Prayers and reflections of the Passion of Jesus http://www.passionofchrist.us
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The story of the prodigal son is one of the longest in the gospel and it’s also one of the most important. It’s not just about a boy who goes astray, of course, it’s about the human race gone wrong.
“Give me what’s mine,” the son says boldly to his father. We all tend to say that. And he takes off for a faraway country, a permissive paradise that promises power and pleasure, in fact, it promises him everything, where he can do anything he wants.
But they’re empty promises, and soon the boy who had so much has nothing and ends up in a pigsty feeding pigs, who eat better than he does.
Then, he takes his first step back. He “comes to himself,” our story says; he realizes what he has done. “I have sinned.”
How straightforward his reaction! Not blaming anybody else for the mess he is in: not his father, or the prostitutes he spent so much of his money on, or society that fooled him. No, he takes responsibility. That “coming to himself” was the first gift of God’s mercy.
He doesn’t wallow in his sin and what it’s brought him, either. He doesn’t let it trap him. He looks beyond it to the place where he belongs, to his father’s house. It wont be an easy road, but he keeps his eyes on it and starts back home.
There he’s surprised by the welcome he receives. More than he ever expected. The father takes into his arms and calls for feast.
His story is our story too.
In these days of Lent, many of us approach the sacrament of reconciliation. That sacrament is very much like the journey the son takes back to his father. First of all, we look for the mercy of God to come to ourselves, to know our sins and to look for our place in our Father’s house.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. we say beginning our confession. The prayer of the son has become our prayer. We acknowledge our sins.
Then the priest who represents Jesus, who speaks for his Father in heaven, says.
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of our sins.
Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We receive pardon and peace, the gift of God’s mercy.
How easily we leave your side,
for a place far away.
Send light into our darkness,
and open our eyes to our sins.
Unless you give us new hearts and strong spirits,
we cannot make the journey home,
to your welcoming arms and the music and the dancing.
Father of mercies and giver of all gifts,
guide us home
and lead us back to you.
We call this Sunday “Catechetical Sunday,” because most parishes are beginning classes in religion this month and we’re asking God’s blessing on young people and teachers and all who are involved in religious formation programs. Passing on our faith to the next generation is one of the important challenges we face as a church.
Let’s remember, though, that children and young people are not the only ones who need to grow in faith. We all do. We may be able to recite the Creed at Mass and respond to the prayers pretty well, though some of us may still be learning the new wording that came out last year. But learning the words isn’t enough. We need to know what they mean and how they apply to our lives; that’s a life-long task
I can still recite answers to questions from the catechism years ago. “Who is God?” “Why did God make you?”
But is that enough? For one thing, the Second Vatican Council, which took place 50 years ago, gave some important new directions for growing in our faith. It told us to know God and love with our neighbor using the bible and the liturgy as guides.
For example, there’s a longer and fuller answer to that catechism question “Who is God?” in the scriptures today. (Luke 15, 1-32) God is like a woman who doesn’t want to lose what belongs to her and keeps searching for a coin she has lost. God is like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. God is a wonderful father whose son–representing the whole human race–finds himself far from home and the place where he should be.
We are God’s children; we belong with him. God is the One who welcomes us, searches for us, waits for us, wishes the best for us, because we are his own.
No catechism question and answer could describe God better than Jesus does in the story of the Prodigal Son and in his parables. The scriptures give us a way to know God that’s never exhausted. At the heart of scripture is Jesus Christ, God’s Word to us. He lives what he teaches. We know God through him, and with him and in him. The more we know him, the more we know the One who sent him. The more we know him, the more we know how to love our neighbor.
Faith is not a private affair between ourselves and God. We don’t live it in a bubble. Knowing and loving God means knowing and loving our neighbor, for God and our neighbor belong together. “No one has seen God, if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4,12)
The Second Vatican Council made clear in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, for example, that faith leads us to life in our world, however complex that world may be. The scribe in the gospel asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He doesn’t ask Jesus “Who is God?” Perhaps that’s because our relationship with our neighbor is more immediate and complex than our relationship with God.
We can’t reduce loving our neighbor to a few things like lying, or cheating or killing one another. I was looking recently at the US Bishops’ site on the internet–a wonderful resource site about our faith, by the way– and noticed the many “neighbor” questions there. Questions like income inequality, immigration, housing, restorative justice, …They’re social questions, “neighbor” questions, dealing with a complex world that changes all the time.
The Second Vatican Council also opened the window to new cooperation with others who do not have the faith we have and urged us to work together for a better world.
Living our faith today is a challenging, life-long task. We’re all still in school.
One of the hardest things we have to do in life is to correct somebody, to tell someone they’re wrong and take steps to stop some harm being done. Our readings today are about correction. Correction is not just what people in authority or experts do; we all have to stand up for what’s right.
You need help doing this, and the Gospel of Matthew (18,15-20) we read today suggests that sometimes help may be sitting right next to you.
Awhile ago, I was coming back on a crowded train from Toronto to New York; a long ride that I hoped to pass by napping and reading a book. But around Buffalo, two women got on and sat across from me. They were older women. One of them must have been hard of hearing; she talked so loudly that people all around her could hear her conversation.
They never stopped talking, about food, clothes, their families, their health, the different medicines they were taking. But then, one woman brought up her husband. She had had trouble with him. After the kids got married, he started to drink and he got nasty when he drank. It got so bad, she said, that she told him to get out of the house and get straightened out. She wasn’t going to leave the house; he had to get out.
Well, he got mad, she said, and went to live his brother for awhile, but in a couple of months he was back. He told her she was right. He stopped drinking. It was a hard thing to be so strong with him, she said, she loved him very much, but she remembered the story in the bible where the father threw his son out of the house and after awhile he came back.
The other woman said she knew that story too and wondered where it was in the bible.
I was ready to chime in and tell them that story’s in St. Luke’s gospel, chapter 15, and actually the father didn’t throw the son our of the house. He left on his own. But something told me to keep my mouth shut.
Just then, another woman a few seats down the aisle turned to the women and said, “You must be angels sent by God. I’ve been praying for months, trying to figure out what to do with my son, and I think you’ve got the answer.”
Her son was on drugs, she said. “He’s a good kid, but he’s in the wrong crowd.” She knew that he was having a bad influence on his younger brothers and sisters, but she felt she had to leave him in the house. He just couldn’t manage on his own. Her husband was no help; he wanted to ignore the problem.
She talked to her minister in church and he told her she was being too easy on her son, but she wasn’t convinced.
Now, listening to these women, she felt God was telling her something. She had to be like that father in the gospel story that threw his son out of the house. She was going to look that story up in the bible.
Again, I was going to tell them the location of the story in St. Luke’s gospel and that the father doesn’t really throw the son out of the house, but again thought better of it. Maybe the version they had in their minds was the version God meant them to hear.
By the time the train reached Albany where two of the women got off, they were in solid agreement and were new friends. They had exchanged phone numbers and emails and promises to keep in touch, and they were thanking God for this time on the train as a time of special grace.
Sometimes we think the scriptures are about a world long gone. But read our gospel carefully. It’s not only about a world long gone. It’s also about those three women and all of us who sometimes face hard things to say and do and don’t know how to do it.
God sends help, often in the simplest ways–maybe even on a long train ride. This one ended up in New York City 5 hours late.