9/11/22 Homily: The Father
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Today in our gospel we hear what is perhaps the most famous of Christ’s parables; namely, the parable of the prodigal son, familiar to those who have been Catholic for many years. There's great beauty in the subtleties of the parable.
The younger son was guilty of believing the lie that his ultimate happiness could be found outside of the father’s home. That was the underlying deception that led to his departure.
There’s a certain arrogance of youth contained within that view. He wanted to live his life on his own terms, as if, what he chose must be better because it was his choice. This tragic mindset doesn’t change, even when his choices lead him to rock bottom.
A beautiful moment of regret eventually arrives which opens up the possibility of reconciliation, but tragically, that moment does not bring the younger son to true contrition. Even though he does recognize he has sinned against his father and seems ready to confess that sin, that realization of his ruin doesn’t actually lead him to repent and hope for reconciliation. Rather, he's still operating on his own terms.
As we heard: Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger? I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
He is ready to confess his sin out of self-interest—he’s hungry—and his intended return home is a mercenary one: "I’m not being fed at the place where I’m at now, but I know you feed your workers. Let me work for you, so that I have food to eat, just like any other who works for you." There’s no true contrition or conversion there.
The scene that comes next is where the narrative abruptly shifts. The son has all of the story’s energy so far, which led to his ruin. But here, the father interrupts the younger son's momentum. He flips the script.
That younger son never actually made it home to his father before they meet again. The father had come for him. As we heard, while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
That reckless display of unconditional love certainly shook the younger son to his core. The worst sin ever committed by the son was leveled against the very One who loves him the most. But it will not be his shame he'll see in his father’s eyes. The son must have been filthy and in rags at that point. But the father’s eyes cannot be fooled. He saw his son.
And the son is unable to finish what he had intended to say. All he was able to voice was: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” He leaves the rest unsaid. He cannot bring himself to say, “Treat me as you would one of your hired servants,” because face to face with his father, he wants to be son again. He has now entered into the father’s narrative. Any shallow attempt at mercenary bargaining rings hollow in the face of such pure and perfect love.
The father banishes the vastly deficient machinations of the younger son before they’re said: “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”
These are symbolic of a baptismal identity being restored: the finest robe, to represent the pure white baptismal garment; the ring, a sign of our inheritance in Christ; the sandals, to represent our worthiness to walk in the kingdom of God. That’s the power of true reconciliation, crowned by the great feast, symbolic of the Mass; one and the same, both in heaven and on earth. Everything in the narrative leads to this celebration. And one would think the parable ends there. But no.
There is another estranged son. He didn’t leave the house to pursue worldly vanity. He left out of resentment. Like the younger son, he was guilty of believing the lie that true fulfillment found beyond the father’s home. His words betray him:
“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”.
Two lost sons: one who left by vanity; the other who left in bitterness.
Like the younger son, the older saw life with his father as one of labor and mercenary benefit. Also, it’s a subtle point, but he doesn’t acknowledge the younger son as his brother. He ignores his connection to his brother. He's deaf to him.
As with the younger son, the father once again departs from his home and goes to his son: His father came out and pleaded with him… “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found”.
We’re never actually told whether that older son returned to the house. I’d like to think he did; that he too was moved by his father’s love; that the father’s love is stronger than any hatred, bitterness, jealousy, resentment, or vanity; that the father's love reestablishes the love between brothers.
Our God has done all of this for us.
For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried.
Our God has left his own throne and crossed the infinite distance of time and space to bring us back. Let us witness this love now at this feast and return home together.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.