Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: What Was the Rest of the Story?


(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 14, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2010]


Radio personality Paul Harvey became famous for ending his newscasts with the expression, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Too bad Mr. Harvey died last year at the age of 90. Because if he were still around, he might have been able do some research on the two brothers in today’s gospel parable, and give us some insights as to what happened to them after these events that we heard about a few moments ago.

What was “the rest of the story”?

It all ends rather abruptly, does it not?

What was “the rest of the story,” first of all, for the prodigal son? We know that he went back to his dad and was forgiven for his many sins, but did he stay with his father? Did he live a happy and grateful life from this moment onward? Did he really appreciate his father’s forgiveness and pass that lesson on to his children and grandchildren? Or did he give into temptation a second time and walk away, never to return? Or did he walk away and come back again? Did he do that a number of times?

Inquiring minds want to know!

And, just as importantly, what was “the rest of the story” for the older, faithful son? Did he stay angry at his brother—and his dad? Did that unresolved anger eventually lead him to abandon his family? Or did he finally let go of it and find peace? And did he ever get tempted to do what his brother did? Did he ever give in to the temptation? And if he did give in, did he ever repent—or did he despair?

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, hold on a minute. This is just a parable! This is a story Jesus Christ made up to illustrate the mercy and forgiveness of his heavenly Father. As far as we can tell, it didn’t really happen historically.”

Well, that’s true. But these are still valid questions to ponder, because they apply to all of us and to all human beings who DO experience the love and forgiveness of God the Father in real life. The ways these two fictional sons might have reacted (had they been real people) show us the ways we might respond in real life in similar circumstances.

So what was “the rest of the story” for the two brothers?

Well, if you asked me which of these two boys was more likely to fall into serious sin and get off the right track later in life, I would say without question it was THE OLDER SON—the “non-prodigal one”—the son who had been with his father from the beginning.

That might surprise some of you, although I don’t think it should. After his return home, the prodigal son was deeply aware of his father’s love and mercy—the love and mercy his dad had for him, personally! After everything this boy had done, his father was willing to take him back when he repented—no questions asked! And then he treated his repentant son like he had never left! The father forgave—and in a very real sense he forgot—his son’s many sins.

The bottom line is this: After he returned and was welcomed home, the prodigal son had a relationship with his dad that was rooted in love—real, agape love; whereas the older son had a relationship with his dad that—from all external indications at least—was superficial and cold. It was not a loving father/son relationship; rather, it was a lot like the kind of relationship a client has with a businessman, or a servant with a master.

Notice how this boy speaks to his father after he finds out his younger brother has come home and his dad has thrown a big party for him. He says, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”

In other words, “I paid my dues; I did what you asked me to do; I fulfilled my end of our father-son deal. Why haven’t you given me what I’ve earned? Why haven’t you given me a just reward for all my years of faithful service?”

To me, that sounds like something a disgruntled employee would say to his boss, not something a loving son would say to his dear, old dad!

When we see a relationship with someone primarily in legal terms (like this older son apparently saw his relationship with his father), we don’t feel very sorry when we hurt the other person. Nor do we feel a lot of loyalty to the other person. This explains why you and your local car salesman will haggle about the price of the car you’d like to buy on his lot. He’s trying to get you to pay the highest amount possible; you’re trying to get him to charge you the lowest amount possible. And in the process you’re not concerned about hurting his feelings, and he’s not concerned about hurting yours!

The relationship is strictly business!

Unfortunately, I think that’s also how many people interact with God. It becomes a business-like connection: “Ok, God, I’ll give you an hour each weekend, I’ll say some prayers every day, I’ll observe all the rules your Church gives me, and in exchange you give me (fill in the blank).”

That’s how the older boy in this parable would relate to the Lord if he were a modern-day Catholic.

Every once in awhile someone will say to me, “Fr. Ray, I don’t get it. I used to see so-and-so in church every Sunday; now they don’t even want to talk about God. What happened?”

Well, in many cases what happened is that something went wrong in their “business deal” with the Lord. God didn’t fulfill his part of the “deal” to the person’s satisfaction, so the person stopped fulfilling his part of the bargain.

God wants to have a loving relationship with each and every one of us. He’s not our employer; he’s our Father! And such a relationship is always possible. That’s the good news! That’s the message of this parable! If we’re like the prodigal son before his conversion, all we need to do is run back to our Father by making a sincere, sacramental confession. If we’re like the older son, who seemed to think of his father as his boss, all we need to do is to change our way of looking at reality and invite the Lord into our hearts.

Doing these things will make it much more likely that “the rest of our stories” will include a happy ending—the happy ending we long for, the happy ending we call heaven!