September 11, 2016

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 11, 2016, Year C

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
Hartford, Connecticut

 The Prodigal Son
The Return of the Prodigal Son,
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667/1670.
(Click here for today’s readings)

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. The celebration of the prodigal son’s return will last, in keeping with the local custom, a week or so. But when the party’s over that son will get his wish. He will be like a hired servant, maybe better off and enjoying certain privileges, but he will be forever dependent. He will have no inheritance when his father dies. His father makes that clear when he says to the elder son, “Everything I have is yours.”

The elder son wasn’t concerned about questions of inheritance. He was angry because he never had such a party. This parable comes close to home for a lot of people. It dredges up images of old sibling rivalries. But that is not the point.

This parable is more like the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the question is: What’s fair? The elder brother clearly has resentments of long standing. He tries to turn his father against the younger brother. “Look what he’s done!” is the essence of his remarks. “How can you reward him like this?”

It is very important to note that the father doesn’t deny it, doesn’t defend the other son. Nobody is saying he didn’t do anything wrong. That isn’t the point of the celebration.

What matters is that the father and the prodigal son are putting all that behind them. This reflects several Old Testament passages. Here are a few:

Isaiah 38:17 You cast all my sins behind your back.

Micah 7:19: You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins.

Psalm 103:12: As far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our sins.

Saint Paul, in today’s second reading, sees the same reality in his own life. “I have been mercifully treated,” he writes.

In the first reading Moses takes a different approach, not putting behind but remembering: “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, Israel.” He reminds God of certain promises he has made.

All these things speak of a new beginning. So what if the prodigal son starts a new life on new terms? His return is still worth celebrating. This is the goal of the ministry of reconciliation.

The father doesn’t love his elder son any less than the other. What the son doesn’t get is that he doesn’t love him any more, either. He thinks he entitled to be the favorite; he’s earned it. Jesus in this parable makes it clear that this is not the case.

The first two parables in today’s long Gospel, about the lost coin and the lost sheep, are less problematic. They involve no conflicting relationships. In the third one, the elder son turned the story around and made it about himself. He couldn’t see beyond that.

All three parables make same point, “There is more joy over one repentant sinner.” That is why Christ came.

Hmm, one repentant sinner... So it could be about us after all!

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