On Saturday night, I was at St. Anthony’s Parish in Casper to celebrate the Ministry of Lector for the the six men in formation for the permanent diaconate. This Sunday, I will be in Kaycee for Mass. Following is the homily for today’s readings.
Do you understand why Jesus clashed with the Pharisees? Why were they always so upset with him? Today’s gospel begins, “The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So to them he addressed this parable.” (Lk. 15:2-3)
Their grumbling is the context of the parables in Luke 15. It is essential to understand what is behind their grumbling. This is crucial if we want to be true disciples. To gain insight into the Pharisees’ grumbling, let’s look at the two sons. Have you ever noticed how they relate to their father? The sons do not really relate to him as a loving father, but more like a business man.
The younger son said to him, “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” (Lk. 15:12) Give me my share! He just wants his inheritance. He relates to his father not with loving respect, but out of selfish gain. Then when he came back destitute, he said, “I don’t deserve to be called your son; treat me like a hired hand.” (Lk. 15:19) The older son isn’t much different. The first words out of his mouth are about serving his father like a slave. “All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders.” (Lk. 15:29) Another translation says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.”
Neither son relates to him as a loving father. Instead they see him as an employer or even a task master. The younger son said, “Treat me like a hired hand.” The older son said, “I have been working like a slave for you.”
As a child, I often saw my dad as a business man. He was always in debt. He had huge loans on land and cattle. He constantly worried about debt and talked about money problems. But one experience showed me a different side of my dad.
One night I was in a neighboring town for a dance and dared a classmate to drag race. While racing, I hit a black angus cow on the highway and totaled the pickup. When I came home, I woke up my parents and told them that I wrecked the pickup. My dad sat up in bed and asked, “Did anyone get hurt?” When I said “No,” he replied: “Okay. We’ll talk about it in the morning.” Then he laid back down.
As I walked upstairs to my bedroom I was stunned by his concern for me. The only important thing to him was that I returned home safe and sound. I still remember lying awake and feeling overwhelmed that his main concern was my safety. The same concern has been expressed by countless parents; their greatest concern is for the well-being of their children.
Can you imagine how much more that is true for God the Father? His only real concern is our safety, to have us back home safe and sound. In the parable, the servant explains to the older son the reason for the celebration. He says, “Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.” (Lk. 15:27)
Now, the next morning I never explained to my dad that we were racing. Do you think that would have changed his reaction? Now imagine this. What if I told him that we had been racing, and he ran over to me and hugged me with tears in his eyes and said that the only thing that mattered was to have me home perfectly healthy? Then he said, “We’ll slaughter the steer that we have been fattening and have a huge party.” Then he announced that he would get a loan to buy a new pickup, and I would be given my own set of keys for it.
I suppose you’re thinking, “Nobody would ever do that! Nobody is that naïve. Only a parent who is a total idiot would do that.” But that is how Jesus describes the father of the prodigal son. He gave him his best robe, a ring and sandals to reassure him that he’s not a hired hand but a son, and everything he has is his son’s.
The father is not an idiot. Nor is he a strict business man! Rather, he is a merciful father! His love for a lost son rules his heart. “He was moved with deep compassion” for his wayward son. (Lk. 15:20) The verb means that his ‘guts ached.’ And they were aching since his son left home.
How do you think that God looks on you when you sin? Do you believe that God is like a Father who constantly watches down the road for his lost son or daughter to return? “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him.” (Lk. 15:20) He saw him coming because he was always watching for him.
When we have sinned, normally we concentrate on our sins. We beat ourselves up with how stupid we acted, or how selfish we are. But Jesus insists that God does something entirely different. Yes, he sees our sin and all the damage is does to our relationship with God and others. But that is not the main thing God sees. The heavenly Father sees a lost son or a wayward daughter, a beloved lost son and a beloved wayward daughter.
Do you understand why Jesus clashed with the Pharisees? The Pharisees tried to be the best Jews! They tithed faithfully. They fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays to show penitence and to pray for Israel and its salvation. They were committed to perfect observance of the commandments. But in all of this, they saw God as a business man. This was their mindset, “If I do my part, then I will earn God’s reward.” So Jesus’ image of God as a merciful Father was blasphemy.
Today, some people in the Church are so upset with Pope Francis. They think that he is acting wrongfully by his insistence on mercy. In the past year, a deacon in this diocese told me that the pope is wrong in this area of his teaching toward the divorced and remarried. Some lay people are saying that he is a heretic because of the mercy he proclaims for those on death row. Two former Catholic college professors from our diocese signed a document stating that he is a heretic for this reason. This should not surprise us because some Catholic media sources as well as bishops and cardinals are saying similar things.
Many people in our Church relate to God as a business man. This outlook is as old as the parable of the prodigal son. Can you imagine how angry the Pharisees were after they heard the parable of the prodigal son? If the pope is proclaiming the Gospel, then people should be grumbling. It is a sign that the Risen Lord is speaking among us.
In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis wrote, “The Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. . . . At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. This is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. . . . We should always consider inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.” (Amoris Laetitia, 310-311)
How do you see God? As a business man or as a merciful Father? Are you living as a hired hand grumbling like the Pharisees? Or are you living as a child of the merciful Father humbly rejoicing in his gracious love?
If you struggle to be that humble child, then make a habit of reflecting on the Gospel each day. Let Christ teach you about the merciful Father. This is what Pope Francis shows us. He is first of all a man taught by the Gospel. That is what rules his heart.
Let the words of Jesus transform you. Then you will be able to say what St. Paul said in his letter to Timothy. “I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated . . . Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. (Another translation says, “I am the worst sinner.”) But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him.” (1 Tim. 1:13, 15-16)
As we are fed with the Eucharist, may our hearts be inflamed with mercy so that – like St. Paul – we might be an example of the Lord’s inexhaustible patience for others.