In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we heard the parable of the prodigal son. There is a standard interpretation of this story – the verses just before the parable make it clear that Jesus means us to understand it as a lesson in what it means to repent, and the season of Lent is an especially good time to think about repentance.
We are all, in various ways, prodigal sons and daughters, squandering our inheritance and taking it for granted. To understand this, we first have to understand what our inheritance is, what we have received from our Father. The gift that we have received from God, most fundamentally, is God himself, in the person of his Son. “Take, eat; this is my Body.” Think of the one whose Body this is: it is the Body of Christ, in whom, as Paul said, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Colossians 1.19).
Consider the implications of this. What an incredible gift! “All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” in Jesus Christ. It is God’s will to bestow on us the gift of his very own self. This same Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, gives himself to us – not least in the sacrament of his Body and Blood – so that everything that he is by nature, we may become by his grace. Jesus says to us: “Take; eat. This is my Body – EVERYTHING that I am, I give to you. All that is mine is yours.” The implications of this should shake us to the core. But our casual attitude toward the sacrament is proof that we take it for granted. How carefully do we maintain custody of our thoughts at mass? How carefully do we honor the Lord with our bodily posture? Do we kneel? Do we genuflect? Do we look up and adore? Do we arrive in time to prepare ourselves prayerfully, to comport our minds and our hearts?
When I was an undergraduate, I was a sacristan at All Saints’ Chapel at Sewanee. During Lent, the associate chaplain would hang up a sign in the sacristy that said, “Slow down; Quiet; Its Lent.” I’ve often thought it might be a good idea to put up a sign on the door of the church saying, “Slow down; Quiet; You are coming into the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth.”
The Father said to the elder son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” (Luke 15.31). We have been given a great gift in the substance of God’s only Son. But maybe sometimes we are in the position of the elder brother. This is the attitude of “religious” people, and it shows that there is a corresponding danger on the other end of the scale. “[H]e was angry and refused to go in [to the feast]. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’” (Luke 15.28ff).
We have to be careful not to allow our carefulness to become an idol, an end in itself. Sometimes we ARE careful; sometimes we do have pious, religious feelings. Sometimes we do pray as we ought. But our very piety serves a greater purpose: communion with God. The elder brother’s problem is that he is focused on the wrong thing. How easy it is for our minds and our hearts to wander onto the wrong thing! He should be focused on what he has received, on his own relationship with his Father. But he gets distracted by what he takes to be an injustice, and perhaps by envy and pride. But in fact, the reconciliation of his brother has nothing to do with him. At least not in the way that he thinks.
The blessings that other people receive do not detract from us in any way. God’s grace does not work like that. If he gives you a gift, that does not mean that he then has less to give to me. Therefore the correct attitude towards the flourishing or the reconciliation of our brothers and sisters is rejoicing. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found,” (Luke 15.31f).
In the Rector’s Study Group on Sunday mornings, we have been discussing Fr. Tom Hopko’s “55 Maxims for Christian Living.” Three relevant ones that we recently discussed are these:
- Don’t compare yourself with anyone
- Be defined and bound by God alone.
- Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so.
God works in the lives of others in ways that are almost always completely inscrutable to us. So it’s just not possible to make any inferences about their lives based on our own lives. Everyone is fighting battles that are unique to themselves. The best we can do is, as St. Paul said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12.15).
But – sometimes and in some ways – we’re in the position of the Father in the parable. Paul says that “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and GA VE US THE MINISTR Y OF RECONCILIATION,” (2 Cor. 5.18). This fact flows from our being in the position of the elder brother. The father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” “All that is mine is yours.” And one of the things that is mine – and therefore yours – is the job of reconciliation, of welcoming home other prodigal sons and daughters.
The parable says that the younger son eventually, “came to himself [and] said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!’” (v. 17). But we live in a world where many people have not yet come to themselves. Many don’t even REMEMBER that there IS a “house of the father.” They think that living in spiritual poverty in a pig pen is all that there is to life. The parable says that the younger son “gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property…” It’s a long journey into a far country. And, as I said, we live among many people who don’t even remember that there is such a place as the Father’s house. All they know is famine and poverty, and they DO gladly feed on the pods that the swine eat – fascinated by the slop of pop culture, or the mud- slinging and wallowing of politics, or any of a million pointless or nasty distractions. So much of our energy and money, as a civilization, is devoted to what amounts to shoveling cultural slop, making it more easily accessible, distracting people from what really matters with greater ease and efficiency.
With respect to other people wallowing in the mire, people who don’t even remember that there is a house of the Father, our job is to wait and pray and hope; and to do what is in our power to bear witness to a better way, to remind people of the Father’s house, maybe to INVITE them to the Father’s house, to the feast prepared for them, to remind them of the patrimony that is theirs in the only Son of God, Jesus Christ.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” “Take; eat; this is my Body.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.