Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Turning Point in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: When He Finally Took Responsibility for His Actions!

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 21, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2004]


Just when you think you’ve heard it all . . .

The United States House of Representatives last week passed the so-called “Cheeseburger Bill,” which is designed to prevent "frivolous lawsuits [arising from obesity claims] against the manufacturers, distributors or sellers of food or nonalcoholic beverage products".

The reason this bill is being considered in Congress is that certain people have sued (or are planning to sue) fast food companies like McDonald’s and Burger King—all because they claim that those companies are somehow responsible for making them fat!

Can you believe it?

“Let me get this straight, sir, you’re saying that Ronald MacDonald held your mouth open last Thursday afternoon and shoved seven Big Macs down your throat? It makes perfect sense to me.”

“Yes, ma’am, it must have been terrible when Colonel Sanders held that gun to your head the other day and made you eat those 27 pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two large orders of fries and 3 milk shakes! Wow! What a frightful ordeal! How did you survive?”

Unbelievable!

At this point, I wish to issue a formal apology to the young people here present: I am sorry—I am truly sorry—that so many adults in this country are unwilling to take responsibility for what they freely choose to put into their mouths! I’m really sorry that so many supposedly mature men and women have given you (and are giving you) such a terrible example of what it means to be personally responsible for your actions.

Fr. Peter Mongeon spoke about this problem at our parish mission few weeks ago, and it obviously runs deep!

Think about it: if so many people are finding it difficult to take personal responsibility for what they eat, how much more difficult will it be for them to take personal responsibility for their sins?

Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel story: the parable of the prodigal son (or the parable of the forgiving father, as some like to call it). Most of us know the details: selfish junior takes the money and runs! He takes everything his dad was saving up for him, and he gets out of town as quickly as possible. At first, he’s happier than a pig in mud (pardon the pun)—“Now I can do what I want; now I can live my own life; now I’m finally free of my father and his silly rules!” And so life becomes one big party: wine, women and song, 7 days a week!

But in the midst of all this “freedom,” junior somehow forgets what his math teacher taught him back in grade school: he forgets how to subtract! He doesn’t remember that if you take money out of your bank account every day and never put anything back into it, you eventually end up with zero—nothing—nada—niente! The reality of the situation finally hits him one day as he’s sitting in the local pig sty eating lunch with Porky Pig and his friends—but by then it’s too late.

Of course, the story does have a happy ending: the boy is eventually reconciled to his father. But we need to understand that this heartwarming and wonderful ending would never have occurred without the pivotal moment—what I would call the “turning point” of the story! Let me read the key verses to you: “Coming to his senses [the son] thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’”

This was the moment when the younger son finally took personal responsibility for his actions! He admitted his guilt, and he resolved to do something about the terrible situation that he had gotten himself into.

If he had never done this—if he had never looked into his own heart and faced the reality of his own sinfulness—he probably would have spent the rest of his life in that smelly pig sty, blaming everything and everyone else, including his father:

“It’s my dad’s fault. He never should have given me that money. He should have known I was too young and couldn’t handle it. He should have said, ‘No’! Good fathers say ‘No’ to their children out of love, don’t they? Well, why didn’t my father say that to me? It’s because he’s irresponsible. He’s negligent. He doesn’t care!”

And let me tell you, if he had lived in modern-day America, this boy would probably have found a greedy lawyer somewhere who would have helped him sue his dad! And the scary thing is, in some courtrooms in this country he would have won! He would have won big!

To his credit, the prodigal son resisted the temptation to point fingers elsewhere: he didn’t blame daddy; he didn’t blame his big brother back home; he didn’t blame bad luck or the weak economy! He blamed himself!

When things go wrong in your life, what do you normally do? How do you tend to respond in those situations?

Husbands, when you have disagreement with your wife, is it always (or almost always) her fault? I could ask the same question of you wives with respect to your husbands.

When you young people have a conflict with your parents, or with your brothers and sisters, or with your teachers, is it always “their fault?”

When your boss drives you crazy at work, is it always “his” problem?

Do you ever ask yourself, “What am I doing to contribute to the conflict? What can I change about myself to make things better?”

“But, Fr. Ray, it’s 90% his fault?”

Maybe so. But even if the other person is 90% in the wrong, we can still address the 10% that’s our responsibility—the 10% that we’re throwing into the mix to make the situation worse.

That, of course, is the hard way to go. It’s much easier to focus on the 90% that the other guy needs to deal with.

At those moments, when we’re tempted to focus exclusively on the sins and failings of others, let’s strive to remember one of the most important lessons of the parable of the prodigal son. If we remember this particular lesson and take it to heart, it will have two positive effects. First of all, it will lead us into the confessional more frequently; and secondly, it will motivate us to work on improving our own attitudes and our own behavior in situations of conflict with others.

The lesson can be expressed very simply in the form of an equation: responsibility + repentance = reconciliation and rejoicing. The prodigal son took responsibility for his licentious lifestyle and then repented of his sins. And what happened? When he arrived home he was welcomed by his dad with open arms, and they had a big party to celebrate the event. His acceptance of personal responsibility plus his repentance for his sins led to reconciliation with his father—and ultimately to an experience of rejoicing.

(Responsibility + repentance = reconciliation and rejoicing.)

May that happen for each of us in our relationship with God the Father—and in our relationships with our earthly brothers and sisters.