Ordinary Time, 24th Sunday. The song “The First Time” by U2 captures what the prodigal son is feeling – “I left by the back door, and I threw away the key.” What does the prodigal son learn after all his misadventures? He learns that the best thing he ever had was his father’s love for him. Only God would leave 99 sheep to search for 1 lost one, turn his house upside down looking for a penny, forgive the Israelites time and time again, sacrifice his Son for us, and turn Paul the persecutor of Christians into Paul the Apostle of Christ. Often, we who sit in the pews are like the older son; we spend years serving the Church without ever realizing what the Father’s love really means. It’s time to discover Him. (12 Sep 2010)
I usually record my homilies by plugging an MP3 player into the church audio system. But none of my 3 parishes allow me to connect the MP3 player to the system. So I had to record it on the player’s built-in microphone, which does not work very well. I decided to include a full transcript of the homily.
The great band U2 sings:
My father is a rich man
He wears a rich man’s cloak
Gave me the keys to his kingdom coming
Gave me a cup of gold
He said “I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see”
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key
And I threw away the key
Yeah, I threw away the key
Yeah, I threw away the key
(U2, The First Time)
This could be the song of the Prodigal Son in today’s reading. He wondering if he had all his father’s money, life would be good. So he says, “Listen, I’m sick of waiting for you to die. Give me my inheritance now.” And so the father does. And he takes all that money and he blows it on every kind of pleasure imaginable. Finally, he thinks, “I would be better off as a servant to my father than I am now.” So he goes back, and his father catches sight from him at a distance, runs to him, kisses him, and throws a huge party for him.
What is it that the younger son learned?
He learned that the greatest thing he had was his father’s love for him. He threw it away, and in the end it was the only thing he had left. He left looking for something better and he came back when he realized that there was nothing better. His father’s love was everything.
His father doesn’t scold him, doesn’t punish him, doesn’t make him earn back the money. He simply welcomes him. What kind of father loves like this? Only God the Father. Only God the father would leave 99 perfectly good sheep to go looking for the one sheep that wandered away. Only God would turn his house upside down looking for a single penny, and throw a party when we found it. Only God would forgive the Israelites over and over again. Only God would send his own Son to die on the cross for our sins. The Easter of the Church proclaims:
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave
You gave away your Son.
Only the love of God the Father could take St. Paul who was a blasphemer and a persecutor of Christians and an arrogant make, and make him one of the greatest Apostles ever.
What is it that the older son still hasn’t learned?
He still hasn’t learned how important his father’s love is. “All these years I slaved for you, and you never gave me nothing.” He’s been with his father all along and he still hasn’t learned about the love of his father. So often we Catholics spend years coming to church, sitting in the pews, “slaving” at the Church’s teaching, and never realize what it is all about. It is the people who have suffered the most who discover the Father’s love. Those who have been abused, or had a bad family upbringing, or who suffered through a divorce, it’s the homeless on the streets and the convicts in our prisons who know about God’s love.
A friend of mine is a youth minister. She was on a mission trip and every night a man would come in for food. He had nothing, and not only was he homeless on the street, but he had various medical problems and he had lost both his legs. But he had an amazing faith. She said to him one day, “How is it that you have such amazing faith, when you have nothing?” He said, “All I have is my faith. You have so much, you don’t realize that.”
I recently watched a news story about a family. The father had abandoned his wife and two young daughters when the youngest, Wanda, was only a few months old. She became a nurse and was working at Calvary Hospital when, 41 years later, her new patient was her long-lost father. He had contracted terminal cancer and was spending his last days in the hospital. The news article showed these beautiful pictures. You could see a rosary on the pillow and they were talking together. She gave him a kiss. They showed a picture of him with his three grand-children that he never knew he had. It was beautiful to see that they had this opportunity together before he died, but also sad to realize that they had wasted 41 years before being able to experience it. Let’s not wait until the end of our lives to discover God’s love for us.
If you still think there is something better than God’s love out there – maybe a perfect spouse, or a better house, or a boat or something — go ahead and try. I guarantee you will be disappointed.
If you have spent years in the pews and never really discovered God’s merciful love, come to Confession, and then join the party with all the other forgiven sinners.
If on the other hand, you feel that you left by the back door and threw away the key, then come home. You’ll discover not only is the door not locked, but it’s standing wide open, and your Father is looking out of it, eager to run through and embrace you.