Wednesday, September 18, 2013
The Gospel reading this past Sunday included the parable of the prodigal son. I initially had two problems with this. First, it’s a long reading for a story we’ve all heard before. I kind of hate the season of the year where we’re deep in parables, because those are the stories told to children and repeated often in discussion and worship. I know the point of repeating parable is to distill new meaning each time, but I still always go into the prodigal son story with the “this again?” mindset, as if a toddler has asked me to tell “The Three Little Pigs” for the umpteenth time.
The second problem is how the prodigal son parable is interpreted. I mean, it’s referred to as the prodigal son parable, so obviously the son that left and returned is the main character. But as someone who identifies more with the older son who was loyal and then jealous, any homily or sermon focusing on the prodigal son probably isn’t going to speak to me. Yeah, yeah, you can always go back to God and he’ll welcome you with open arms; got it. But a little acknowledgment of the faithfulness of the other brother would be nice. Fortunately, I think a lot of pastors and priests I’ve been around identify as older sons in the story, so it’s a good 50/50 shot on which brother gets prominence.
This past week’s homily was on the older son, so I really shouldn’t have had that much to complain about. And yet, for the first time, I wondered if I really did identify as the older son. Maybe I’m more prodigal than I think. Maybe I’m lost without realizing it, like a sheep that keeps its head down eating until it’s in a far off pasture. (Sorry to be mixing parables. Hazard of the liturgical season.)
What got me thinking that I just might be a younger son is the phrase “wasted inheritance.” Luke 15:13 says, “After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he wasted his inheritance on a life of dissipation.” I have a very privileged life, one that I have inherited by a supportive family and sheer luck. I haven’t earned the status and opportunities I have, so I feel a particular burden to do something worthwhile with them. I want to prove myself worthy of what I have. I don’t want to misuse my inheritance. There is the fear that not doing enough, not being successful enough, or not making the right decision is a sign that I’m lazily wasting what I have, that my attention has been pulled to trivial distractions.
With God, there is no proving myself worthy, because I’ll fall way short. I can only try to prove myself grateful and not misuse the blessings I’m given. But there is still the fear of not doing enough. At what point am I humble enough, grateful enough, submissive enough to get the fatted calf? I guess the fact that I’m even asking, “Where’s my calf?” is enough to show that I really am an older son. And that’s where I find my answers and my solace: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours (Luke 15:31).” But it’s a good reminder that I’m not as faithful as I think. I can be reckless and wasteful in my own way. I have my prodigal moments.