Joshua 5:9a,10-12
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3,11-32


March 24-25, 2001, Fourth Sunday of Lent, Cycle C

For stories as familiar as this story of the prodigal son, it is hard to hear it fresh. As soon as we start to hear it, we switch on the tape of the impression we have already formed about it. If we can push aside that impression and listen with fresh ears, we may be surprised to hear something new in this old story.

The Religious Ed teacher was reading this story of the Prodigal Son to his class, clearly emphasizing the resentment the older brother expressed at the return of his brother. When he was finished telling the story, he asked the class, ďNow who was really sad that the prodigal son had come home?Ē After a few minutes of silence, one little boy raised his hand and confidently stated, ďThe fatted calf.Ē

Most of the time that we hear this story, I suspect we either focus on the fatherís forgiveness, identifying in that forgiveness the boundless mercy of God, or on the prodigal sonís repentance, trying to learn from that how we should pick ourselves up and come back to God, no matter how bad we think we are.

But the main point of Jesusí story is neither the father nor the prodigal son, but the elder son. As we see from the first few verses we heard today, Jesus tells this story in response to those around him who criticized him for associating with sinners, people like prostitutes and tax collectors, associating them with the elder son.

Who do you identify with in the story? If I am honest about it, for me it is most often the elder son. How easy it is to slide from being holy to being holier that thou. How do we get to be this elder son who is so angry withso hurt by his fatherís willingness not only to forgive the sins of the younger son, but to celebrate his return?

Part of the answer is that we see everything from the perspective of our limited human experience. Almost everything in this creation is limited. So whether we are talking about land or food or electric power or clean water, a limited supply means that if someone else gets some, there is less for us. If that is true, then our American sense of fair play says that if we follow the rules and are faithful, then we should be the ones that get the lionís share of what ever valuable we are talking about. Jesus tells us many stories that reveal to us that the one exception to the limited nature of our universe is love. Love has no limits, and the more any one gets, the more that there is for us. Look into your own life and see if that isnít true. The times in your life when you really loved someone the most, you loved everyone more, didnít you? Thatís how love works. If that is true for us limited humans, how much truer it is for God. No one else can steal Godís love for us.

Another part of the answer is this notion many of us have that being good earns Godís love. Since we have been good, God owes us that love, and to give His love to someone who has not worked as hard as we have, somehow devalues our effort. Our Catholic faith teaches us that this is the complete opposite of the true relationship between Godís love and good works. Rather than our good works earning Godís love, it is Godís love that inspires our good works, our faithful adherence to the commandments and Church teachings.

To hear some of us talk, you would think that being good, being the faithful elder brother is a terrible burden, a painful exercise, and the wasteful actions of the prodigal son are the cream of life. So when we think about a prodigal son being forgiven and accepted back with open arms, we think, ďBoy, whatís the use of being good, of obeying the commandments, of going to Church every week?Ē Did you ever think that way? Why should we be good if God will take us back and forgive us no matter what we do?

Are we saying that being a sinner is better for us except for the fact that we might get caught and go to hell? How did we get to believe that lie? Can we really hear what the elder brother is saying? ďIím not going in there and having any fatted calf and good wine and singing and dancing. Oh no. Whatís the use of staying home and being good? I wish I had taken my part of the inheritance and squandered it, and ended up feeding pigs and starving. I canít believe I stayed home, with good clothes, and food, and my inheritance intact!Ē Sounds so silly doesnít it. But so many people I talk to sound just like that.

Being holy is not some burden we have to bear; it is what we are built for. As I have said so many times, the commandments and teachings of the church are not arbitrary laws that we endure to earn Godís love; they are a description of how God built us out of love. How many parents here teach your children to be good so that you will love them more? Isnít it that you teach them to be good because you know that this is what will make them happy, productive, and self-fulfilled?

Jesus does not finish the story. We donít know whether that particular elder brother came to his senses and went inside to join the party. As always, Jesus respects our free will. Paul tells us that the mercy and forgiveness of God, as expressed by the father in this story, is entrusted to us to pass on. We are invited to this table today to partake in this reconciliation God has gifted us with. Letís not be the elder brother standing outside, missing the whole party. Letís join in and become messengers of this reconciliation by recognizing how much we are loved.

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