My Dear brothers and Sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Sprit. So, great! I get to preach on a gospel that is a part of almost every talk on conversion and/or reconciliation for Christians. This passage of scripture is so often preached that, if you’re like me, all you have to hear is “A man had two sons…” and you kind of glaze over. Maybe you start making your grocery list or asking yourself if you remembered to write in that ATM withdrawal and whether it was for sixty or eighty dollars. Let’s face it, this story is THAT familiar, especially in our modern church. Part of the reason for this is because it kind of typifies the way that most of us envision the God. God is a kind older fatherly-figure who smiles a lot and wants to forgive us even before we ask. And, to be honest, I think a lot of reason for that image comes from this gospel. In every homily I’ve ever heard or preached, God is the forgiving father who welcomes back those of us when we sin both by our actions and by our unwillingness to forgive someone else.
If I may be so bold, I would like to suggest we take a slightly different tack today as we mine the depths of meaning for this story. Rather than ascribe divine attributes to the Father and human attributes to boys, let’s just assume that each of these figures are, in fact, human. Let’s assume for a second that Jesus really was telling us a parable and not a story using different names for definite people. Last Sunday night and Monday, I gathered with our Archbishop in a quarterly priest council meeting. I rather enjoy these get-togethers because it allows me to play some Bridge with his Excellency and be amazed at his technique. On Monday, Monsignor James Barta, another superb Bridge player, presented to us some demographics and population trends for the state of Iowa. Monsignor had us read summaries of several books that have been written about this phenomenon and looked at the census data from 2010 in preparation for the upcoming census this year. One of the trends is that, with the exception of a corridor between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, the population of the rest of the State of Iowa is declining. He then had us look at parish data to see if we had similar phenomena. In other words, if a particular county has lost 50% of it’s population, you would expect the Local Catholic Church to do the same.
The trouble is we’re actually doing much worse than the local population. In most instances, we were 15-20% higher in loss than the county population. In other words, there are a lot of Catholics that aren’t coming to church on Sundays. Big surprise, right? When most priests hear that, we tend to look around at the guy next to us and ask what he’s doing wrong. In other words, we don’t think it’s our parish that has the drop. Or, if we do, it’s not because of us. And, it’s my experience that most parishes have the same attitude toward nearby parishes.
To me, that’s one of the dangers about believing that the Father in this parable is God and we are one of the kids. The truth is, it may be better to think of ourselves as the forgiving parents who have watched several of God’s children leave the house. Sometimes, we let them go because it was clear they had no intention of living a Christian life anyway. They wanted to squander the inheritance of holiness given them in baptism. We pray that someday they will come to their senses and return. In other cases, we saw our people leave the church and didn’t do anything about it because we were intimidated at the prospect of seeming to be judgmental. In either case, I’d like to suggest that we may learn a lesson from the forgiving father about how we are to react when our children leave, because I do think the Father learns something in the gospel today. By all appearances, the Father lets his younger son leave and simply washes his hands of him. He may have been so angry at being asked to cough up his share of the inheritance that he was more than willing to let this ingrate go. Who knows? The only thing I do know is that the Father was so anxious for his son to return that he spotted him while he was still a long way away from home. He was keeping an eye out for his prodigal son and he even joyously ran to welcome him back home. I think the Father might have learned a lesson from his experience with the younger son that influenced the way he treated the rebellion of the older son. He doesn’t just let the older son walk off angry. He goes to meet him too!
As I said before, I imagine we have all experienced prodigal children leave the church and I wish I could be like that loving Father and chase each one of them down to convince them to stay but I can’t. There are too many and I don’t know them all. I believe God calls each of us in the church to be his forgiving parents to reach out to the prodigals among us to help welcome them home.
The story of the prodigal son ends with the father and older son out in the field. The father has made his case that the son should return but we never find out if the elder son actually did. I’d like to believe he did come back because his Father went to him and invited him. Who can you reach out to this week to invite back?