel, offers us a very rich meditation on what God is like, and how God saves us despite the many ways that we fail him.

Ever since the first time I read this story, I’ve always felt bad for the older son. There he is, having worked diligently and quietly all those years, honoring the father and doing everything he was supposed to do. He was the good kid. Why didn’t he get the party? Instead, just because the bad kid got himself into enough trouble to come home again, he’s the one who gets the big party. It just doesn’t seem fair—and the older brother feels it. That’s why he complains to the father, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”

Don’t you feel for this guy? Like I said, he was the good kid. And yet this older brother points out to us one of the real spiritual dangers of being a righteous person. And that’s us, more or less righteous people; people who go to Church, who try to know and follow the will of God, who seek to live a life of responsibility. But one thing that can easily happen to righteous people is that we can become bitter. Bitter against the world, or worse, bitter against God.

We who make such an effort to be good people, who come to Church each week to hear the Word of God—shouldn’t God love us more than he loves the sinner, the criminal, or the terrorist? It only seems fair. But it’s not true. God loves the terrorist, the criminal, and the sinner just as much as he loves you and me. And if the worst sinner in the world were to repent and turn back to God this Lent, there would be more rejoicing in heaven than there is for us who have been trying to serve God the whole time.

Does it seem unfair? Well, we think we’ve been serving God all along, but maybe we’re not so righteous after all. Whether we have the bitterness of the older brother or not, we surely sometimes act like the younger brother, who dishonored his father and squandered his money. All of us have wasted and taken the gifts of God lightly at one point or another. I know I have. In fact, our sins count against us more, because we know and believe in God and we should know better!

Perhaps one of the only good things about sin is that sin makes us anxious and miserable. And eventually, like the younger son, we decide to turn back to our heavenly father. And this brings us to richest and most beautiful part of today’s parable: the father. The father in Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son is an image of our father in heaven.

Does the father protect the security of his money when his younger son insults him by wasting it? No. Does he protect his honor when his older son insults his generosity? No. This father does nothing in defense of his own rights or of his own honor. He is only forgiveness and generosity, and wants nothing more than for both of his sons to celebrate the whole family being back together.

Friends, this is what our God is like. God lets go of all the honor, all the power, and all the rights that go with being the almighty God. God refuses to control the world and insists on giving us the free will to shape the world as we see fit. And when we make the world violent and miserable with our bad choices and our sins, God doesn’t punish us or fix the world with a heavy hand.

We human beings constantly the squander the great gifts of God. We destroy the earth. We treat each other like furniture. And in all this we make ourselves and our world miserable. And God’s only response is to let go of everything it means to be God, to become the least among us, and, on the Cross, to absorb all of our sins and bitterness and violence in his own body.

As Paul says today, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them.” Just like the father in the parable, God is only concerned with reconciliation, with having the whole family back together again, and not with punishment or honor.

Paul goes on to say that through Christ we can become the “righteousness of God.” This is the real good news today. The righteousness of God is what we seek, not to be righteous ourselves.

The older brother, who had served the father quietly all those years, thought he was righteous. But taking that righteousness to himself made him self-righteous and bitter. The younger son, who knew very well that he wasn’t righteous at all, well, the father puts the good robe over him and the ring on his finger and makes him the guest of honor.

This is our good news. Not that we are good, or that we are better than other people who don’t try to serve God, but that God is good. And God is not interested in defending his honor or in punishing sin, but only cares about loving and reconciling the world. Contemplate the Cross then, as we get closer to Holy Week, and see the God who is literally, just dying to bring the whole human family back together again.

(4th Sunday of Lent, C)


Anonymous said...

Good homily. I like your treatment of God the Father and the bit of Incarnational spirituality mixed in.


Don said...

Good homily. This is one of my favorite stories in the Gospel. You've done a great job of pointing to all the themes. I enjoyed reading Henri Nouwen's book, "Return of the Prodigal Son."

Charles of New Haven said...

I spent quite a while with that book with one of my favorite spiritual directors. Brilliant stuff.

Hidden One said...

I know that, for myself, I always had and have sympathy for the older son, but reading your homily has given me another viewpoint from which to look at it. You seemed to semi-allude to it in your homily, but I'll state it plainly here, if only for my own benefit.

The older brother was righteous, and perhaps verging on being proud of it. The younger brother was quite obviously and blatantly humble, having humbled himself before fleeing to his father. It reminded me of the song "Humble Thyself in the Sight of the Lord" (lyrics - which is probably one of my favourite childhood songs. (I had no clue what it meant, applied in someone's life, but the echo effect was cool.) In essence, one humbled himself and was raised up, and the other did not, and was humbled. (Wait, I read something along those lines qutie recently... *searches BibleGateway... well, its not what i had read, but 1 Peter 5:6 fits the principle.)

Anyway, before I babble on too long...

Sincerely in Christ,
Hidden One

Anonymous said...

Could you please tell me then, what the older brother is supposed to do?
He's feeling angry and slighted. What is he supposed to do to move on and off his self righteous pedestal?
How does he relate to his father, who he feels has treated him unfairly, and to his brother, who may or may not be repentent and has gotten what he wants?

Charles of New Haven said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I think we do automatically feel the "injustice" of the older brother's situation. And all of us who make some effort to be faithful to God will feel like him sometimes, when we see just as much grace poured out on the unjust, and when we know that God loves those who ignore and disrespect him just as much as he loves us.

The key for me (and I can only speak for myself in such a delicate and difficult spiritual matter) is to try to remember that any good thing about me isn't mine, but God's. So it turns out I'm in the same place before God as if I had never even tried to serve Him: having no right to anything good from God.

When I'm in "older brother" mode I need to realize that for a sinner to turn back to God is a much greater grace than anything I deserve or will ever deserve.

CowPi said...

My translation calls this parable, "The Lost Son." Most of the story seems to revolve around the younger son. He realizes that he is lost and decides to come home. The story ends the older son still standing outside. Will he realize that he is lost too?