Archive for Gospel

Are You Salt and Light?

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Homilies, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

salt-and-lightI believe that one of the real challenges Christianity faces today is a widespread memory problem. For example, do you remember from what book this Sunday’s Second Reading was taken? Most people probably don’t, and while that’s a shame (and raises questions about how closely we are paying attention to the Word of God during liturgy), that’s not exactly what I’m referring to here.

The memory problem I’m thinking about has to do with how we are very quick to apply our own ideas and judgments of various Christian figures throughout history to them before we pause to recall — to listen — to what they are telling us.

Take, for instance, St. Francis of Assisi. Many are quick to mention a whole host of things they associate with the saint. But do they recall that he was stupid, an idiot, crazy, and unattractive? Now before you get too offended, you need to know that these were the descriptions that he himself, many of his fellow Assisi villagers, and the early biographers ascribed to him!

Francis viewed himself as one who was lesser and referred to himself as uneducated and simple, an idiot and stupid. The people who had known him from birth called him crazy as he began to change his life, some accounts even have young adults and others in Assisi jeering and spitting at him. His official biographers also described him as not particularly attractive and affirmed his less-than-impressive educational background.

The reason I bring this up is because it reflects something that is going on in the Second Reading this weekend very well. St. Paul similarly confesses to the Corinthians that he did not come to them nor does he preach elsewhere with any sort of personal charisma or eloquence. Rather, he insists, his whole mission is just to preach Christ crucified!

In the previous chapter of this Letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains how what he is preaching is “a stumbling block to Jews” (who maintain that their understanding of One God precludes the Incarnation) and “foolishness to Gentiles” (who see “divine” and “human,” let alone divine suffering, to be contradictory terms). Nevertheless, this is what we believe and it has important implications for how we should live and act in this world.

We have a memory problem because we way too often look back at those like St. Paul and the St. Francis and imagine that they were such amazing exceptions to the rule, such that we cannot relate to them or hold ourselves to similar standards. But the truth is, these guys were just two average people. Baptized, like you and me, they received the gifts of the Holy Spirit like the next person — like you and me — and actually lived this calling out.

Now we might be able to hold that some of these confessions of Paul and Francis are more about humility than they are about pure fact, but there is something very telling in their similar testimony.

This testimony is the lived witness they provided the world in following Jesus’s instruction to us in today’s Gospel. We are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world — but do we believe it?

Paul and Francis were and remain lights in the world, figures we put up on the “lamp stand” (i.e., “pedestal”) to shine for all of Christianity. But we are called to do the same thing.

And this isn’t optional.

One way to read the “you are salt” business is to think of the optional flavoring dimension of salt. Want something more savory, add some salt. However, to draw on the metaphor that we are indeed the Body of Christ, every body needs salt to live; without it, we die.

I know this first hand. Many people know that I am a runner. I’ve run for many years, and I’m not too bad at it. Four years ago I was running a 15k Road Race (about 9.3 mi), and as I ran past mile 9, with about 0.2 miles left to go, I collapsed out of nowhere. All I remember is seeing the finish line off in the distance and then waking up in an emergency medical tent only to then be taken to hospital where I stayed for two days.

I was dehydrated and my electrolytes, including most importantly salt, were way out of whack. It was serious and scary, but I came through ok. That never happened before nor has it happened since, but it is a testament to how fragile our bodies are and how important salt is in our system.

We are the salt of the Body of Christ — it cannot live without us. We need to live in such a way as to preach the Gospel of Christ with our words and deeds. But what does that look like?

This is where our First Reading comes into view. The Prophet Isaiah tells us:

Thus says the LORD:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,

This is what it means to be salt and light in the world, to be like Paul and Francis, to bring hope and joy to a world that experiences pain and suffering. But are we up to the task? Can we answer positively to our Baptismal vocation? Are we willing to come across as foolish, or stupid, or odd, or different in the way we live in the world?

Photo: Stock

Mandela and John the Baptist

Posted in Advent, Homilies, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Nelson-Mandela-at-Robben-Island-prison-in-South-AfricaIt is understandable that this week I’ve been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela, the now-late former President of South Africa, Nobel Prize laureate, and leader of the anti-Apartheid movement. His death and the celebrations of his life and legacy have offered the world much to consider and much to reflect on given the storied decades the 95-year-old civil rights leader and politician witnessed and helped shape. But I think of him in a particular way today in light of the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday from the entrance antiphon taken from the Letter to the Philippians: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord Always!”).

Today’s Gospel (Matt 11:2-11) features two major figures of first-century Palestine: John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John, the cousin of Jesus, is in prison having spoken out against the unlawful marriage of Herod. Having been called by God from before his birth to be a prophet to the nations and the forerunner of the Lord, John is getting word from his disciples that something new is underway and his own life’s work might be vindicated. Might.

Unsure of what and whether to believe, he sends his aides to Jesus to find out what his cousin has to say. The response is telling.

Like John the Baptist, Mandela spent time in prison awaiting the hope of something new, something just, something liberating, something that God promised in the way all people should be treated. However, unlike John, Mandela’s imprisonment wasn’t the result of just innocent prophesying. Whereas the ANC had originally sought to achieve their goal of overturning the white-supremicist Apartheid regime by nonviolent means, Mandela and others began to become impatient. They became convinced that the only way the oppressive leaders would hear them was if they used force. His taking up of arms and embrace of violence means was the cause of his imprisonment. Mandela was not the innocent prophet we might like to imagine today.

But in prison something began to change.

Conversion happens in various ways, especially in prison. Such was the case with Francis of Assisi, a prisoner of war who came to hear the call of the Lord when the sounds of his worldly allurements ceased behind bars. During the grueling twenty-seven years as a prisoner, Mandela’s approach began to shift. Hearing of the violence and chaos into which South Africa was falling from the outside, Mandela came to realize that nonviolent and peaceful means of compromise and negotiation were the only ways forward.

While he might not have entered prison a prophet in the biblical sense — though, he was surely a prophet in the social sense, rightly calling out injustice and racism in his day — the shifts in his worldview overtime appear to illustrate what our Second Reading from the Letter of James admonishes:

Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. (Jas 5:7-10)

And if there was one thing Mandela was while in prison, it was patient. James encourages all Christians to look at the prophets — from the Hebrew Scriptures and John the Baptist alike — to witness what it means to bear the hardships with patience that are necessary to seek justice and announce the in-breaking of the Reign of God.

Enduring the hardships of imprisonment for nearly three decades, the elder Mandela emerged a modern example of “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” His call for justice and righteousness, his call to end violence and discrimination, this was the “precious fruit” that the farmer waits for in the field, this was more like a sign of the coming of the Lord.

The coming of the Lord, what we celebrate today and all during Advent, is not just about putting the baby Jesus into the manger on Christmas Eve. It’s not about putting the “Christ” in “Christmas,” or putting Christ anywhere for that matter. It is about recognizing what the coming of Christ means.

The coming of Christ means that justice reigns and peace prevails. And it looks a little something like this:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing…

they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

When Jesus sends this word back to John in prison, the hope that he conveys is that God’s Reign is now breaking into the world and it does not bear violence, it does not act impatiently, it does not always seem logical according to the wisdom of the world.

I believe that this word was somehow sent to Mandela in prison as well, which is why he was able to do so much to bring about good in our modern world. Gospel patience, peaceful waiting, a message of hope and healing — this is what it means to be a prophet, this is what it means to await the coming of the Lord.

Working for justice in our world with the spirit of Gospel patience and nonviolence is the surest way for us to live the call of this Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord Always!”)

Photo: Stock

Pope, Hope, and Technology

Posted in Pope Francis with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

pope-francis-gq-magazine-men-of-the-year-december-2013GQEarlier today Pope Francis met with the participants of the 26th Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, meeting under the theme “Proclaiming Christ in the digital age,” a Vatican Radio news article reports. While the pope’s comments to those gathered in Rome for this event are not likely to garner the sort of attention that his recent Apostolic Exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium) or his interview published in America magazine have, he has named some important features of contemporary Christian living and gestured toward a balanced engagement with technology.

This is really nothing new, at least as popes are concerned since 2005. Benedict XVI had referred to the internet and the world of technology and social media as a “digital continent” in need of “evangelization.” He saw promise in the place where women and men, especially the younger generations, gather and spend their time. This virtual place, then, is a place where the Gospel can also be lived and it can serve as a guide for right social interaction and use of technology.

Pope Francis has picked up the technology baton from his predecessor and is encouraging Christians not to shy away from technology, social media, the internet, and so on. However, adopting the Pauline exhortation about “testing” new things, Pope Francis’s encouragement comes with some caution. The Vatican Radio article reports:

“Faced with philosophies of great profundity and educational methods of great value – although steeped in pagan elements, the Fathers did not shut them out, nor on the other hand, did they compromise with ideas contrary to the Faith,” Pope Francis said. “Instead, they learned to recognize and assimilate these higher concepts and transform them in the light of God’s Word, actually implementing what Saint Paul asks: Test all things and hold fast to that which is good.”

He said this also applies to the internet.

“You must test everything, knowing that you will surely find counterfeits, illusions and dangerous traps to avoid,” Pope Francis said. “But, guided by the Holy Spirit, we will discover valuable opportunities to lead people to the luminous face of the Lord. Among the possibilities offered by digital communication, the most important is the proclamation of the Gospel.”

Drawing from the model and instructions of St. Francis of Assisi, we can interpret Pope Francis’s words as modern illustration of the Christian call to preach with our deeds as well as our words. How we use technology, digital communication, and social media; how we engage with other people; how we express our opinions and disagreements with others — all of these things should reflect an openness to the work of the Spirit and not simply a compartmentalized activity devoid of our faith and the Gospel.

Pope Francis also sees these modern communication technologies, especially the internet, as a resources for reaching out to people who are “often hurting or lost” and for offering them “real reasons for hope.”

Photo: GQ Magazine

The Wisdom of God and Syria

Posted in Homilies, Prayer, Scripture, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 8, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

VATICAN-SIRYA-POPE-PRAYERThis Sunday is a difficult time to reflect on the readings we have from Scripture. Like most Sundays, like most close examinations of the Gospel and the Word of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are challenging exhortations, instructions, and means according to which we must evaluate our lives and commitments. However, the international reality and tension of the humanitarian crisis in Syria with its accompanying specter of war rests heavily on our global shoulders. I have not written here about Syria so far without a few exceptions for encouraging prayer. There are reasons for this, not the least of which being not knowing where to begin in my comments. I have spoken informally to many friends and theological colleagues, read numerous articles and op-eds, and reflected on the commitments of Christian life as presented to us in the Gospel and the tradition of a living community that spans millennia. Today’s readings might help make some sense of what to do and how to think.

If we begin with the selection from the Book of Wisdom (9:13-18b), we see how it is amazingly poignant today. This is the end of a pericope known as “Solomon’s prayer for wisdom.” The leader of the People of Israel appeals to God for the guidance, wisdom, and inspiration that he recognizes human “wisdom” does not offer. As Michael Kolarcik, SJ, writes in a commentary on this passage:

Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Solomon’s recognition of his need for wisdom is a paradigm for humanity, particularly for our own time, when our technical knowledge has grown exponentially. There is a fundamental distinction in Solomon’s prayer between knowledge and wisdom. Solomon is acutely aware of both the limits and the strengths of his knowledge. Knowledge represents the human familiarity with the world that enable people to move or act within it. It bestows the power to act. But how will Solomon act?

This, too, is our question: How will we act?

Perhaps more importantly, this is the question that haunts the civil leaders of our world at a time when some call for a response to violence with more violence. The desire to intervene in the attacks of the Syrian government on its own people is, I have no doubt, rooted in a good intention. However, war — even “tailored, strategic strikes” — doesn’t provide a solution to the most fundamental concern at the moment. As Drew Christiansen, SJ, said on PBS this week, “the missile strike doesn’t do the most essential thing, which is saving the people of Syria. And we could do more if we spent the money we’re spending on bombs on caring for the refugees.”

I believe that our commandment to love our neighbors, to care for our sisters and brothers demands of us some intervention in what is happening to those who suffer such injustice and atrocity around the world. But must we always see solution through the lens of military action?

While I am not a politician or an expert on international policy and therefore unable to offer the sort of constructive suggestions that so many are clamoring for when the question of military intervention is taken off the table, I nevertheless believe that the “easy answer” of strikes will not solve the problem. Reports from the region have also suggested that this is not the course of action the people who are being attacked in Syria want either. Something must be done, but not from the drone-control centers located safely around the United States nor from the weapon stores aboard the Naval Fleet poised for attack in the Mediterranean.

The Wisdom of God for which Solomon prays is the wisdom we need to pray for today.

Today’s Gospel is a continuation of this summer’s Ordinary-Time series of difficult passages, which offer a sober reminder to all the baptized that we are de facto in for a difficult time when it comes to following in the footprints of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus doesn’t advocate arbitrary hatred of one’s family and friends in the sort of way that a cult-leader might siphon off the familial ties of potential adherents. No, Jesus is really just stating the obvious about the care and consideration that must be taken in responding to God’s call to follow Christ.

Like someone who is planning a construction project, like a civil leader planning a military intervention, Christians must consider what it means to follow through with what they’ve committed to and how they’re to live in this world. Like Solomon, our challenge is to recognize that living in this world according to the Gospel means eschewing the wisdom of the world for the wisdom of God. And, in doing that, we might upset those around us — even, at times, those close to us.

I don’t have all the answers, nor does Pope Francis or anybody else. But we do have the Gospel. We have the call to live in the tension that beckons us to seek peace in the world, but a peace nevertheless that “the world cannot give.” The peace of Christ, which comes not from bombs or poisonous gas, but from the love of peacemaking, reconciliation, and support. We must oppose any more violence, while at the same time working — seriously working — to end the violence and injustice in Syria (and elsewhere!) according to peaceful means.

Photo: wire

The Challenge of (True) Christian Humility

Posted in Homilies, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , on September 1, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

table-banquet-5The message of today’s Gospel, taken from selections of John 14:1-14, can at first strike the hearer as lukewarm, especially after Jesus’s rather dramatic and intense admonitions of the last two weeks. To a certain extent, this is true. Scripture scholars affirm that Jesus’s starting point is not entirely original, but rather relies upon the conventional wisdom of the time rooted in the ancient philosophers’s proverbial insight. In a nutshell: humility is a virtue (or, as I like to say, don’t be a jerk!).

So what is so special about Jesus’s telling of this parable on the Sabbath in the presence of the Chief Pharisee? Part of it is elicited by what Jesus sees playing out before him in real time — various religious leaders are arriving at the location for dinner and are quibbling about who sits where and why. “He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.”

The conventions of polite social and political behavior may have already dictated that people present themselves in a humble way, and therefore Jesus’s simple exhortation about humility at a “wedding banquet” (yeah, Jesus does not earn any bonus points for originality in cloaking his direct reference to those gathered in his presence at a Sabbath dinner) would be seen as a simple reminder of what to do when avoiding embarrassing social faux pas.

However, what makes this a parable is the way that Jesus takes what is generally understood and taken for granted and turns it upside down. It is parabolic because it bends the narrative line of expectation and turns is back on itself in a way that illuminates something new or otherwise unseen. Jesus is a master of unveiling, of prophetic discourse, of speaking the truth that others don’t necessarily want to hear.

What is that truth in today’s Gospel?

Well, that truth is twofold. The first is an affirmation of the short-term goal of appropriate social conduct. This is a reiteration not only of the ancient philosophers, but of the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures like we see in the First Reading from Sirach (3:17-18, 20, 28-29):

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.
What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.

A modern translation of Ben Sira’s wisdom might be: “Know your role and be humble!” It is both a call to recognize one’s place in relationship to others and a reminder to think first of what is favorable to God (whose view is far more important than that of one’s social fellows).

Returning to Jesus’s words to those in attendance, those who are quite upset with Jesus to begin with (the Gospel scene opens with the clue “the people there were observing him carefully” from the Greek paratereo, meaning something like “hostile observation” or “close scrutiny”), the message takes its parabolic turn at the end when Jesus takes the conventional wisdom about humility and adds:

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

There is something more expansive here than the usual wisdom. The typical social view was that one should avoid doing something potentially embarrassing and should take responsibility for this himself or herself. Jesus instead suggests that the ultimate humbling or exalting will take place from without — the implication being that this is from God.

As many commentators note, this helps us to understand the next ostensible non sequitur from Jesus to the host of the gathering:

When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Jesus’s address here reminds me of the new book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich. Much of the book focuses on the self-serving actions of those in power — political, media, social, etc. — in Washington, DC, vying for more power and exercising that power in ways that, regardless of the superficial appearance, ultimately is deployed to serve the individual alone.

In a way, we might anachronistically look at the Chief Pharisee with whom Jesus is speaking in today’s Gospel as one of these Washington players. Jesus’s point is that humility for the sake of saving public face or personal gain is not the kind of humility that God desires, it is not true humility. John Martens, the scripture columnist for America magazine, said it best when he wrote recently:

Humility will save you from embarrassment today and might even lead to a higher position at the banquet, but the exaltation Jesus is speaking of has to do with the Messianic banquet at the end of time—that is, places at table in the city of the living God.

The honor that women and men seek in this world — demonstrated in the extreme case of Washington, DC dynamics — is not the honor that is proper to right relationship with God and others. Martens further explains:

True honor is found in humility, and true humility is located in seeking the needs of others, not one’s own. Honor might never be gained in this world for seeking out the poor and the needy, and repayment might come only in the new age, when honor and shame, like poverty and wealth, are burned up in the glory of God. At the banquet in the city of God, all sit in positions of equal rank and all share in the grace that reveals us all to be members of God’s one family.

In this way, Jesus is truly unsettling the hearers of the Word of God. These people would expect a popular preacher like Jesus to give them an earful of conventional wisdom, but instead takes their familiar worldviews and turns them around to illustrate what God really desires: that we exhibit humility and refuse pretense when we do what ought to be done for those who need it the most without any expectation of return, including the short-term goal of avoiding embarrassment in a social setting.

Photo: Stock

Between Faith and Belief is Christian Life

Posted in Homilies, Scripture with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

the-holy-bibleIt can be difficult to distinguish between what is meant by faith and belief. For some, such a distinction doesn’t exist; to “have faith” means to “believe in X,Y,or Z.” Yet, for others (and I would put myself in this camp) there is an important distinction that must be made, while recognizing that they are interrelated aspects of our lives. Faith does not require the same sort of thing that belief does. And that thing is cognitive, conceptual, thematic, reflexive, explicit, propositional awareness, understanding, or assent related to a claim about Christianity.

We can see this in a more practical way when we pause to consider how we use the two terms in everyday usage. For example, to say that “I have faith that things will work out” suggests that the how or in what way a situation might be resolved doesn’t come to the fore. But to talk about like, “I believe that this thing will happen,” requires a particular object of  consideration.

Faith is much more than belief.

Faith is the grounding of our very selves in the love and existence of God that oftentimes escapes conceptual reflection and concrete expression. It is about the relationship or experience of an encounter with God in our lives and in our world. It is what provides, as Karl Rahner might put it, the very condition for the possibility of belief — the fiducial context out of which our doctrines, scripture, and shared expression of that experience arises.

Just because someone cannot or will not “believe” in something, does not mean that the same person doesn’t intrinsically and in a very profound way have faith.

Perhaps there is no better example of this dynamic of human existence in relationship to God playing out than in our Gospel for this Sunday — the famous encounter (or initial lack thereof) between the Risen Lord and Thomas, called Didymus, and more popularly called “the doubter!”

Thomas’s doubt shouldn’t, I believe, be mistaken for a lack of faith.

Why? Thomas’s faith — that experience of God in Jesus Christ that led him to transform his life (metanoia) in following in the footsteps of the Nazarene — is what brought him to the moment when the question of belief and unbelief arose. I have no doubt that Thomas was well aware of the mystery of God’s action in the world and in his life in particular, but that doesn’t mean that he had an easy time making sense or conceptualizing or understanding what was happening in the everyday, categorical experience of his quotidian life. On the contrary, the author of the Gospel of John tells us that he, like the other disciples, were rather confused, uncertain, and deathly afraid (literally — they feared the same fate as Jesus). He was, like so many women and men — really, like all women and men, unsure of what to believe.

The story traditionally paints Thomas as something of a loser, a “bad guy,” a holdout. But, I think he’s the most genuine figure for which any modern disciple could hope. He is us, and because we are losers or holdouts or weak in faith. On the contrary, the experience of Thomas reveals that just because we have faith in the God who is love, who is our ground, who sustains us and, like we read in Exodus 3:15-17 in the theophany to Moses, is the God who is concerned about us and cares for us, does not mean that our belief in all aspects of our tradition will come easily and that we will always understand what is happening in our lives with clarity.

The end of the Gospel account from John reads:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

The author of this Gospel seems to make it clear that the purpose of the concretized, historical medium of kerygma or early experience and proclamation of the Christ event, is to serve as a means for Christians who would come after to believe. It presupposes the faith that is intrinsic to each of us by virtue of our being loved into existence by God and, therefore, seeks to help us make sense of what our lives are about, what it is we are supposed to do, and to understand better who God is.

That is the whole point of God becoming a human person in Jesus of Nazareth, something that God planed and desired from all eternity: to enter into an ever-more intimate relationship with all of humanity and creation. That is the point of John 1:18 when the author, at the end of the prologue, explains that the purpose of the Gospel that follows is to present what it means for the Son to reveal (exegete or express) the Father.  That is the point of the Good News (Gospel), to lead our faith to belief, to give an account of what it means to bear the name Christ and to make sense of the faith that is already always present, even if we choose to ignore it.

Thomas isn’t such a bad guy, he’s just very real and extraordinarily normal. He helps show us that what brings us to God through Christ is the faith that is an expression of our a priori relationship with our creator, and that it is then the purpose of the Christian community to encourage one another so that we may then “come to believe” and, then, “through this belief you may have life in his name.”

Photo: Stock

We, The (not so) Prodigal Sons

Posted in Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-son11The Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Lent is a familiar one to nearly all people. Even those who aren’t Christians, but have some cultural familiarity with Christian themes and classic parables, have likely heard about the “Prodigal Son” in some form or another. It is one of the most drawn upon and considered pericopes of all the Gospel accounts, so it seems like there might not be anything new to say about it. I admit that up front, because what I’m about to share is likely not entirely new to many readers, but I think it’s an important way to consider this parable and helpful for us on our lifelong Christian journeys, especially during this season of Lent.

Historically, most people focus on the two “main characters” of the parable: the younger son and the father. Traditionally, it seems, the point of the parable shifts between these two people — the selfishness and arrogance of the spendthrift younger son and the gratuity that marks the father’s forgiveness and embrace. Rembrandt’s famous “The Return of the Prodigal Son” illustrates this central narrative tension well with the focal point of the piece highlighted by a light source illuminating the father’s embrace of the son. This presents a sign of love, forgiveness, second chances, and other predictable tropes.

Most people, if asked, would likely say that the father represents God and the younger (aka: “prodigal”) son represents us, the finite and sinful people who often miss the mark, focus on ourselves, and exhibit a hubris that is only rivaled by the classic images of Adam and Eve in the garden. And, to be sure, this is a fair and reasonable way to consider the story.

We are prodigal with regard to the gifts God has given us, focusing on ourselves, wasting the resources and the time we have on ourselves at the expense of others. We, like the younger son, say to God and to other people in our lives “I wish you were dead, I want to do as I please right now!” which is just another way to talk about a son demanding his inheritance from a living parent.

And, surely, God is equally prodigal in the distribution of unconditioned love. Like the father of the story, God — as Jesus reveals to us in word and deed — embraces the sinner, forgives without question, and practically throws a party in the joy that accompanies our return to our true selves, our recognition that we are indeed children of God, and the metanoia (conversion or “turning toward”) that brings us into the embrace of the absolutely gratuitous God who always already wishes to be in relationship with us.

This, however, always seems to me to be too simple, too neatly packaged.

How easy is it, one might ask, to justify the occasional stupidity and sinfulness of our actions by focusing on the return of the so-called prodigal son? It actually seems to me to be analogous to the critiques leveled against Roman Catholicism and its Sacrament of Penance: “You can do whatever you want and then go to confession!” Obviously, this is not how it works, nor am I really claiming that this is what is going on in the parable of the younger son. But this is how some might read the story.

What is more difficult is to take a closer look at the story, a closer look at Rembrandt’s masterpiece, a closer contemplatio — gaze, focus, honing — on the mirror that reveals ourselves. What we might see is a much darker, much blurrier, much more complicated revelation of who we are and who God is.

While the Rembrandt painting foregrounds the younger son and father in the glow of warm light and embrace, there is something else happening in the shadows.

The older son is also painted into this scene as Jesus paints him into the landscape of the parable. At first glance, the older son seems to be a secondary character, a village extra on the tableau of the “prodigal son” drama. But I think he is the main character of the story. And he is us.

Like a peripheral butler in a murder mystery, the older son is always there, seemingly unrelated to the point of the story. But, in truth, the butler did it — and we need to be honest about what that means for us.

The older son is like most Christians who understand themselves to be decent and ordinary people. He does his work, he takes care of his family responsibilities, he goes to church, and so on and so on. He says as much when his rotten, no-good, spoiled-brat-of-a-brother makes his “grand” return:

Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘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.’

He is furious because… because, why?

Surely, this is not righteous anger, for nothing has been leveled against the older son that was unjust or malicious. Quite the opposite. The older son, as the father explains to him, has received the love and embrace of the father and shared in the comfort and life of the family consistently. 

So why is he angry? Why does he get upset about the generosity of the father for the other son?

The same thing can be asked of us when we are upset about the possibility that God might forgive those for whom we think forgiveness is impossible: those who have hurt us, those who threaten others, those who seem to be nothing but evil. But, is God’s love a zero-sum game? Do we get less of God’s love or only part of God’s embrace when God loves others, forgives others, embraces others?

How often have you or I been in the place of the older son, self-confident of our “trying to do the right thing,” only to be envious, furious, or just upset about the goodness that is show to others whom we believe “don’t deserve it?” The mirror of this parable and the illustration of the painting can, should remind us of the shadow such perspective casts on us as we, like Rembrandt’s older son, lurk in the darkness, cursing it and God and others and ourselves for what goodness or blessings others receive while we, not without our own bountiful share of goodness and blessings, self-righteously resent the younger sons in our lives.

This Lent is a time for us to recognize where we stand in the darkness of judgment and condemnation so as to move into the light with the father. As the father tells his older son, so God tells us:

‘My [child], 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.’”

Can we rejoice in the gratuitous love of God for us and for all? 

Photo: Stock 
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