Homilies written and presented by Monsignor Peter Magee
Homily 03-21-2004 Lent IV
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Sunday 4 (C) of Lent: Read Lk 15

 

                “From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” These words of Jesus apply above all to His own Heart. The parable of the prodigal son reveals the “stuff” of which the Heart of Jesus is made. It tells us above all that He knows the Heart of God the Father, and it tells us the story of man’s sinfulness from the viewpoint of the Father’s Heart.

                Jesus identifies two types of son and sinner, one more obvious and flamboyant and the other more subtle and routine. Both essentially ignore their greatest treasure, which is to be sons of the Father, and, ungratefully, they focus greedily on the material things which the Father gives them simply because they are His sons and He loves them. However, the two sons neither understand nor appreciate the Heart of the Father; rather, they are obsessed with themselves, their own preferences, their own good pleasure. This is all too evident in the younger son, and barely masked in the older. Neither any longer sees the Father as Father, and so no longer understands what it means to be son or, therefore, brother. Their ingratitude has made them orphans, their greed has stolen their dignity and sense of solidarity. The root sin of the parable is not found in the leaving of the younger as opposed to the staying of the older; it is not that the younger womanized and the older wanted to socialize; it is not that younger wasted money as opposed to the older saving it; nor is it that the older refused to join the feast as opposed to the younger sailing right in; it is not that the older was angry as opposed to the younger being repentant; it is not the jealousy of the older as opposed to the trust of the younger. There are, surely, many faults involved in all of these, and we must see them and call them for what they are. But, the root sin is that the hearts of both of them were closed to the love of their Father. Indeed, one has the impression that they manipulate and use their Father in order to get out of Him their selfish wants. The Father is no longer Father, but an obstacle to their inheritance.

                Being physically close or far from the Father is not what constitutes love or lack of love for Him. Certainly closeness ought to mean at least a desire to love Him, yet the older son’s attitude is fraught with anything but love. When Jesus once told the apostles that they must renounce everything for His sake, Peter asked the question, “What are we to get for following you?” This is, alas, the typical expression of human self-seeking. Likewise, both the younger and the older son were driven by the question, “what can I get out of Him?”. It is the poison of all relationships, it is the poison of original sin in which man reaches out and tries to “get the godhead” for himself. Consumerism is old as the hills and as dangerous as the serpent’s bite. Dressed up in seductive words and images and buoyed up by the secularist dogma that everything you want is good and no-one has a right to stop you, we literally choke ourselves, drown ourselves, exhaust ourselves in our own unbridled appetites. Though legitimate up to a point, the “what about me?” attitude can lead to murderous self-centeredness. It can be easily perceived, masked and unmasked, behind the decaying dimensions of contemporary society, at least in the West.

                The words of Jesus come to mind: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but ruins his very self?” It is easy to see how greed is idolatry, how in gorging the heart, it actually steals it from us just as it steals our ability to recognize or believe in the sincerity of the love of others. In our misery, no matter how happy we may think we are, the Heart of the Father suffers for us, pines for us to reclaim our hearts from the ruin of greed to the salvation of self-surrender unto Him. For His gifts are given out of love, that we might be drawn, each and all, to His Heart, and not that we might ruin our own.

                In His words about what the Father says to the older son, “you are here with me always: everything I have is yours”, Jesus is telling us that, as far as the Father is concerned, simply being with Him is already to possess everything. We can have nothing greater than God Himself: to be with Him is everything. We cannot take our relationship with God for granted, nor banish it to some far-off realm we might consider irrelevant to our daily lives. The parable of the prodigal son is, among many other things, a call to remember the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods but me.” First things first. In taking God for granted, we begin to ignore Him, manipulate His gifts, create enmity with one another and fall into the whirlpool of self-destruction. To fail to keep the first commandment makes observance of the rest nigh impossible. To ignore God as God, and Him alone as God, no matter how much one claims to know Him or be near Him, is to lose the foundation of one’s own identity. If God is known in truth, then He will necessarily be loved in truth, and one’s own humanity will flourish and blossom like the lily. Personal and communal integrity are impossible without direct reference to and dependence upon God. The fact of the matter is that, if God alone is not the Father, the Almighty, then anyone and anything can become god. God is not a mere factor in the social equation –if, indeed He is even that- or in any other equation: He is the foundation of the possibility of all equations. God is not a useful theory to justify a conservative outlook over a liberal one or vice-versa; God cannot be invoked as justification to do what is hateful in His sight. God is not a mascot, a security blanket, a drug, a principle, a big bang or a fascinating concept. God is God. God is not a bottomless pit of the kind of mercy we invent for ourselves to legitimize persistence in sin. God will not be mocked, and whoever manipulates Him does so at his own peril. God’s mercy is surely infinite, but if you do not desire that mercy as He reveals it, it will not, for it cannot, rescue you.

                In our parable, Jesus portrays the Father as exquisitely respectful of the freedom of His sons. Divine love does not arrogate to itself the right to impinge upon human freedom in order to stop us from doing what we want to do. However, when we freely turn to Him, albeit just to find bread to eat or a calf to slay, His response of love is unmeasured. We cannot reasonably be angry with God’s generosity because He does not do what we would do: after all, who created whom? Had God followed our approach to things, Jesus would never have made it possible for us to return to our Father’s arms and festive hospitality. Once that return is made possible, we cannot say we want to be free to do what we want yet, when things go wrong, blame God for not saving us from our freedom! Either we are free or we are not: we are! Either God is free or not: He is! It is true, His love for us is so great that He comes as near as possible to our inner sanctuary of freedom, hoping to attract us to Himself. But He will never violate our sanctuary. He sends us many signs of His love: the order of creation, the Truth of His Son, His active providence for each and all. But He will not overwhelm us unless we signal to Him to do so, as happened in the case of the younger son when the Father ran to embrace him while he was yet a long way off. Although still in the house with him, it is tragic that the older son was actually the one who, by his own volition, was, and remained, the most distant from His Father.

                We are all aware, I think, that the drama of the two sons, not to mention the more painful drama of the Father, is still as relevant today as ever it has been. As a civilization, many of those in leadership, and those hoping for it, many of those responsible for forming public opinion and policy, have effectively and efficiently removed even the memory of God the Father from life itself. We are rapidly becoming a society of orphans, a fatherless society, a godless society. Recent trends of thought, such as atheism or agnosticism, are not, I believe, at root to blame for this. Worrying though they are, they are not as worrying as those who say they believe in God but actually exclude Him except in appearances and provided He does not get in the way of their plans for humanity. But if God is who we say He is, can we really separate Him from any dimension of human existence, individual or collective? The autonomy of the secular order is only legitimate when it does not presume itself to be exempt from the judgment of God. Human beings can make even God an object of consumerism: “we want You there, not here! We want you then, not now!” The issue is immensely complex and the nervousness about it, while understandable and not all unjustified, is considerable. However, these should not prevent us from defending and promoting a world-view which is compatible at least with the First Commandment and with the underlying wisdom of the parable of the prodigal son. Such a view is monotheistic without being theocratic, but it requires to be re-articulated with total fidelity to God and convincing reasonableness to modern civilization. For those Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, have drifted completely away from Him –and we are all in danger of that- we must pray that they will remember their Father’s House and, as the text says, come to their senses. No-one will be convinced to return, however, if we ourselves fail to witness to the mercy of God in the way we deal, dialogue and discuss with others. It is telling that no mention is made in the parable of any greeting between the younger and the older brother. If we are among those who think they are still “at home”, anger is the last thing we should be showing to those we think are not.

                Only Jesus can give us the wisdom and courage of mind and heart needed to be the pathway by which others can come back to God. His Heart, in oneness with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is abundant in meekness and gentleness. May ours be one with His, for He is the only life-giving source of what our mouths can speak in witnessing to the merciful supremacy of God the Father.

 

Msgr. Peter Magee

Sunday, March 21st, 2004 – St. Matthew’s, DC – 10.00 am