Sunday, March 31, 2019

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

Paul Harvey 1918-2009

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (C):  This homily was given on March 31, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 34:2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.) 

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2019]

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 back in 2009.  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 which was rooted in love—real, agape love; whereas the older son had a relationship with his dad which—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 a while 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—maybe during this week’s parish mission!  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—something I’m sure we’ll also have the opportunity to do during the mission.

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 were made for, the happy ending we call “heaven”!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thank God for the ‘Fourth Year’

(Third Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 24, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 103:1-11; 1 Cor 6:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2019]

“Thank God for the fourth year.”

That should be our response after listening to today’s gospel reading from Luke 13.

Jesus tells us a parable here about a man who planted a fig tree in his orchard that didn’t produce any figs for three years.

Now if I had the opportunity to talk to this particular orchard owner today, I would say to him, “You, sir, are patient man—a very patient man.  Far more patient than I am.  After my father died I took care of the landscaping on our property in Barrington, and I know that if I had ever planted something that was supposed to bear fruit every year but didn’t, it would have been gone—after one year!  No doubt about it.”

But the orchard owner in the parable went one step further.  He not only gave the tree three years; he actually listened to the words of his gardener and agreed to give the tree another year—a fourth year—to bear fruit.

And not only that …

He even agreed to let the gardener cultivate the ground and fertilize the tree to give it the best chance it could possibly have to finally become fruitful.

To me this parable makes clear the importance of praying and doing penance for the conversion of those in the state of mortal sin, who are squandering God’s gifts and are in danger of losing their souls.  The owner of the orchard here represents the Lord, the barren fig tree represents the sinner—that’s clear enough.  As for the gardener, to me he represents all those who are currently praying and offering spiritual sacrifices for the sinner.  Notice that the orchard owner gave the fourth year (the bonus year) to the fig tree specifically because of the pleas of the gardener.  It was his intercession that was key in the process.  And because of what he did, the tree received special graces that it would not otherwise have received.  (Specifically, the ground around it got cultivated and fertilized.)

So never stop being the “gardener” for those who are estranged from God and the Church—especially members of your families.

As long as they’re in their “fourth year” (in other words, as long as they’re alive and breathing) there’s hope for their repentance and conversion.

Of course, their “fourth year” won’t go on forever.  It didn’t go on indefinitely for the barren fig tree, and it doesn’t go on forever for any one of us—which is why Jesus preceded this parable by mentioning the sudden and tragic deaths of two groups of people: first of all, a group of Galileans murdered by Pontius Pilate (who, by the way, was not the nice guy he’s sometimes portrayed as being in Hollywood movies), and secondly a group of 18 people who died when a tower fell on them at Siloam. 

Notice that Jesus said the same thing after mentioning each of these events: “But I tell you, if you will not repent, you will all perish as they did.”

He meant that, of course, in the spiritual sense—alluding to hell.

The moral here is really simple and straightforward: Don’t delay repentance!  If there’s a serious sin in your life that you need to deal with, go to confession and deal with it.  Confess it, be absolved of it, and be freed from the guilt of it!  You’ll make the priest’s day.  We priests like to catch “big fish”—as St. John Vianney (the Cure of Ars) used to call them.

Let me end my homily today by mentioning a movie which is being released this week and which I strongly urge you to see.  It’s called Unplanned, and it’s based on the best-selling book of the same title (which some of you have probably read).  For those who might not have read it, Unplanned is the autobiographical story of a woman named Abby Johnson, who was once the director of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Bryan, Texas.  Abby wanted to help women in crisis situations, and so she volunteered for the organization in 2001, while she was still in college at Texas A&M University.  She started off as a volunteer escort (an escort at an abortion clinic is the person who’s responsible for taking a woman from her car and into the building—while at the same time keeping her from listening to the pro-life volunteers outside the gate who are appealing to the woman not to kill her baby).

Abby, who ended up having two abortions herself, believed the lie that Planned Parenthood really wants to reduce the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies, so when she graduated from college she became more deeply involved in the organization—thinking that this was a way to show compassion and love for women and to reduce the abortion rate at the same time.  Her intentions, at least to some extent, were good.

She rose through the ranks rather quickly and eventually became the local clinic’s director.  Of course, there were some things that bothered her—like the pressure she was receiving from her superiors to do more abortions and more late term abortions so that the clinic would bring in more money.  But what finally opened her eyes to the truth of what she was involved in occurred in late September of 2009, on the day she was asked to hold the ultrasound probe on the abdomen of a woman during an abortion.  She had never done that before, but they were short staffed that particular day and the doctor needed her assistance.  And so, for the first time (through the miracle of ultrasound) she was able to see what really happens to a baby in the womb during an abortion procedure.  Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.  Actually, it was horrific—so much so that when it was over Abby dropped the probe because she was so upset.

She then left the clinic in tears. 

And where did she go?  Where did she go in her anguish and in her distress? 

Well, believe it or not, she went immediately to the nearby office of the Coalition for Life—and to the people of that organization who had been opposing her for years; to the people who had been protesting and praying in front of her clinic!

You might say, “Why did she go to them?  Why did she seek help from these men and women who had been her enemies for so long?”

It’s because they had been respectful and nice to her, in spite of the fact that they detested what she was doing!  And it’s because they had prayed for her!  To put it in the terms of this homily, it’s because they had been faithful and persistent “gardeners” for the “barren fig tree” of Abby Johnson’s life from the time she had been an escort at the clinic.  And so when the full reality of what abortion is hit her square in the face, Abby trusted that the people at the Coalition for life would take care of her and give her the support and guidance and love that she needed.

And she was right.  They did.  They helped her find forgiveness, and healing—and the truth (which ultimately led her to become Catholic in 2012, along with her husband).

Now, ten years later, Abby Johnson is one of the strongest and most persuasive voices in the pro-life movement.  She’s as powerful as she is because she knows the dirty business of abortion from the inside-out.  She’s been a victim of its many lies—and now she’s determined to expose those lies to the world. 

This new movie is part of that effort.  See it!—and challenge your pro-choice friends to see it as well.

Through the prayers and good works of the men and women at the Coalition for Life, God gave Abby Johnson a “fourth year” to bear fruit, and—thanks be to God—she’s made the most of it.

May all of us do the same thing, if ever we need to.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

(Second Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 17, 2019 at St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27:1-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9: 28b-36.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2019]

Someone sent me this story a while back, via e-mail:

Two travelling angels stopped to spend the night in the home of a very wealthy family.  The family was rude and refused to let the angels stay in the guestroom of their mansion.  Instead, the two heavenly visitors were given a small space in the cold, damp basement of the house.  As they were making up their beds on the hard floor, the older angel spotted a hole in the wall and proceeded to repair it.  When the younger angel asked the older one why he did it, he replied, “Things aren’t always what they seem.”

The next night the pair came to rest at the house of a very poor but very hospitable farmer and his wife.  After sharing the little food they had, the couple allowed the angels to sleep in their bed so that they would get a good night’s rest.  When the sun came up the next morning, the angels found the farmer and his wife in tears: their one cow, whose milk had been their only source of income, lay dead in the field.

The younger angel was infuriated, and later that day he said to the older one, “How could you have let this happen?  The first family was unkind and had everything, yet you helped them!  The second family had very little—although they were willing to share whatever they did have—and you allowed their cow to die!”

“Things aren’t always what they seem,” the older angel answered.  “When we stayed in the basement of the mansion, I noticed there was gold stored in the wall, which had been left there many years ago.  Since the man and his family were so obsessed with money and unwilling to share their good fortune, I sealed the wall so they wouldn’t find the gold.  Then, last night, as we slept in the farmer’s bed, the angel of death came for his wife.  I gave him the cow instead.  Things aren’t always what they seem.”

I’m not so sure that’s how God’s angels would actually deal with such situations, but—theological accuracy aside—the main point of the story is definitely a valid one: things aren’t always what they seem.

This is a truth which stands behind the Gospel passage we heard a few moments ago—that famous text from Luke 9.  In fact, I would call it one of the crucial lessons that Jesus wanted Peter, James and John to learn prior to the events of the first Holy Week.  And so—to drive home the point in powerful and vivid manner—our Lord took these men up Mount Tabor one day, and gave them a glimpse of his heavenly glory: he was transfigured before their eyes, and seen in conversation with Moses and Elijah.  After the experience was over, I can imagine Jesus saying to these 3 apostles, as they were descending the mountain together: “Remember, gentlemen, things aren’t always what they seem!  I know in many ways I may seem to be an ordinary man: I eat, I sleep, I laugh and I cry just like you all do.  But the fact is, I am NOT an ordinary man.  You just saw that truth attested to in a powerful way on this mountain.  Never forget it!”

Here Jesus was training his apostles to face the disappointments and trials of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  In order to deal with the tragedy of those days successfully, these men needed to understand that things were not always as they seemed to be when it came to Jesus.  Because—let’s face it—on Holy Thursday and Good Friday Jesus and his mission seemed to be finished!  When he was hanging on that Cross, for example, Jesus seemed to be guilty and full of sin; he seemed to be a criminal; he seemed to be a total failure; he seemed to be powerless; he seemed to have been abandoned by his heavenly Father.  And yet, in reality, the exact opposite was true: he was not guilty, he was innocent—completely innocent!; he wasn’t a criminal, but he was dying for criminals; he seemed to be a failure, but he was in fact accomplishing the mission the heavenly Father had given him—and he was doing it to perfection; he seemed to be powerless, but this was actually the moment when he demonstrated his greatest power by atoning for the sins of the whole world; it seemed that his heavenly Father had abandoned him, but in truth his Father was right there, ready to receive his spirit after his perfect act of sacrifice and atonement. 

To the naked eye Jesus seemed to be finished, but in 3 short days he would rise from the dead and begin to give hope to the entire human race—the hope of sharing eternally in the glory of his resurrection.

Things are not always what they seem!

We, like the apostles, need to learn this crucial lesson—because it applies to so many dimensions of our lives.

For example, when we suffer, it may seem like God has abandoned us—but he hasn’t!  Suffering is not a sign that God doesn’t love us anymore.  The truth is, suffering can actually bring us into close union with the Lord.  As Mother Teresa once put it, “Suffering is a gift of God—a gift that makes us most Christ-like.  People must not accept suffering as a punishment.”

On the other hand, those who seem to be healthy and peaceful on the outside, may in fact be gravely ill on the inside.  In the mid-19th century, a man in this condition came to the town of Ars in France to do some duck hunting, and to catch a glimpse of Fr. John Vianney, who was becoming known throughout France for his holiness and his work as a confessor.  He came out of curiosity, not out of repentance.  He was crossing the street with his dog, when he finally ran into the holy priest.  Fr. Vianney (who at times had the gift of being able to “read hearts”) stopped, looked at the dog, then at the man, and he said, “Sir, it is greatly to be wished that your soul were as beautiful as your dog!” 

Things were not as they seemed to be!  By the way, this young man went to confession to Fr. Vianney shortly thereafter, and eventually became a religious brother.

This lesson also applies to many experiences in life which we would hastily call “failures.”  I’ll give you an example: a seminarian I know is currently teaching CCD to a group of 6th graders and having an awful time of it.  Apparently, he’s dealing with a very difficult class; the students are driving him crazy!  Jokingly he said to me one day, “Fr. Ray, I think God’s getting even with me, for what I put the nun through who taught me in the 6th grade!”

That nun—35 or so years ago—probably thought that she had failed with this young man.  She probably thought that she had wasted her efforts, and made no difference in his life.  But little did she realize—she was planting some of the seeds of a future vocation to the priesthood!  Things were not what they seemed.  Please hear that, frustrated parents and teachers!

And how about the application of this idea to the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist?  Before the consecration of the Mass, the elements on the altar look like bread and wine.  After the consecration, the elements STILL look like bread and wine!  But the truth is: after the consecration the elements are no longer what they seem to be!  they are the very Body and Blood of the Savior of the world, given to us for our spiritual nourishment.

Jesus, at the Transfiguration, wanted to help his apostles to see things as they were—that was his desire!

Let’s ask the Lord for the same grace at this Mass: the grace to see ourselves as we really are—even if it means coming to terms with some serious sins; the grace to see Jesus as our powerful, loving Savior who has paid the full price for the forgiveness of our sins; the grace to see our sufferings as stepping stones to holiness; the grace to see how God can use even our apparent failures for his glory; the grace to recognize the presence of Christ in the sacraments—especially the Holy Eucharist.

Lord Jesus Christ, in all these different dimensions of life, help us to remember that things are not always as they seem to be, and give us the vision to see things as they are.  Amen.