Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14; 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Luke 15:1–32
I have a rosary that was given to me by a friend. He took up making rosaries after he came into the Church, and when I came back and was confirmed, he made this one for me. I treasure it because of the love with which he made it and simply because it’s beautiful. It wasn’t until about the time I was in diaconal formation that I recognized the image on the center medal here just above the crucifix. Many rosaries have an image of the Blessed Mother or Jesus, or both in the Pieta, or the Holy Family. There are many to choose from depending on the theme rosary makers have in mind.
But I walked into the parish office one day, back when it was in what is now the Riffle Center, and I came face to face with a print in the reception area. I thought, “Wait, that looks familiar.” It was a print of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. And that is the same image on the center medal of my rosary. Many of you probably remember the story of my ordination day, so you probably see how fitting it is for this to be the image on my rosary. The story of the Prodigal Son is the story of my life. And if I asked you to raise your hands if it’s your life story as well, I bet we would see a lot of hands.
The reading today from St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy is a recognition of his own prodigality. He plays both parts here. First, he is the older brother judging the younger—the one who would persecute the guilty rather than exercise mercy. Then he recognizes his own deep need for God’s mercy and becomes, in the same passage, the younger brother.
I too can see myself in both brothers: the one who took his inheritance and squandered it, and the older son who judged the younger. I’ve looked at others and deemed them unworthy of my mercy. Thank God I am not their judge, and thank God I have repented from that perspective.
As I prepared for this homily, I mentioned to Deb Chester, our RCIA Coordinator and Deacon Mac’s long-suffering wife, that the Prodigal Son’s story is mine. She said, “I have been each character.” And I guess that goes for me, too. I’ve been both sons, and I am the father in waiting for the return of the prodigal. And I know that many of you are waiting for prodigals to return. We like to think that it’s a product of our times, but this gospel reading suggests otherwise. We are not the first generation to worry about our children’s salvation.
Ultimately, of course, this gospel reading is about God’s unrelenting mercy, His unwillingness to stop seeking us—because that’s really what’s happening in our conversion. God is pursuing us. We might think we’re chasing Him and seeking Him, but our effort is always a fraction of the effort of God’s as He tries to break though to us. If you consider the first two parables from the gospel today—how the shepherd and the woman in the house both go rather overboard in response to finding the sheep or finding the coin. That’s what Jesus is saying to us: God’s joy at bringing us back is so completely different than how we expect Him to respond.
Let’s talk about the lost son here a bit more. He asks his father to give him what will come to him—his inheritance, which would usually only come to him after the father’s death. What is he saying to his father? He’s essentially saying, “You are dead to me.” The wealth of his father is more important to him than his relationship to his father. Now, according to Mosaic law, the parents in such a situation would be completely within their rights to demand the son’s execution. The father could simply refuse and then turn the son over to the religious authorities. But that’s not what he does. Instead, he gives the son what he desires.
And when his son returns and repents, the father welcomes him back joyously and generously, holding nothing back. His son was lost but now he is found—dead but now alive.
When I think of the younger brother’s recognition of his state and his decision to repent, I remember a song by one of my favorite bands, the Classic Crime. The first verse is this: “I’m like a lost boy looking for my father in the wilderness, days in the wrong direction, wondering if I’ll ever see his face again.”
The younger son has been looking in the wrong direction and he has come to the recognition that he is lost. That was me. That might’ve been you at some point. And that is probably many of our children right now. They’ve listened to the directives of the world, and it has pointed them in the wrong direction. And at some point they may come to that realization that they are lost, but they don’t wonder about the Father’s face. They often don’t remember it. They can’t seem to see God’s face. They can’t find Jesus in the world around them.
Again, this is nothing new. Look at the Israelites in the first reading. God has just led them out of Egypt—out of bondage. But no sooner than He has freed them and given them a sure guide to stay free in the Law of Moses than they dive headfirst back into bondage. What’s more, they credit an inanimate object for their freedom: :This thing, this golden calf that was just now created in our midst has freed us from bondage.” That seems so bizarre. They follow a pillar of flame and smoke across the desert and through the Red Sea and turn around to give credit to a lump of metal.
Sort of like us.
Don’t we do this as well? Look at all the intangible gifts we have: life, love, our own unique talents and abilities. From where do these immaterial things come but from an immaterial God? But what do we use as the measure of our worthiness or success? The lump of metal parked in our driveway! That chunk of land and the house that’s built on it! We’re so focused on the material gifts that we forget the immaterial gift giver, our Father. It’s no wonder, then, that our children don’t see him and don’t remember His face.
And part of that responsibility lies in us as well. We are God’s hands and feet in this world. Do our wayward children see us being Christ in the world? A recent Pew study suggested that one of the reasons children leave their faith is because Christians don’t seem to act any better than anyone else. I will admit that this was one of my excuses as well when I was away from the Church—mostly because I didn’t really know what a Christian looked like or acted.
We have to remember justice and mercy together. We have to remember that God’s justice is His mercy. They go together. St. Paul understood this. Moses understood this. Do we?
God uses every attempt He can to reach us, and very often He uses others to reach us—people who will disrupt our patterns, defy our expectations, and derail our plans. Many times He uses means that put discordance into our lives. And sometimes by shocking us with His beauty. St. Augustine captured this in his Confessions when he spoke of us own conversion in one of my favorite passages in western literature:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
We create these walls—the ones that trap us in lives of dissolution, the ones that land us in sties hungering for the slop of pigs, the ones that cause us to cling to hunks of metal rather than real relationship. And God still tries to break through to us. That is that unrelenting mercy and generosity of the Father to His children.
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Fifteen years later, we are no closer to stopping terrorism. Whatever unity we had has long faded. While aggression of that kind cannot go unanswered, we need to remember that the ultimate solution to the conflict in our world is not in our actions and works but in our trust and faith in the generous Father who calls us ever back to Him. If all Catholics truly turned to Him and sought His will, the world would be a much different place. Our hearts will be restless until we rest in Him.