FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 15, 2019:
There’s a short story I came across by Richard Pindell called “Somebody’s Son.” It opens with a runaway boy, named David, sitting by the side of a road writing a letter home to his mother. The letter expresses the hope that his father will forgive him for all that he has done to wound his family and accept him again as a son. The boy writes: “Dear Mom, In a few days I’ll be passing home. If Dad will take me back, ask him to tie a white cloth on the apple tree in the field next to our house.”
Days later David was on a train rapidly approaching his home. Nervously, two pictures flash back and forth in his mind: the tree with a white cloth tied on it and the tree without a cloth on it. As the train draws closer, David’s heart begins to beat faster and faster. Soon the tree will be visible around the bend. But David can’t bring himself to look. He’s too afraid the white cloth won’t be there; too afraid that he will be rejected; too afraid that his father will not forgive him and accept him back.
Turning to the man next to him, he says, nervously, “Mister, will you do me a favor? Around this bend on the right, you’ll see a tree. Tell me if there’s a white cloth tied to it.” As the train rumbles past the tree, David stares straight ahead. And then, in a quaking voice, he asks the man, “Mister, is a white cloth tied to one of the branches of the tree?” The man pauses and then answers, “No. There’s not a white cloth on one branch, there’s one tied to every branch!”
Pope Francis regularly reminds us that, “God never tires of forgiving us.” This story of David and his father, illustrates the same point that Jesus wants to make today in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a message so simple, so profound and yet so often overlooked – God loves us; God always forgives us; He forgives us generously, repeatedly, lovingly, joyfully. And nothing can take us away from that love and forgiveness – and we are called to forgive others in the same way.
This parable is one of the best known and one that just about anyone could recall, but it’s one that I’m not sure we always appreciate in its depth. Yes, we get that the Son sinned. Yes we get that the Father forgave him. And yes, we get that the older brother didn’t like it one bit. But, this story is meant to teach us not only more about the depth of God’s love and forgiveness for us, but also more about how we are meant to truly love and forgive each other.
We live today in a world of broken relationships. There isn’t one among us here who hasn’t been touched by divorce – whether directly in our own families, or extended family or friends. There isn’t one of us here who doesn’t have a broken relationship somewhere in our lives – a friendship destroyed, a misunderstanding overblown, regretted words spoken and never taken back. But, the myth of the world is that we have to accept that brokenness and believe that those relationships can never be healed. Jesus tells us something different and gives us the opportunity to restore, heal and reconcile the broken relationships in our lives.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of broken relationships. The younger son has severed the relationship with his father. He recognizes his wrong actions and wants nothing more than to be accepted again into his father’s household – not in the status he had before, but even just as a lowly servant. That’s supposed to be us – recognizing our sin, approaching our God asking to simply be allowed to remain a member of His household; of His family. And, what is the father’s reaction to the younger son? He is overjoyed at the son’s return. He says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
And the real kicker is that this is not just a story. Jesus tells us that God deals with us the same way. God will always forgive us with joy. “God never tires of forgiving us.” And, he expects us to do the same with each other. We pray it every day, “Forgives us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is the bargain we make. God forgives us and restores us to His family and He wants us to forgive each other the same way. There is a story about President Lincoln. Someone asked him how he would treat the South after the end of the Civil War. Lincoln responded, “I will treat them as if they’d never left home.” This is how we are meant to forgive as well – as God has forgiven us. We are called to forgive others and take them back into our hearts with the same generous love that God shows us.
Jesus came to establish a beautiful cycle of forgiveness. He came and died for our sins on the Cross. He gave us the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that when we sin, the forgiveness that God offers is never further away than the nearest confessional. And He invites us to model that forgiveness that we receive in the way we deal with one another. And yet, how frequently we look at that cycle of healing and say “no thank you.” Our confessionals remain unused. The forgiveness offered their remains unaccepted. The sins we carry remain on our hearts, effecting our lives, effecting our relationship with God and with each other. And yet, all we ever have to do is ask for it, and God says over and over and over, “Your sins are forgiven. Live in My love.”
As we hear this beautiful parable once again, let us banish from our hearts whatever it is that keeps us from seeking out God’s love and mercy found so beautifully through confession. Let us allow our loving God to take away our sins, and invite Him to help us find the healing we need in the broken places of our lives. Imagine living each day with those wounded places healed; those sins forgiven – renewed in God’s love and mercy. If we do this, we can be sure that when we depart this world and approach the gates of heaven, we too will see a tree with a white cloth tied to every branch. So, let us not be bound by the hurts and wounds we carry, but be freed by the forgiveness God extends to us and we can extend to others.
Let’s end with a prayer. Please close your eyes and bow your heads as I pray. Dear Lord, show me your mercy and fill my heart with your forgiving love. I am the younger child who ran away and has returned home. Thank you for receiving me back. I am also the older child who finds it hard to forgive sometimes as you forgive me. Touch my heart with your forgiving love. Help me to know the peace, the joy and the freedom that comes from dwelling in and offering to others Your forgiveness.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 8, 2019:
A number of years ago, I remember watching an episode of The Oprah Winfrey show. The topic that day was “looking for love” and they had a group of women explaining what they were looking for in a husband. Most of them were looking for the kind of things you would expect on a daytime television show – they wanted to find a man who was really rich and could treat them the way they’d like; others were looking for someone who was extremely handsome so that the two of them would make a beautiful couple. Just about all of them were naming qualities that were pretty superficial. But, I still remember this particular show all these years later because of the answer of one particular woman. She said, “I’m looking for a man who understands that he needs to love God more than he loves me.” Her answer was surprising, even shocking, given the rest of the show. But, I’ve never heard a better answer.
In our Gospel today, we just heard Jesus use some surprising and shocking language too. He said, “If anyone comes to me without hating their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even their own life, they cannot be my disciple.” These are jarring words to our ears. Hate our father and mother? After all, one of the Commandment tells us to “Honor your mother and father.” Of course, Jesus is not instructing us to hate our families, rather, He’s trying to get us to wake up; He’s trying to shake us up so that we might embrace the full impact of His message of the Kingdom of God.
Our world is often obsessed with wealth and competition; it’s full of violence and war. We usually refer to this as the “real” world. And if someone were to suggest that instead of power, money and fame, we can live lives guided by peace, love, joy, compassion, and forgiveness, they would probably be called crazy. But, Jesus reminded us that the so-called “real” world is actually the illusion; it is phony and full of false hopes and promises. He calls us to throw off that illusion and instead be immersed in the Kingdom of God. His strategy? Well, in today’s passage, it is spiritual shock therapy. Jesus wants to shake us out of our complacency and into a whole new way of thinking, acting, and being. Jesus wants to remind us today that we cannot follow Him half way. Our faith and our discipleship is meant to be all or nothing. It is meant to be the most important thing in our life.
This is the point of His shocking words to us today. If we’re going to follow Jesus, He wants us to go with Him the whole way. We can’t stop at His preaching and miracles and leave Him when it comes to the Cross. We’ll never reach resurrection unless we’re along for the whole journey. We have to accept His way of seeing life and put that into practice in the way we live. Just as that woman on the Oprah show understood, Jesus and His Gospel message have to be the top priority in our lives. And when Jesus comes first, everything else falls into place.
So rather than judging our lives by the standards of our world – standards that are concerned with mere superficial trivialities, we need to judge our lives by the level of love and service offered to God through our relationships with those around us. What counts is not how we are looked at by others but the degree of care and compassion with which we look at them, and especially the most marginalized people in our midst.
That is the meaning of the two parables Jesus gives today. “Great crowds” were following Jesus with enthusiasm but were they ready for His message? Did they realize what it really meant to follow Him? If not, they are like the king who goes out to war totally unprepared. They are like a man who started to build a tower and ran out of funds or material. They become inauthentic. If we try to walk with Jesus without being ready to commit; we too will miss the joy and happiness of the totally fulfilled life that Jesus is offering us.
Jesus tells us today that to be His disciple is to make every other thing in life second to Him. He means that on the list of our goals and priorities in life, attaining the kingdom of God must come first and then everything else will follow. He, and only He, is the way, the truth and the life. Following Jesus is much harder than we may have thought at first. The Good News is that Jesus recognizes this and still invites us on this journey with Him.
St. Francis of Assisi often said very simply, “Jesus, You are enough for me.” Let us make his words our own, and let us know that we need to love God first and more than anything else in our lives.
May the Lord give you peace.