Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sermon on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 2014

As I was thinking about this morning's gospel, it struck me at one point that this is—the first part of the story, anyway—a little bit of Sinatra gone wrong, because the young man wanted to do things his way, and it didn't matter whether it was right or wrong, it didn't matter whether it went against everything he had been taught from his childhood. He wanted to do things his way. He asked for his share of the inheritance, something that today would seem out of place—in most places—but it was basically unheard-of in the society at the time, but he wanted to have things his way. He wanted to have the money; he wanted to go and live whichever way he thought he would enjoy, again, whether it was right or wrong, it didn't matter.

And at some point, the gospel tells us that the money ran out, that there was a famine in the country, and he basically ran out of food. Still, at that point, for a while it was more important that he do things his way than to do things the right way. So he continued. He found a job, so to speak, where he probably became a servant to someone wherever he had gone who had work, who had pigs, and, again, if we think about the context of the story, in Israel pigs are an unclean animal; they're not supposed to be eaten, touched: you become unclean by the law of the Old Testament. So even that didn't matter. He was on his own, doing things the way he wanted.

Thankfully, the gospel tells us that he came to himself, so, in a way, he came to his senses, and realized that that was not the most important thing. And that can be a difficult lesson for us to learn because, especially in the United States, the idea of the Lone Ranger, the cowboy who takes the law into his own hands and makes everything right on his own, is part of the mythology of the land. Of course, we have examples these days, people who are admired who basically started from nothing and pulled themselves by their own bootstraps and have "made it" in whatever field that may be, and we tend to glorify such people.

So it is difficult to come to ourselves, to come to our senses, to realize that in the end doing things our way is not the most important thing. Now, sometimes, it may be—there are circumstances, there have been circumstances in history—when one person was right and everybody else was wrong, and thank God, that one person stood up for what was right and defended his beliefs and lived by his own code of beliefs—although it should be said that in the cases that relate to the Church, that person still thought what he believed was the proper faith of the Church.

I was reading this week about the life of St. Maximus the Confessor, whom we commemorated a couple of weeks ago, who defended the way he understood our faith: who Christ was, as fully God and fully man, and that meant that he had everything that a human being had, including a human will. Without getting into all the technicalities of theology, when St. Maximus lived, the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) and the Christian Church were closely intertwined, so if there was a dissension within the Church, it destabilized the life of the empire, the political life.

And the emperor was not very happy about that sort of thing, so he tried to have St. Maximus disavow the things he had taught, or even just said: Don't disavow; just don't talk about it. And St. Maximus said: No, I cannot do that. I believe that I stand in an unbroken continuity of the Church from the very beginning, and I cannot assent or remain silent about things that are contrary to that faith. So St. Maximus had his tongue cut out and his arms cut off, and that's why he is called the Confessor, because he remained steadfast in his faith. A few decades after he died, the Sixth Ecumenical Council vindicated him, and said that, yes, he was right.

So there are these cases in history where one person is right and everybody else is wrong, but even he did not try to have things his way. He stood in his position because that was the faith of the Church that he had received.

So, the Prodigal comes to himself in humility and realized that what he had done was not good, and he had the humility to go back and to ask for forgiveness from his father, to ask not to be received as a son but as a servant. Of course, we know that the father [sees him while he's far off and] comes and embraces him and puts on a robe and a ring on his finger. But what was essential was that glimmer of humility, of realizing that he had been stubborn, that he had done things that he should have known better than to do. It must have been heart-breaking, to realize that. I think it's difficult for most of us, if not all of us, to realize we are wrong. And since we're not God, we're all wrong at one point or another. But he had the humility to go back and to ask forgiveness.

And this is extremely important because we have the converse example, the opposite example, which is that of Judas. We have talked about this in our various education series, that Judas betrayed Jesus, and he realized that he had done something wrong and he repented, but he lacked that one final ingredient: the humility to go back and to ask for forgiveness. The Church tells us that had he done that, he would not have been lost. He was lost because he did not ask for forgiveness. And then, realizing that he had done wrong led him to despair and then he was lost and he hung himself.

So let us learn from the Prodigal from this morning. Let us learn from his initial hard-heartedness and from where wanting to do things his way at all costs led him, but let us more importantly learn from his humility, for the Father welcomes all of us, no matter where we have strayed, no matter how far we may have gone off the path, no matter what we have done. We have a loving and merciful God who awaits us and welcomes us when we turn to him in repentance. And, in doing so, we receive grace, we receive his joy, we receive his gifts, for we are not received back as anything lower than the children of God, created in his image and likeness. That is a wondrous and marvelous gift that God always has ready for us, and I hope and pray that for that we are always grateful and always give glory to Him: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.



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