Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C).
Here’s another homily from my year as a deacon, this one given at St. Bridget’s and St. Charles Parishes on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, places from which I have many warm memories.
I have looked forward to this morning for a very long time. As many of you know, last weekend I was ordained a deacon in Boston. I learned to be a minister of the Gospel here on Rosebud and all of you were my teachers, so I wanted my first weekend as a deacon to be here with you. And God has answered that prayer. As you can imagine, Paul’s letter to Timothy speaks to me. Paul is writing to his friend and assistant Timothy and he’s marveling that God has trusted him to be a minister of the Gospel even though he himself was a sinner. And after all his years of experience, Paul expresses the Gospel message with a single powerful sentence: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.”
So if there’s anyone here who’s not a sinner, I’m sorry, you’re in the wrong place. Go have brunch. I don’t have anything to offer you. The Catholic Church is like a big AA meeting for recovering sinners. We even begin each Mass by acknowledging that we are sinners: “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…” As in AA, we’re here because we know we can’t overcome sin on our own; we need a higher power.
We believe something more though. Many people believe in a higher power, they believe in God, they believe in a creator, but they do not know one incredible thing about that higher power. This higher power is a loving power; this higher power, in fact, is so loving that he came into the world. This higher power lowered himself to become one of us. Why did he do this? Why, if he was higher, did he become lower? Why, if he was perfect, did he enter this world of sin and imperfection? Why, if he was God, did he become a human being? Paul tells us: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.”
Jesus tells three stories in the Gospel to make this same point: the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the story of the prodigal son. Some of you might know that the story of the prodigal son is the favorite Bible story of Bishop Gruss. When the Bishop explains this story he mentions one detail that illustrates what Paul says about God: when the father sees his son returning, he runs out to meet him. Now this is something a respectable Jewish father at that time, in that culture, would not have done: in that culture, the less important people come to the more important person; the children come to the father; the servants come to the king. But all that is reversed here because of the father’s love for his son.
The actions of the father at the end of the story teach us something about God’s love. But notice too that the father doesn’t only go out to meet the prodigal son. When we read this story, we’re tempted to think it has a bad guy, the older brother—he’s self-righteous and he ruins the happy ending. It’s easier to identify with the prodigal son, returning to seek forgiveness. We’ve all made mistakes, especially as youth; and we know what it’s like to need a second chance. But we catch the older son at a moment when he’s resentful and feeling sorry for himself and not really being fair to his father. He says, “You never gave me anything,” but we know at the beginning the father divided his property between the sons, so it wasn’t like he was holding back. If the older son had asked for a goat to have a feast with his friends, we all know the father would have given it to him. So it would be easy for us to be just as self-righteous with the older brother as he is with his younger brother. But the father doesn’t do that. He goes out to him. The same thing he does with the prodigal son.
So at the end of this story, the father’s actions teach us something about God’s forgiving love, and that no doubt is the primary reason Jesus tells us this story. But I have a question about the father, something I haven’t been able to figure out, so I’ll give you my ideas and invite you to think about this question as well. What about the father’s actions at the beginning of the story?
Jesus doesn’t explain what the father is thinking at the beginning of the story. The prodigal son comes to him with a totally unreasonable request, and he just gives in. Why didn’t he refuse? Why didn’t he say, “You didn’t earn this money. You didn’t work for it. Get a job.” Or at least try to talk him out of it? I’m guessing it’s obvious enough that the son is not going to use the money to invest in his own small business or give it away to charity. The father probably knows that he’s not going to use it for good purposes. And a good parent doesn’t just give in to every request a child makes. If your three year old wants to play with the gas stove, you say no. If you’re teenager wants you to buy booze for him and his friends, you say, “We need to have a talk.” But there’s no talk here. And that strikes me as strange.
Now on one level, I think we have something here to learn about freedom. God gives us freedom to love him or not, the freedom to do good or to sin, to choose life or death. The choice is ours. But God also tries to teach us right and wrong, through the commandments for example. And that’s something I’d expect to see from the father at the beginning of the story. So I have a suspicion—and this is not an official interpretation, so you’re free to disagree or come up with a better interpretation—but I have a suspicion that at the beginning of the story the father still had something to learn about love. Perhaps he didn’t resist the son’s request because he was afraid to show his love, so he just closed up and went along with it. “Whatever. Take your money.” And if this is the case, then something changed between the beginning of the story and the end, not just for the son but for the father too.
We don’t see what the father was going through during the middle of the story because the focus is on the son, but we can easily imagine. He was suffering. I have known enough parents, some here, some in my own family, who have had to watch their children hurt themselves, and I know that there is no suffering like what a parent feels watching a child suffer. And that is what the father in this story was going through when the son was in a far off country. I suspect that it changed him, that it softened his heart, that it taught him something about what love is, how important love is, that it made him more forgiving.
I suspect that the older brother suffered too, but it had a different effect on him. It made him resentful. I remember ten years ago when I just entered the Jesuits. I had a conversation with a priest from St. Paul and he said to me, “You will face suffering.” In every path in life there’s suffering—for married people, for parents, priests, sisters, single people—you don’t have to look for it because it will find you. But, he said, “You will have a choice how to respond to it. Suffering can either make you holy or it can make you bitter.”And I suspect that one of the questions below the surface in this great story that Jesus tells is: how do we respond to suffering? Do we let it soften our hearts so that we respond with wisdom and compassion to the suffering of others? Or do we close up within ourselves and let it make us brittle? Remember what St. Paul says, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” In coming into the world, he suffered. And his response to suffering was forgiveness, it was only love. Here is the good news about suffering: when suffering finds us in life, we can use it to draw closer to Jesus who suffers for us. We can use it to make us holy. And if we do, if we respond to suffering with love, with compassion, with faith, then he will lead us beyond all suffering. And one day we too will be welcomed back into the Father’s house, with God himself there to meet us, radiant with joy, and he will place a ring on our finger, sandals on our feet and a robe of glory over our shoulders, and he will say, “Rise again, my beloved child.”
Readings: Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Tm 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32
St. Bridget’s & St. Charles’s Parishes, Rosebud, SD, 2016