In today’s Gospel we hear the familiar story of the prodigal son. We’ve heard it dozens of times. But what’s it really mean? What, exactly is a prodigal son? I know I always thought it meant someone who left and came back. It makes sense. That’s what the son in the story did. But actually, the word prodigal means someone who squanders their money, someone who’s extravagant and wasteful, a reckless spendthrift. Or, in this case, someone who squanders someone else’s money. You know, like a prodigal congress.
The next thing you need to know about this story is that in Jesus’ time, you just didn’t ask for your inheritance in advance. That was like saying, “Gee, Dad. I like you and all, but I really can’t wait for you to die to get my hands on your money.” Inheritance came after death. What the son did was like saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” By giving him the money, the father acknowledge the son’s wishes and the relationship was totally cut off. Each was dead to the other.
That’s what the father says in the story. He tells the older son, “your brother was dead and has come to life.” To really get the full impact of the parable we have to understand how the characters think. We have to understand the terrible pain the father went through when the son left and the great joy he felt when he came back.
At my parish we’ve been using a book of daily reflections on the return of the prodigal son. The daily reflections were written by Father Henri Nouwen, a twentieth century Dutch priest and spiritual writer who died just fourteen years ago. Father Nouwen was very much into the parable of the Prodigal Son. He even wrote a book called The Return of the Prodigal Son, based on his reflections on the famous painting by Rembrandt, who was also Dutch.
It’s not easy to take forty days of reflections and and entire book and condense them down into a few minutes of homily, but I”m going to try to hit the high points.
You and I have qualities of the younger son, the older son, and even the father. We may think of the story as the return of the sinner to the arms of God, thinking that’s us, and that’s definitely part of it. But we can also be the older son. Nouwen describes his own life saying, “I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness and sullenness, and most of all my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden by resentment. For a time it became impossible to see how I could ever have thought of myself as the younger son. I was the elder son for sure, but just as lost as his younger brother, even though I had stayed ‘home’ all my life.”
Nouwen goes on to say, “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.” Not only do we have to avoid becoming the prodigal son, squandering our (or someone else’s) money on the temptations of the flesh, we also have to avoid becoming the older son, the one who stands there passing judgment on others because they don’t meet our high standards of holiness. We’re called to be more like the father, welcoming the son, the son who wished his father were dead, the son who took half of our money and squandered it on foolish pleasure, back into our arms.
In spite of the terrible pain the son had inflicted on him, when the father saw him coming, he didn’t just stand at the gate waiting for him. “He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. Then he told the servants, ‘Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him’ put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” “Kill the fatted calf. We’re going to have a party.” Parents, how many of you wouldn’t do exactly the same thing? Well, maybe not the fatted calf thing. But you would call Imo’s and order some pizzas or maybe take everybody to Chuckie Cheese.
One of Nouwen’s observations that I think is really important for us in our struggle to get through this life is that “The love of the father embraces not just the return of the son, but also the leaving of his child.” When the kid asked for his share of the family fortune, and don’t forget that this was like telling the father he wished he were dead, the father didn’t refuse! He didn’t say, “No, you’ll just have to wait.” He didn’t beg him to stay. He let him go! And they both suffered for it.
And that’s our relationship with our heavenly father. You want to sin? You want to leave the Church? You want to turn your back on me or even wish I were dead? Go ahead. Give it your best shot. But when, not IF, but WHEN, you realize that you can’t make it on your own, I’ll be here waiting for you. And when I see you coming, I won’t just be waiting with open arms, I’ll come running.
But what about the older son? The angry, resentful, self-righteous son? We don’t know what happened to him. Luke doesn’t tell us. That’s the part of the story we have to write ourselves. The father didn’t try to talk the younger son out of leaving, but “he pleaded” with the older son to put aside his resentment and join the party. Was it because the older son’s sins were actually worse than the prodigal’s? Was it because he had higher expectations of the older, stay-at-home son? Was it because he knew that the older son’s negative feelings would eat away at him until he too was on the outside looking in? Like I said, that’s the rest of the story and it’s the part we have to write for ourselves.
What about the father? Of course, he represents God. God waits for you and me to come home, just as the father in the story waits for his son. He’s there for us no matter what. Isn’t that what our heavenly Father expects from us, too? Whether we’re like the younger son or the older son, we’re called to become like the father in the story. We have to get past our attachments to this world like the younger son and we have to get over our jealousy, our anger, our anger, touchiness, doggedness and sullenness, and most of all our subtle self-righteousness.
In Rembrandt’s painting the father embraces the son. The son is dressed in rags, kneeling at the feet of his father who embraces him. They’re bathed in light. The older son is outside the light, looking on. Even though he’s in the same picture he seems to be farther away from the father than the prodigal son ever was. He’s been physically present all along, but he’s spiritually far away. The father pleaded with his older son to come into the house.
Isn’t that what Lent is all abut? We’re called to set aside our attachments to the secular world, like the younger son and to set aside our pettiness and selfrighteousness. Were called to come home. Nouwen ends his book by saying:
“To claim for myself spiritual fatherhood and the authority of compassion that belongs to it, I have to let the rebellious younger son and the resentful elder son step up on the platform to receive the unconditional, forgiving love that the Father offers me, and to discover there the call to be home as my Father is home.
“Then both sons in me can gradually be transformed into the compassionate father. This transformation leads me to the fulfillment of the deepest desire of my restless heart. Because what greater joy can there be for me than to stretch out my tired arms and let my hands rest in a blessing on the shoulders of my home-coming children?”
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