Sunday, March 06, 2016

For the Prodigal Son, THE CONTRAST Made the Difference

No, I don't live in Nashville, but it does say 43 degrees!

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C):  This homily was given on March 6, 2016 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 2016]

It was the contrast that made the difference.

For the prodigal son, it was the contrast—the very sharp contrast—that made the difference.

And that’s the way it is so very often for us today.

This thought came to me two Wednesdays ago (the Wednesday of school vacation week), after I had walked the beach for about an hour.  It was a great day to be outside: the sun was shining, the wind was light.  For a day in mid-February in was very comfortable.  In fact, I was sweating a little bit by the time I got back in my car to leave.  I thought to myself, “Wow, it must be at least 60 degrees out there!”

Then I turned the key to start the engine, and I took a look at the gauge on my dashboard—the gauge that measures the outside temperature.  It read 43 degrees.  My first thought was, “Gee, it must be broken”, but then I checked my cellphone, and that gave me the very same reading.

So why did 43 degrees feel like 60?

It felt that way because only a few days earlier it had been minus 8 degrees here in Westerly!  The contrast made the difference!  The contrast between minus 8 degrees and 43 degrees made 43 degrees feel like spring!

Which brings us to the prodigal son.  We just heard his story, which is certainly one of the best-known and most-loved stories in all of the Bible.  (I’m sure many of you know it so well that you could recite a good bit of it from memory, if you had to.)  The story is about forgiveness and mercy and God’s faithful love.  That last point reminds me of what St. Paul said in 2 Timothy 2: “Even if we are unfaithful [like the prodigal son was], he [God] remains faithful [faithful in his love for us] for he cannot deny himself.”

That’s a truth we should all thank God for, because it means that no one, strictly speaking, is hopeless!  If they have breath in them, there is hope for them.

As we look at the prodigal son’s story today, I think the important question for us to ask is:  What was the turning point?  What, in other words, brought this boy to the point of conversion—to the point where he finally said, “I want out of this; I want to go home!”

The answer to that question is: When he recognized the contrast.  He made the decision to go home to his dad when he finally recognized the contrast—the very sharp contrast—between his past and his present; between his life with his father, and his life without his father; between what he had back home with his dad before he left, and what he now had with Porky Pig and his friends in the local pigpen, rolling around in the mud.  He even became acutely aware of the contrast between the lives of his father’s servants back home and his miserable life in the present moment.

In fact, this was the thought that finally motivated him to start his journey back.  As we heard Jesus say few moments ago, “Coming to his senses [the boy] 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.’  So he got up and went back to his father.”

For the prodigal son in the pigpen, even the trials and difficulties in the life of a servant were much better than what he was currently dealing with.

This is why it’s not the worst thing in the world when, like the prodigal son, people experience suffering because of serious sins they’ve committed but haven’t repented of.  Sometimes that suffering can lead those people to an awareness of the contrast: the contrast between their present condition and their condition prior to committing those sins—and that can motivate them to repent like this boy did and make a good confession.

This is also why it’s so important for young people to get rooted in their faith early on.  It’s no secret that a lot of young people in their late teens and early twenties drift away from the Church and from the practice of their Catholic faith.  Those young people will experience trials and crises in their lives (as we all do), they’ll have to deal with questions about the purpose and meaning of life (as we all do).  When they experience those trials and those crises and those questions, they will know that there’s somewhere to go to deal with them—if they were rooted in their faith early on.  They will recognize the contrast between their present spiritual and emotional condition and their former spiritual and emotional condition, and maybe—just maybe—they’ll say to themselves, “You know, I once found joy and meaning and peace in my Catholic faith; maybe I ought to give it a try again.  Maybe I ought to get to confession.”  But if they were never rooted in their faith, or if their commitment to the Lord and his Church was very superficial, the likelihood that they will return to their spiritual home is much less.

This is why, incidentally, I have that youth group for teenagers every Thursday night; this is why I take young people to the Steubenville East Youth Conference every summer, and Youth Explosion every fall.  I do these things because I want our teens to be so rooted in their faith during their high school years that they’ll always come home, even if they do drift away for a time in college and as young adults.

But they’ve got to know there’s a home to come back to!  That’s key!  So encourage your children to get involved in spiritual activities here at St. Pius NOW.  Think about it, my brothers and sisters, if the prodigal son had not experienced love and happiness and peace in his father’s house in the early days of his youth, he would never have experienced the contrast; hence he would not have known that there was a place he could go back to where he could find love, happiness and peace again.

And he probably would have died in despair.

But he didn’t.  He responded to his experience of the contrast by doing exactly what he should have done.  He responded to his experience of the contrast by repenting and returning to his father.  And he found what he was looking for.  May all Catholics—young and not-so-young—follow his example by repenting and returning to the heavenly Father in the sacrament of Reconciliation whenever they need to.