September 11, 2022 – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
“This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” Words from the 1st letter of St. Paul to Timothy of our 2nd reading today – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
The Prodigal Son is one of Jesus’ best-known parables. In the closing scene, the elder son refuses to join the celebration, so the father comes out and pleads with him. It ends there and we never know whether the elder son went in or stayed out. Here is an imaginary ending to the story: While the father and elder son are arguing in the backyard, the mother comes out and says, “Now, I have had just about enough.” To her husband, “You’ve always favored our youngest and you know it. Our elder son works hard every day and you take him for granted. I hardly ever hear you say ‘thank you’ except to the hired hands. It’s about time you started noticing your family for a change.” Then to her elder son, “And you… always the martyr. You act as if you’re the only one who has to go the extra mile. Well, I have to do it and so does everybody else. It’s time you learned to swallow hard and rise above the things in life that are unfair. Stop your silly pouting.” She then goes to the younger son, “And you, the spoiled little prince – in there celebrating and you never even thought to ask about your brother and apologize for leaving him to do all the work. It’s about time you realized that the whole world doesn’t revolve around you.” Then to the three of them, “Work out your differences some other time. We’ve got company, so get in there and start acting like family instead of three-year-olds.” The mother’s direct and witty perspective in this imaginary ending indeed reveals some real character flaws on the part of everybody, but it also lends itself to some opportunities that exist here for all of us who have ever walked in their shoes.
We know that the prodigal son was always off in his own self-created world. He was selfish in asking for the inheritance upfront, essentially wishing that his family was dead; he was selfish in how he used and spent all his riches; even after he came to his senses, he decides to return home, not to be a son but so as to receive the well-fed treatment of a hired hand so that he would no longer be hungry. If there was anyone unworthy of forgiveness, it was the prodigal son. After screwing up so badly, he didn’t even want reconciliation and still got it anyway. To those who feel unworthy or are made to feel unworthy for whatever reason, look no farther than this parable to know that there is great hope in store for you. No one is beyond redemption. It’s never too late. St. Paul himself walked in the Prodigal Son’s shoes. He reminds Timothy of his own story: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.” And yet he says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” God’s power is greater than any sin or experience of yours. Transformation happened to Prodigal, it happened for Paul, it can happen to us too. Come home and have hope.
There is a saying that feeding sinners is praiseworthy, but eating with them is forbidden. It is unfortunate that our experience too often reflects this paradigm held by the elder son and the Pharisees and Scribes whom this parable was addressed to. Sure, we want to help others and maybe even give to their causes, while at the same time we would rather not associate with such people if we could help it. We say, perhaps to ourselves, things like, “the world these days… can’t they get a job… don’t they know any better… they ought to be more (fill in the blank here)…” We don’t realize how much this has affected us because we are lost too – we have lost our joy. If we make life out to be but a calculation about people’s attitudes and the way money is spent, it would come as no surprise that we are unhappy. If we find ourselves in the elder son’s shoes, then hear that Jesus wants to restore your joy and goes out to the elder son to invite him also into celebration and happiness once again. Through the parable, we are assured that our own sense of justice is preserved: we will indeed get what we are owed, but we are reminded moreover about what makes for happiness and what life is about, so that we can come back to the joy we are stubbornly missing out on. Come home and have hope.
Finally, we talk often enough about our life’s journey and search for God, but we don’t often find him because the God of our encounters is not what we were expecting. These parables all reveal God as hopelessly foolish; God’s mercy towards others is greater than what would be considered wise… no one would, no one should go to such great lengths to find that one lost sheep, or that singular lost coin worth no more than a penny… why would anyone bridge that gap with an estranged son who has, without remorse, wrought nothing but destruction upon his family? No, this is not the God whom we expect to find. Like the sheep, the coin, and the sons, that is why God has to find us, and we need to let ourselves be found or we will never understand how infinitely deep God’s love is and what God will go through on our own behalf.
I want to make this final note: the deepest desire of each of them, the prodigal son, the elder son, and the father himself, their deepest desires all were found at home. All the prodigal son ever wanted was to be the life of the party. He went off and spent everything he had to get it and was left unfulfilled and empty. At home, he had the greatest party one had ever seen held in his honor. The elder son cared so much about work and justice that he literally slaved away in the fields to the abandonment of all else. The Father reminded him that everything indeed belonged to him, so that he could finally be at home in his own house. And like any good parent, the father only wanted his children to be safe and sound – he was off scanning the horizon for each of his sons’ return. He would not rest, did not rest peacefully until both his children were back home. It is a reminder to us, that everything we ever wanted can be found at home with our Father God in heaven. In spite of our serious flaws and desperate attempts for fulfillment in this life, may each of us come to our senses and come to know God’s mercy, so that we too can be home in our Father’s house. Come home and have hope.