The Prodigal Son

Bartolome Murillo Hijo Prodigo
“La despedida del hijo pródigo” by Bartolome Murillo

The son asked for his inheritance, and the father let him go. Maybe the young man sought adventure. He wanted to see, to experience, to know about the world.

If going off for an adventure were a sin in and of itself, then the father would not have allowed it. But he gave his son the money. ‘You are a free man, my son. Go as you wish. The world is yours.’

This father, perhaps, knows something of the world himself. He knows that the world is dangerous. And hard to navigate all by yourself.  But also beautiful and full of enchanting mysteries.

How can we not like the adventuresome son? He starts out full of himself, to be sure. He’s insensitive to the feelings of his father and brother.  He is tragically unrealistic about himself. But he has courage. He has energy. This world has something to offer, if only we go looking for it!  Let’s have some fun!

Likable, yes. But what’s missing? Self-respect. The one thing he doesn’t see is that the most wonderful place in the wonderful world is his own home.

Let’s imagine the prodigal son in the first tavern he comes to, along the road. Someone there says to him, ‘Hey, you’re a barrel of laughs, buddy.  But aren’t you…aren’t you Lord Such-a-one’s son? The most noble, gracious, and beneficent man in this country—isn’t he your father? Don’t you and your brother stand to inherit the great estate?

‘Gosh, here you are carousing with us. But couldn’t you have champagne and music right there at home? I remember reading in the paper that you were supposed to marry Lady So-and-so—beautiful, virtuous, mysterious, and demure.

‘Isn’t that who you are, buddy?’

Murillo Prodigal Son Among Cortesans
Murillo’s “La disipación del hijo pródigo”

So the son crept out of that tavern and proceeded to travel farther away, to find a place where no one would know his family.

Our rebellion: The heavenly Father built this house for us, full of light—this world. We get to share the house with people who really are not so altogether annoying–each other. This house has order and peace, because our heavenly Father governs it. He gives us what we need.

Above all, He gives us a certain hope: Everything that we want, the desire that grips us in a way we can’t even understand: We will have it. We will be satisfied.  The real adventure of this life starts with faith. We salute God’s sun every morning. We do our daily work, say our prayers, and love our neighbors—we do this, in this pilgrim life, and then all will be wonderfully well, forever, in the life to come.

We can see where the son got his prodigality. The father himself gives with prodigal generosity–lavishly, extravagantly.

But somewhere deep in the darkest basement of our souls, a sinister voice whispers: ‘You don’t deserve it.  It’s too good for you. You aren’t really a prince of this realm. Take a walk, and find your own kind. In the gutter.’

In the end, the adventuresome son’s money ran out. In the sty with the unclean beasts, he thought to himself: ‘What kind of adventure is this?’ The world runs its course, and its pleasures do not satisfy.

But the lovable young man still had one thing left: himself. He paused. He stopped. He found a moment of silence and truth. And he saw into the center of himself, where he finally found the true basis of his self-respect: a compass pointing to his father.

goodshepherdThe compass had always been there; the son just hadn’t looked at it. He had ruined himself by seeking pleasures that were beneath him. But now he took notice of the inner compass, and he remembered that his home stood waiting for him. He could still find shelter under his father’s beautiful roof. And he finally understood that his own home really was the most wonderful place in the world.

Here’s a question. Where is the image of Christ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?  Aren’t the parables supposed to include an image of Christ?  After all, we see Christ clearly enough in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which can also be found in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke.  In the parable of the Lost Sheep, Christ is the shepherd.

But where is Christ in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

Christ crucified actually lights up the parable of the Prodigal Son so that we can see what’s there. We see the lordly father, so prodigally generous that he won’t even listen to his son’s entire confession of sin. Instead, he just starts the music and pours champagne, because he has his son back home again.

How do we know that this unfathomably gracious and loving father is our Father? How is the face of the infinitely merciful heavenly Father revealed? One way: Christ crucified. Christ crucified is the light that shows us that the prodigal son’s father is our Father.

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Yes, You’re Right, Lord, But

Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. (Luke 13:8)

figWe hear the gardener say these words at the end of the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, which we read at Holy Mass on Sunday. [Spanish]

“Sir, leave the barren tree one more year.”  Now, to whom does the gardener say this?  Who is the “sir?”  Also, what’s an “orchard?”  What’s the difference between an orchard and “the woods?”

Someone planted an orchard.  An “orchard” means:  trees growing according to a plan, for a purpose: to produce fruit.  The trees in an orchard stand where they stand not randomly, but by design.

So this “sir” of “Sir, leave it for this year also” is the mastermind.  He planted the orchard in the first place.  Therefore, he has a right to make judgments.  He compares the situation as it stands with His original plan. And he says, “I have sought fruit from this fig tree and found none. Cut it down.”

Rightly does he say this!  Fig trees ought to bear figs.  Just like chewing gum ought to be chewy.  Or like unleaded gas pumps at a gas station ought to give you unleaded gas–and not diesel, or a Slurpee. Imagine if you swiped your credit card, started pumping gas, and Blue Raspberry Slurpee came out of the nozzle. You would curse that fig tree, to be sure.

Likewise, human beings ought to do good and avoid evil.  What else have we been put on this earth for?  For me to neglect to do good, or to choose to do evil, or both—that makes as much sense as wrapping up a rock and calling it chewing gum.  Or putting Cherry Coke in the big underground tank below the gas station where the unleaded fuel belongs.

The one who planted the garden says:  Fig trees, bear fruit!  Human beings:  Worship your Maker.  Love your neighbor.  Speak truth.  Honor who you came from.  Don’t kill, cheat, or steal.  Don’t be lustful or materialistic.

orchardThe cosmos we inhabit is not some kind of wild woods that grew up haphazardly with no purpose.  This is an orchard, planted according to the design of Someone infinitely wiser than we are.

But let’s listen to the gardener.  “Sir,” says the gardener, “I see your point.  This fig tree appears to be a failure.  Indeed, we find no figs here, as we ought to find.  But…”

But.  This is an amazing But. In this parable, someone speaks up to the One Who knows all and governs all. This gardener stands before the tribunal of absolute Truth and Justice. And the gardener has the temerity to say, “Yes, you’re right, but…”

How about a little more time?  How about another chance?  How about we don’t give up just yet?  How about the possibility that things could change for the better?

This gardener has two amazing qualities. 1. He gently but confidently asserts himself to the owner. 2. The gardener has the tenderness of a grandparent, a tutor, and a coach, all rolled into one.  He obviously thinks nothing of extra work.  This gardener must already work tirelessly all day, every day, in this orchard—watering, weeding, pruning, raking mulch. And he’s offering to do extra, to save this one lame tree.

Rembrandt Moses Ten CommandmentsWhen the master says, ‘Cut it down,’ the gardener knows this is a fair and reasonable judgment.  But he himself—the gardener—doesn’t want to judge.  Not yet; not now. Let’s wait…

Do good; avoid evil.  Love and worship God.  Love your neighbor.  Do not gossip.  Do not insult people.  Do unto others as you would have them do to you.  Give to the poor.  Keep the Sabbath.  Anchor your mind in God alone. The rules guide us to what is best for us.  If we suffer because we disobey them, we have only ourselves to blame.  We know better than to break God’s laws.

But! There is a but! We are weak. We get confused. We listen to bad advice sometimes. We watch the wrong t.v. shows. We get ourselves emotionally worked-up about something, and we make a bad decision.  Then we’re too cowardly to admit the truth, even to ourselves.

Were the Roman centurions in first-century Jerusalem of a different species from us? Were the people gathered in the courtyard outside Pilate’s tribunal a different kind of human being than we are?

They thought they had it right. But they were utterly confused and utterly wrong. They took Christ for a blasphemer, a revolutionary, an evil-doer. They convinced themselves that they acted to protect peace, to protect the nation, to protect true religion.  And they crucified the innocent divine Lamb.

As He died, He said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”  Give them another chance.

Parable of the Tenants

sistine isaiahWhat did the vineyard owner do to deserve the tenants’ violent rebellion?

Which means: What did the good Lord do, to deserve the ancient Israelites violent rebellion? What did the ancient prophets say, which provoked the people to persecute and kill them?

Things like, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall be holy as the Lord Himself is holy.” “Circumcise not just your foreskins, but your hearts.”

How about prophecies of the Messiah? “A virgin shall bear a son to be called Emmanuel.” “My servant shall not clamor or crush the bruised wick. He shall be pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins… We had all gone astray, but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.”

Or prophecies of the heavenly Jerusalem? “The gates of the city shall be the tribes of Israel, and the name of the city shall be: The Lord is there.” “Your dead will live; their bodies shall rise. Let those who live in the dust wake up and shout for joy. The dew shall be a dew of light.”

They prophesied, and bore witness to, the pure religion, the pure beauty, the pure self-sacrifice, and the pure divine triumph of the Christ. For this, the prophets suffered. At the hands of the complacent, the self-indulgent, the dishonest, the avaricious, the proud, and the desperately ego-centric.

But the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord Jesus can and will unite us with Himself, so that we can give to God our share of the produce, at the proper time. Then the prophecies of the new Jerusalem will come true, in us.

Seeds and Bubbles and Lists

The farmer sows the seeds. Then he proceeds to continue living in his own little bubble of life—eating, drinking, sleeping, laboring appropriately. Over time his plants grow. The farmer doesn’t know how.

We all live in our own little bubbles of life. What makes the farmer in the parable pious and fruitful? He knows he lives in his own little bubble. He knows that, outside the limits of his puny perceptions, God does great things.

alanis-morissette-27121At mid-day every day he pauses and declares: ‘Here are the crops God gives me, growing in the soil He gave me, thanks to the sun and the rain He has given me. All according to His design, and by His power! Praise Him! Now: time for lunch.’

The trend among American bishops these days is: Release a list of all the priests accused of sexual abuse in my diocese. In the ‘American bishop bubble’ this amounts to major drama these days. ‘Look! Openness! We’re actually willing to discuss these things! See!’

Meanwhile, outside the highly insulated bishop bubble, the rest of us are like: ‘Okay. Fine. Good for you. Do your thing. Let’s hope it’s all fair and true. Let’s hope it does more good than harm.’

Sexual predators try to create an impenetrable bubble, to swallow up the victim. Alanis Morissette completely nailed it in her song “Hands Clean.”

If it weren’t for your maturity, none of this would have happened. If you weren’t so wise beyond your years, I would have been able to control myself… This could get messy… Don’t go telling everybody. Overlook this supposed crime.

There’s more. It’s agony to listen to. Because it is so real.

Jesus Christ came and died to liberate us from such bubbles of enslavement and degradation. He came to free us, and unite us again with the indomitably life-giving mystery of God.

Christ’s grace comes from heaven to pop the noxious bubbles and get us out into some clean air. We still live in our bubbles of highly limited perception. It takes a lifetime to get free of them completely. But at least, with the grace of Christ, we can live like the steady farmer. We can see that God has plans of love and growth for us, even though we don’t always understand those plans.

What a Fool Believes He Sees

[An essay at theatlantic.com inspired me to give the old blog a new name–the first line of Shakespeare’s Henry V. A Muse of fire can destroy a Death Star.]
Homily on the Parable of the Sower

The eternal Word proceeds eternally from the Father. He pours out the eternal Spirit. And He gives us created reality as we know it, in all its glory.

Or, should I say: He gives us reality as we strive to know it. The work of our lifetime: to attune our wayward and ignorant minds to reality as it actually is, as God gives it to us.

To hear the Word and accept it—that requires constant effort. It requires our daily readiness to admit that we, for the most part, live in our own little dream-worlds, miles away from God and each other.

doobie brothers 1979

What a fool believes he sees no wise man has the power to reason away.

(Doobie Brothers, 1979)

How? How can we find the courage to reason away all our own foolishness? So we can welcome God’s gift, as it comes? Without getting in His way? Without shutting the little door that cuts off our ‘personal space’ from the great, lovable world outside, full of people whom God gave me to love?

How about if we try to grasp the most-fundamental reality of all, first.

On the cross, the eternal Word spoke His entire truth. “You are My people!”

Let’s answer: “You are our God!”

The Good Samaritan Seeks Justice

 

Rembrandt Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

Today at Holy Mass we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. It turns on one sentence. The Samaritan looked at the robbery victim “with compassion.”

Let’s try to think of that victim with compassion, too. Don’t we have to imagine that, at some point, the poor, wounded man asked, “Did they catch the thieves who did this to me?”

He might add: “If only they had asked me peacefully, I would gladly have helped them with some money. But to beat me and leave me half-dead? For this, they should do time in prison. And restore to me my money. Justice demands it.”

To which we can only imagine the Samaritan—who represents Christ—saying: “Amen, brother.

“I spoke to the centurion in Jericho. I gave him a full account of what I know. He has investigated the case, and his soldiers arrested a group of thieves. When you’re well enough, we’ll take you to see if you can identify them as the group that robbed and beat you.”

In other words: If we claim to have Christian compassion for victims of violence, that means: Doing the painstaking work required to see justice done.

Of course we know that no human effort can attain perfect justice. And we trust that God will make everything right in the end.

But when God helps someone who has been victimized see the wrongness of what has happened; when a victim of violence attains the clarity of mind necessary to describe the crime carefully and thoroughly, and then demand justice—that is a miracle of grace.

If we do not accompany that victim in the quest for justice, then any claims we make to Christian compassion are nothing but empty hypocrisy. A Good Samaritan who loves the suffering neighbor will fight for justice, and will not rest until something gets done. We won’t live in a world in which people can rob and beat innocent travelers and get away with it scot-free.

The Wise Virgins’ Oil

William_Blake_-_The_Parable_of_the_Wise_and_Foolish_Virgins

The question that remains, after the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins: What does the oil represent?

We considered this question exactly one year ago. Anyone remember what we came up with? The oil represents prayer. Specifically: praying the Mass.

But our Lord’s parables offer inexhaustible depths of meaning. So let me throw another answer at you. A two-fold answer. The oil in the parable represents:

1. Self-abandonment to divine Providence. Total trust. God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom, and His weakness is greater than human strength. We live by faith in the unconquerable goodness of the Lord Who governs everything.

2. But total abandonment to divine Providence does not involve our abandoning our capacity for foresight and sound decision-making. The Lord said: Be innocent as doves. He also said…? Be wise as serpents.

–Yesterday I heard someone describe the American bishops as: Wise as doves and innocent as serpents. But let’s leave that aside—

So: The oil is total abandonment to divine Providence and also prudence. The virtue that “finds both the true good in every circumstance and the right means of achieving it,” as the Catechism puts it. Catechism goes on: “Prudence applies moral principles to particular cases and overcomes doubt about good and evil.”

Another definition, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas: “Prudence means both skill at thinking about how to live a wholesome, good life and skill at putting the good thinking into practice.”

Prudence requires self-control, honesty, and courage. By the same token, no one can exercise self-control–or stay honest and brave—without prudence. In other words: No one can think right about doing right without doing right. But no one can do right without thinking and judging right.

Prudence is not “policy.” It is skill at applying good policies. But, of course, without good policies–without good principles–prudence cannot correctly resolve any problem. A prudent person is a principled person who also sees reality clearly enough to know which policy should guide you right now.

We need this oil. May God help us to keep it in our flasks.

Not Bad, but Good: The PA Grand Jury Report

PA Grand Jury victims

Today at Holy Mass we read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Pretty famous parable.

The king forgives a huge debt. Turns out that debtor has a debtor of his own, owing much less. But he refuses to forgive. The other servants are outraged. So the king calls his debtor back and righteously condemns him.

Who’s the main character of the parable? A question prompted the parable: Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother’s sins? So: I guess this parable is about the original debtor? About his failure to show mercy? Or maybe it’s about the fellow servants? Their zeal for justice?

No, silly. Obviously the parable is about: The King. God. The mercy of God. He has compassion. He sees reality.

He is the only one in the parable who isn’t desperate. Because He has no needs. He doesn’t owe anyone anything. He has no fear whatsoever of the unvarnished truth.

Out of kindness, in order to get everything straight for everybody, He initiates a reckoning. But He Himself has such endless wealth that He can afford to write off huge debts. It doesn’t matter. He has infinitely more. Infinitely more.

God is the hero of the parable. He is the hero of the Bible. And He is the Spouse of the Church.

…Everybody heard about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report? How about: Anybody actually read it?

Probably not, because the nauseating recurrent narrative in the Catholic media has repeated itself: The report comes out, and the usual happens. Bishops everywhere begin to talk endlessly about themselves. (Because that is what they do.)

My question is: Why is the release of this grand-jury report an occasion for sorrow? Most of the sorrowful events recounted in it occurred twenty years or more ago. The original events are terribly sad, and sickeningly maddening. But the release of the report is not sad. The release of the report is a triumph. Of the truth.

This moment has come because: the victims have achieved heroic honesty. They have stood up. They have born witness to exactly what we, the Catholic Church, believe in: Justice. Chastity. Truthfulness. The victims have done this in spite of the excruciating pain involved in doing it.

Seems to me that our job right now is to honor these heroes. They have shown great faith in the infinite love of God. Sorting out good from evil in their lives has cost them an enormous struggle. But they did it. They triumphed. This is their hour.

I say: We should rejoice that they have climbed to the top of this terrifying mountain. Now they can see a beautiful sight. God is good, and there is hope.

Many of the sex offenders listed in the report have died. They have met justice. Those still alive should face justice, and let’s hope they will. Seems like we human beings can manage that; we can organize things so that criminals face justice, and a penalty, for what they have done.

Steve Breen statute of limitations in hell
copyright Steve Breen

One thing the report, and the reaction of the bishops the past 36 hours, shows: The bishops of the United States do not know how to organize that. That is: Seeing justice done. They don’t have the foggiest idea how to study facts and make careful judgments.

Thank you, grand jury, for pointing that out. But we knew that already. That has actually been perfectly obvious for many, many years.

All that, really, is just a tawdry sideshow to the real brilliance of the moment. What really happened when this report came out is this: A people abused and suffering stood up, spoke the truth, and brought about a new and better day.

James: The Man of Hour. Part I

James w McCarrick

The yeast leavens the dough. Makes it delicious bread. The yeast of the Kingdom of God turns this flat and dry world into a beautiful, airy wonderland.

What is this yeast of God? The charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. Divine love. The Holy Spirit. The giving of life.

And what marches right alongside the charity of the Heart of Christ? What moves with it, bound up with it like two strands in a coaxial cable? The cable that delivers holiness, vigor, and hope to your house? The chastity of Christ. The charity of Christ and the chastity of Christ are so closely interwoven with each other that they are practically the same thing. Only one different letter.

sacredheart(If you count “st” as one letter.)

In the loving Heart of Christ, we find two gifts of chastity.

1) The Lord Jesus never married, never had children by the martial embrace. To some men and women, he gives this gift of perpetual chastity in celibacy. It involves spiritual struggles, sometimes intense. But consecrated celibacy also brings with it the indescribable blessedness of living on earth with one foot in heaven.

2) The loving Heart of God also loves His spouse, the Church, with unswerving, gentle fidelity. To most people, He gives this gift of marriage and family life. The Christian conjugal life, faithful until death, offers us an image of the communion of heaven.

Life flows into the world through these two forms of chastity. The coaxial cable of charity/chastity puts the divine yeast in the oven. The bread rises and becomes delicious.

What made me think of all this? The great Catholic hero of the past fortnight. James. He hasn’t given the public his last name. But he has given us a witness to the beauty of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

How, you ask? Isn’t he the one who came forward with the accusations against the former Archbishop of Washington? He tells an ugly story, a heartbreaking story. (See Part II of this post.)

Yes, indeed, he does. But the nugget at the heart of the story is this: James still has faith in the true, divine love and chastity of Jesus. If he didn’t, then the former Archbishop’s selfish cynicism would have overwhelmed this man’s soul completely.

But it hasn’t. James has enough faith and hope in God to measure McCarrick versus Jesus. And to stand up and cry out for justice.

Growing in God

farm

The Parable of the Seed’s Growth. The farmer sleeps and rises, night and day, and his plants grow. He knows not how. [Spanish]

Even if this particular farmer had a doctorate in cellular biology, or botany, or meteorology—he still could not claim really to know how his plants manage to grow. To produce blade, then ear, then the full grain in the ear. The sun has power, and the rain, and Mother Earth, and the genius of the little seed: all have power which the farmer does not fully understand.

If he’s a contemplative sort of person, the farmer sleeps and rises, night and day. He watches this power unfold itself before his eyes. He gives God the glory.

Which brings us to the fact that the Lord Jesus presented this image as a parable of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we could synthesize the parable’s meaning with one sentence. Life means growing in divine love.

Now, do we care what life means? Or do we just want pleasure, or wealth, or power, whenever and wherever we can find it? Without bothering to try to understand why we exist?

Well, I think we care. We want to understand why we exist. And try to do it right. We know that no matter what doctorates or other forms of education or expertise we might have, we need God to teach us the meaning of life. No one else can.

Bill ClintonDivine love. God loves. The infinite and all-powerful God loves infinitely and all-powerfully. We exist because He loves.

He was fine. He was happy. He longed for absolutely nothing, because He had everything. But: Because He loves so generously, He made the heavens and the earth, the angels, and us.

He loves us. The meaning of life involves loving Him back. The human race failed to love our Creator, and made a huge mess of sin, but He didn’t give up on us. To the contrary, He came to the earth, and spread out His arms on the cross, to show us an open Heart, and to open our hearts by the power of His love. That’s Jesus Christ. That’s the Holy Spirit and the work of the Church, the life of the sacraments.

Therefore, life means: living in Christ’s Church, loving God back for the love with which He has loved us. And it grows. By the grace of the sacraments, divine love grows in a Christian heart. We know not how.

Time passes. Some of us could say that the Bill-Clinton presidency seems like just yesterday. Or even the Reagan presidency, or the Carter presidency.

The world turns. We meet people. We try to treat them right. We try to live in the truth. We pray. We try to obey God. We try to do well the work God has given us to do. Meanwhile, through all this, decades pass, and we grow in divine love.

Setbacks come, to be sure. We amaze ourselves with our own moral weaknesses. But we don’t give up. Life means loving the God Who loves me, Who loves us. Let me learn. Let me understand better. Let me master myself. Let me forget myself. Let me grow.

earthsunAnd it happens, we know not how. Now, not knowing how—that goes against the grain for us little human geniuses, who pride ourselves on our knowhow.

But: God is God. What do we really know about Him? Loving God is like loving a country which we have never even visited. The pictures we have seen—they’re accurate, yes. Jesus Christ and His saints, they are the pictures of eternal heaven. And they are absolutely accurate pictures. We can’t doubt the glory and beauty of the God we love. But we have never been to that country, not yet. We don’t know. We do not know God.

The contemplative farmer stares at the sky, and the rain clouds forming in the west, and his fields with the little cornstalks in their rows—doing their thing, getting bigger in tiny, daily increments. He gazes at all this, and he thinks to himself:

‘This is something. This is life living. I’m the farmer, and I cultivated this ground and sowed these rows of seed—so I have to credit myself with making some contribution here. But I can only consider myself a docile, uninformed custodian. It requires an intelligence a million times bigger than my own, and a power a million times bigger than mine, to make one single ear of corn. To God Almighty be the glory!’

I think that may be what the Lord intends to teach us with this parable. We grow in God’s love, night and day, sleeping and waking, precisely by: humbling ourselves before Him. Like that farmer humbling himself before the power of earth and sky and Mother Nature.

Growing in divine love involves not knowing everything and controlling everything. Like I said, that goes against the grain for us sons and daughters of this technocratic age of unbridled human cleverness. But: trying to know and control everything stifles our growth in divine love. Growth in divine love requires one thing: Faith.

When we believe in Christ, the love that dwells in His Heart can and does dwell in our hearts, too, by the power of the Church’s sacraments. Then, we just patiently do our duty. And our hearts grow in God.