When the Pigs Are Eating Better than You
March 21, 2004
God is doing whatever it takes to bring us home. God is even willing to use the tragedies and mistakes of our life, to bless us and to lead us to growth.
There’s an African story about a local tribal king, who had a very good friend from boyhood. The two would regularly go out hunting together. The king’s friend was resolute in his conviction that no matter what happened, good things would come from it. Despite many doubts to the contrary, he continued to believe that all things worked for the good. One day when the king and his friend were out hunting, the king’s gun jammed and it blew off his thumb. It was a terrible tragedy. The king was deeply shaken. But his friend in typical style said, “Don’t worry, good will come from this.” Now this so angered the king, that in a rage he sent his friend to prison. A couple months later the king was out hunting again in some rather dangerous territory. He was seized by a group of cannibals, who tied him and prepared to eat him. But just before they began, they noticed that his thumb was missing. Being superstitious, they believed that they should never eat anyone who was less than whole. So they untied the king and set him free.
Realizing what had happened, the king repented that he had treated his friend so poorly. The loss of his thumb had indeed saved his life. So the king went to the prison and apologized to his friend. “You were right,” he said, “I should never have put you into prison, that was a terrible and unjust decision.” The friend, in typical fashion, said, “Yes it was, but good came from it.” “Good?” the king said, “what possible good could come from my decision to put my friend in prison?” “Well,” said the friend, “had you not put me in prison, I would have been out hunting with you and the cannibals would have eaten me!”
Even our greatest disappointments can lead to blessings. Even our most foolish decisions can lead to growth. This is what we as Christians believe. We do not believe that is the way the world is. We believe that is the way God is. God is doing whatever it takes to bring us home. That is why for a Christian, despair is never a final option. Even if we have rejected our father, squandered our inheritance, and find our selves feeding slop to hogs. Even if the person we love the most has been taken from us. Even if we have lost our health or our reputation. Even if we have made disastrous decisions and sinned so grievously that, like the prodigal son, we feel that we are no longer worthy to be God’s child. Even then, God is doing whatever it takes to bring us home.
Therefore, the next time you have to face evil in the eye, the next time that you realize what a mess you have made of your life, the next time you know that the pigs are eating better than you are—do not despair. Turn around and start home. The way back may be crooked and difficult, but it is a road that has been prepared for you. Do not forget that when you come to the end of that road, you will not face rejection but welcome. You will not encounter a cold shoulder, but a loving embrace.
How to Enter the Feast
March 18, 2007
Today’s gospel is perhaps the greatest and most profound of all of Jesus’ parables, and we could reflect upon its significance for hours. But we do not have hours, just a few minutes. And so we need to be selective. I would suggest that we select the character of the elder son, because in many ways this character is the one that is closest to us. I would suggest that we try to identify what is the sin of the elder son and how does that sin manifest itself.
To answer that question succinctly, the sin of the elder son is ingratitude, and that sin manifests itself in jealousy and in anger. The elder son was a lucky guy, a blessed individual. He had been born into a wealthy family to a father who loved him deeply, who entrusted to him all that he had. As the father says, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” You are my #1 guy. You are the one I love the most. Not only was the elder son so loved by his father, he also had his health. The parable says that he had the strength to be out working in the fields. He had friends, because he mentions them as he complains to his father. In so many ways this elder son was blessed time and again.
But he was not thankful. If he had been thankful, he would have been able to own how loved he was, how gifted he was, how blessed he was. If he could have owned those things, he would have been able to rejoice when his younger brother came home. But because he was ungrateful, and because he could not own the blessings that surrounded him, all he could do when his brother returned was to react in jealousy and anger. All he could do was compare himself to his younger brother. You see the elder son resented the love and joy that was shown to his younger brother because he could not claim the love and joy that were his own possession.
My brothers and sisters, how often are we like that! We are so blessed. We have life, we have our health, we have family and friends, we have good jobs. We live a standard of living which is the envy of the world. We live in an age of technological and medical miracles. We have access to travel in a way that no generation before us could have even imagined. The list goes on and on. Yet, by and large, we take all of these things for granted. We are not grateful, at least not actively so. Somehow we presume that all of this is our due. This attitude is dangerous. If a person is not actively thankful, thankfulness fades. And when thankfulness fades, it is replaced by jealousy and anger.
When we are out of touch with how truly blessed we are, we start comparing ourselves to others: “Why can’t I be like him? Why can’t I have what she has?” In time jealousy overcomes us and robs us of joy. When we are out of touch with the blessings that surround us, we can suddenly burst into rage: “How do those people get away with that? Who does she think she is?” In time anger begins to characterize our life and robs us of joy.
You see there are only two kinds of people in the world: the person who gets up every morning and says “thank you—thank you for this day, thank you for my life, thank you for the blessings that surround me,” and the person who wakes up every morning and begins to complain about what he or she does not have. Everyone one of us is moving towards one or the other of those two people. None of us are stationary. Each day we move closer to a person who is more thankful, more alive, more joyful, or we move closer to a person who is less grateful, more jealous, more angry.
So if you suddenly find yourselves dealing with episodes of jealousy or rage and you are not sure what is causing them, look at your level of gratitude. How grateful are you for the gifts which you possess? Jealousy and anger are not eliminated by will power but by thankfulness.
God has given us life and all the blessings of life. God wants us to celebrate that life. So every day God is holding a celebration, a banquet with music and dancing. Our only choice is whether we will participate in that celebration or sit outside sulking like the elder son. God’s celebration of life will go on with us or without us. But if we want to be joyful, if we want to live a full life, there is only one way forward. We must be thankful for the things which are ours, and then we can enter the feast.
Augustine and Pelagius
March 14, 2010
Luke 15: 1-32
Sr. Mary McCormick spoke at our GIFT sessions this week. She reminded us about one of the earliest debates in Christian history. It was a theological debate about how we gain salvation, why God loves us? Two men engaged in the debate. On one side was St. Augustine, a name that I think many of you know. Augustine’s opponent was a lesser know man by the name of Pelagius. Pelagius’ position was this: we gain salvation by our good works. When we live an honorable life, when we do what is right, when we love God and neighbor, God sees our good works and grants us salvation. Because of the works that we do, God loves us.
Now this is a very attractive theory. But Augustine was dead set against it. He argued that God is so much greater than us and a relationship with God is so beyond our ability that no good work could ever earn God’s love or ever be the reason for our salvation. God saves us, simply because God chooses to save us. We are in relationship with God because God chooses to initiate that relationship. None of our good works cause God to love us. It is all grace. Now, of course, St. Augustine felt we should do good works. He felt that was what God asks of us. But he was insistent that God does not love us because of the good works that we do. God loves us simply because God loves us.
If you pick up any theological textbook, it will tell you that Augustine won the debate with Pelagius. Augustine’s position is now official church teaching. We come to salvation totally by God’s grace. But I would be willing to say that many of us are actually more followers of Pelagius than of Augustine. Don’t we think that we are good Christians because we live a good life, because we do what is right, because we try to be good parents, because we give to the poor, because we come to church? These are all good things but when we think that our relationship with God is based upon the good things that we do, we are in fact siding with Pelagius. And taking such a position is more than a theoretical stance. There are actual consequences which appear in our lives. When we think that it is our good works which initiate our relationship with God, we inevitably find ourselves in jealousy and judgment. When we see our accomplishments as the reason for God’s love, we cannot help but compare our accomplishments with the accomplishments of others.
The elder son in today’s gospel is a perfect example of this kind of thinking. When his sinful, wayward, younger brother comes home and his father welcomes him with warmth and love, the elder son explodes. “It’s not fair,” he says, “This boy has done nothing but sin, nothing but waste your inheritance on prostitutes. Meanwhile, I’ve been here, working the land, keeping the family together.” The elder son is jealous of the love that is given to his younger brother. He is judgmental. He keeps pointing to all the good things that he has done. But he does not understand that the father does not love his children because of what they have done, but simply because they are his sons.
My friends, you and I, are most often the elder brothers and sisters of the parable. We try to live our lives right. We work hard. We come to church. These are all good things which God asks of us. But we must never think that these good works of ours give us a claim on God’s love. God remains free, free to love others who are less good than we are. The minute that we begin to feel jealousy or judgment towards others, in that same minute we should recognize that we have twisted our relationship with God. When we begin to say: “Thank God I am not like that person who only comes to church on Christmas and Easter, who is addicted to drugs or pornography, who lives a sexually dysfunctional life, whose family is in disarray,” we are really pointing to our own accomplishments. When we begin to hurl judgments towards others, what we are really saying is that God should love us more because we are good.
But God remains free, free to love those who are less good than we are. God remains free to love those who are struggling, to love those who are sinful. The great message of today’s gospel’s parable is that God’s love is primary and our deeds are secondary. God remains free to rejoice in a sinner who repents, in the weak who try, in the prodigal who comes home. And if we intend to live in our father’s house, we must be willing to rejoice as well.
A Parable of Love and Jealousy
March 10, 2013
Today’s parable of the prodigal son is so famous and so rich that we might not notice that it is incomplete. It ends too soon. It ends with the father pleading with the older son to come in to the celebration which he has arranged for the prodigal son. But we are never told how the elder son responds to his father’s pleading. His father says, “We must celebrate and rejoice.” Yet the parable ends before we find out whether the older son in fact does celebrate and rejoice.
So the incompleteness of this parable draws attention to the decision which the older son must face. That choice, whether to celebrate or not celebrate with his brother, becomes a key to unlock the meaning of the parable. The decision of the elder son which is left hanging in the air suggests that this parable is not so much about sinning, repenting, and forgiving as it is about jealousy. It is not so much about forgiving the son who came home but the willingness to accept the brother who has come home. It asks us: Are we willing to rejoice in the good fortune of others?
When someone makes a great basketball shot on our team or someone delivers an excellent speech in debating class, are we willing to rejoice with that person or do we say, “I could have made that shot if they passed the ball to me. I could have given just as good a speech if I had been given that topic.” When someone at work gets a promotion or pulls off an important project, are we able to rejoice with that person or do we say, “I could have done that too if I played the game, if I catered to the whim of my superiors.” When we see a great mother, a clever businessman, a creative thinker, are we willing to rejoice and celebrate those gifts or do we feel compelled to tell ourselves and others of that person’s flaws, mistakes, and limitations? This is exactly what the older brother does as he tries to tell his father all the reasons that his younger brother should not be welcomed home.
Today’s parable is a parable in which the elder son is jealous of the love that the father gives to his brother. Clearly the parable is inviting us to avoid such jealousy in our own lives. But if we are going to do that, we have to understand what is the cause of jealousy. The parable gives us the answer. The older son is unable to accept the love that his father has for him. The father certainly loves the elder son. He says this clearly. He says, “My son, you are here with me always and all I have is yours.” And yet, for some reason, this elder son will not believe in the father’s love. Because he will not accept the gifts that flow from that love, he ends up being jealous of his brother.
The surest way to avoid jealousy in our own lives is to accept the love God that has for us and the gifts that God has given us. Even though our gifts might seem less than the gifts of others, we need to believe that the gifts that we have been given are valuable and important. Sometimes we think: If God is loving that other person so much there will not be enough love left over for me. But the parable clearly says this is wrong. The father is excessive in loving, prodigal in loving. The parable assures us that with our God there will always be enough love for all of the children.
This story invites us to claim the love that God has for us and the gifts that God has given us. It invites us to be thankful for our gifts and to believe, whatever those gifts are, they are a sure sign of God’s unfailing love for us. If we can be thankful for the gifts we have received, we can avoid jealousy in our lives. When we claim God’s love, our response to someone’s success or exaltation will be joy rather than envy. We will be able to celebrate with them, because no matter how much someone else can be blessed, we will know that we are never left out. With our God, there is always enough love to go around.
The Spoiled Son
March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Parables can be interpreted in different ways. We normally see the father in today’s parable as a figure of God who warmly welcomes back the prodigal son. When we read the parable this way, it is a parable of forgiveness, God’s forgiveness to us. This is a beautiful and valid reading of the parable. But it is not the only one. We can also see the father not as a figure of God but simply as a human father, and when we read the parable that way, its meaning changes. It is no longer a parable of God’s forgiveness. It becomes a parable of family dysfunction.
Why, for example, does the father divide up the estate when the younger son asks him to do it? It could be because this younger son is the father’s favorite, and he simply cannot say no to his beautiful boy. The father might be so conditioned to indulge his younger son that he will even give up his estate before he dies. Then, when this younger son loses everything and is in dire need, he decides to return home. We normally see that decision as a one of repentance, but it could just as easily be a form of manipulation. Knowing his father’s infatuation with him, the younger son might confidently conclude, “I am going to go back to Daddy, and he will give me whatever I ask.” And Daddy does. He runs out and gives him robes and rings and kills the fatted calf to celebrate, because this son, who is the apple of his eye, has returned home.
So this is a very different reading of the parable. It is no longer the parable of the Prodigal Son but now the parable of the Spoiled Son, or the parable of the Indulgent Father. This parable presents us with a family whose love is unhealthy, a family in which affection is used as a tool for selfishness.
And once this dysfunctional family is presented, the elder son arrives. He is not the father’s favorite. He is not the focus of the father’s affection. In fact, the father even forgets to invite him to his brother’s party. He has to find out what’s going on from the servants. And when he finds out that his brother, the brat, has returned home and his father is making a big fuss because his favorite son has returned, the elder brother snaps. He can’t take it anymore. He is so tired about hearing about his brother: how wonderful he is, how clever he is. He is so fed up with his father loving his brother more than he loves him. He digs in his heels and he refuses to join the family celebration.
The father comes out to plead with him. The father’s argument is simple, “Look, we’re not a perfect family. Things are not as they should be. But a wonderful thing has happened here, and we must rejoice. Your brother was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and has been found.
These words of the father provide an entry for us into this parable, because all of us have relationships that are dysfunctional in some way, relationships in which we do not get the love that we deserve, relationships in which others are indulged at our expense. We watch as others are held up for admiration, and we ourselves are forgotten. It can happen in our families, among our friends, in our school, or at work. We want others to recognize us and respect us. But instead, they organize parties and forget to invite us. “It’s not fair,” we say. And it’s not. “Things should change,” we say. And they should. But this parable is wise enough to recognize that they probably won’t. The relationships in our families and among our friends are largely the relationships that they are. It is likely that their flaws will remain.
So when we find ourselves holding the short end of the stick, the only real decision we have is the decision of the elder brother: Will we or will we not enter into the family celebration? Will we keep ourselves apart and refuse to go in? Will we cut ourselves off because the relationships are not as healthy as they should be? Or, will we somehow find the strength and the courage to accept an indulgent father who pleads with us or a spoiled brother who comes home?
The parable never tells us whether the elder son enters the celebration or not, but its preference is clear. The relationships in our lives are flawed. If we decide that we are going to stand apart until we receive an apology, that apology may never come. If we wait until people begin to love us as they should, we might end up waiting alone. Therefore, this parable says that it is wiser to take a deep breath, swallow our pride, and enter the family feast.
Accepting God’s Love
March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
If someone gave you a new BMW as a gift, would you say, “Thank you”? If you won a million dollars in the lottery, would you celebrate? If a deep division in your family was finally healed and your family was reconciled, would you be happy? I think all of us would say, “Yes, for sure.” Common wisdom indicates that when wonderful things happen to us, we are thankful, we celebrate. This is what makes the response of the prodigal son in today’s gospel so peculiar. This younger son has made a mess of his life. He squanders his inheritance and deeply wounds his family. But when he decides to return home out of desperation, his father welcomes him with open arms, puts the best robe on him, puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, kills the fatted calf, and announces a celebration.
It would be hard to imagine a greater turn-around for the fortunes of this prodigal son. His homecoming was a hundred times more successful than anything he could have imagined. Yet this is what makes his response to the father so strange: it is not there. When the father welcomes the son home, the younger prodigal son says nothing—not, “Thank you,” not “How wonderful this is,” not “I love you.” There is nothing, only silence. Now perhaps the writer of this parable simply forgot to put the response of the prodigal in. But it is also possible that the silence of this younger son is an invitation to us to examine our relationship with God more deeply.
Perhaps this parable is saying that, contrary to common wisdom, we are not always thankful when wonderful things happen to us. Sometimes we find a way of resisting the love and forgiveness that God showers upon us. Could it be, despite the immediate and complete forgiveness of the father, that the younger son could not forgive himself? Could it be that, although the father’s love announces a new beginning to their relationship, the younger son could only cling to the mistakes of the past?
It is clear that the love of the father in the parable is meant to represent God’s love for us, a love which is complete and unlimited. Our only choice is whether we are willing to accept that love and forgiveness or not. We might be aware that through our negligence we have contributed to the breakup of our marriage or placed some heavy burden on one of our children. This parable tells us that God forgives us completely. But will we accept that forgiveness or will we continue to believe that we are broken and incomplete people? Perhaps we know that we have hurt others deeply because of our ambition or the abuse of drugs or alcohol. This parable insists that God’s forgiveness allows a new beginning. But will we live in a new way or will we continue to define ourselves by the mistakes of the past? We might be struggling with an ongoing habit of sin: impurity, prejudice, self-indulgence. This parable says that God is willing to forgive us over and over again. But will we accept that forgiveness with thankfulness or will we continue to insist that we are not worthy to be God’s daughter or son?
None of us makes it through life with a clean slate. This parable promises that God is willing to wipe our slate clean over and over again. This is God’s way of saying that, despite our flaws, we have a right to live, we have a right to be happy. The choice is ours. We can draw back and cling to the sins that God has already forgiven, or we can walk into the Father’s embrace, put on the finest robe, accept a ring on our finger, and begin to celebrate in thankfulness with a God whose love knows no end.