Monday, September 16, 2013

Qui Illi Pereunt

Qui Illi Pereunt

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
September 15th, 2013

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha-Union Street
Rev. Michael Taylor

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
Than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.[1]

I would like to take some time to examine in closer detail the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a text that everyone has heard numerous times, yet there is much in the details that can be lost. Let us examine, in part for sake of brevity, this parable. The parable begins with the youngest son saying to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” [2] Now the phrasing here is noteworthy. The Greek term μερος της οσιας (meros tës ousias) could be said as «the being of my inheritance» or as it appears in the vulgate, portionem substantiæ. Now the Church fathers took notice of this and noted a philosophical and theological truth. What is the only thing man truly has that he can call his own? [3] Theophylactus stated, ‘The substance of man is the capacity of reason which accompanied by free will, and in like manner whatever God has given us shall be accounted for our substance, as the heaven, the earth, and universal nature, the Law and the Prophets.’ [4] We have only our free will, for God made man to be loved and to love. This required he be free to do so. Yet as is so often the case, we use our freedom to do what we want to do, and thus we squander our inheritance. It is as it is written in Psalm 82, I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; Nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince’ [5] because we have squandered our inheritance on a freedom that enslaves us to our passions.
Our parable goes on to say, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country.[6] Saint John Chrysostom wrote ‘The younger son set out into a distant country, not locally departing from God, who is everywhere present, but in his heart. For the sinner flees from God that he may stand afar off.’ [7] Have you ever met someone who said, ‘Oh if I ever stepped foot in Church, it would probably collapse on me?’ Or I’ll have people say to me, « O father, it’s been so long since I’ve been to confession, you’d need all day.» To which I always say, «Give me ten minutes, and with God’s grace and a contrite heart, there’s no sin that cannot be overcome.» Yet so often we feel ourselves alienated from God and surrounded by death. As it is written by the Prophet, I said, in the noontime of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living.[8] Yet the distance is always in the mind. Is it not written in the Psalms, if I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! [9] God is always with us. He’s just waiting for us to turn around.
As our parable progresses, we are told when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.[10] When one turns away from God, adversu Deum, one goes looking for something to feel the void left behind. Whether it be food, game, drink or lustful pursuits, we will try to satisfy that hunger in our heart. Yet at the end of the day, what remains? What is left? Where then is comeliness? Or beauty, youth or wealth? What remains? And when all of these fade, we are left in a great famine, and in great want. However, even loss will not cause the young man to repent and acknowledge he is in the wrong place, walking on the wrong path, going in the wrong direction. In the parable, the young man is said to have joined himself to one of the citizens of that [foreign] country.[11] Now first, the Greek term used here is πορευθεις (poreutheis) or in Latin adhaesit, which can mean, «to cling, adhere, or to be driven to». Now the Church Fathers such as Ambrose,[12] Augustine,[13] and the Venerable Bede[14] all speak of this as being a joining or subjugating of oneself to evil. Now this might seem a bit dramatic. Does the text say this? It does indeed, in the very next verse where it says that the citizen forces the son to feed the swine. Now for the Jewish person, to even be in vicinity of swine was considered an act of great uncleanness.[15] Any Jewish person hearing this parable would have realized the depravity to which this young man had fallen. Not only was he caring for swine, but he longed to eat those scraps that even the pigs did not deem to see as fitting for consumption. Yet there is another level into this text. Note that Luke is writing to a Gentile audience. While they would have known of the Kosher laws, they would not have had the same revulsion as the original Jewish audience would have had. Why does Luke include the story? It is because this is a matter of spiritual cleanliness. Ignorance of the divine order of God does not exhonerate one from judgment. Remember Luke traveled with Paul, so he knew that Paul had so taught: Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because their ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.[16] It must be remembered that Luke is not talking about the dietary laws but rather the sins that come from within, as our Lord himself affirms: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles a man.[17]
Finally the young man comes to his senses. He confesses to himself that he is a sinner, and says that he must go back to the Father. Note the dynamic of what happens. But while he [the son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.[18] So eager is the Father to have us return, that no matter how far we have wandered away from him, no matter how corrupted our sins have left us, the Father yearns to embrace us, covering the distance between us and him himself. He just needs us to be willing to turn towards him. As it is written by Saint James, Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.[19]
Now, all of these things having been said, we so often miss the point of the Prodigal Son. If someone were to ask you what is the parable of the Prodigal Son, you would probably repeat the parts that we’ve just covered; A son wonders away and, when he returns, the Father welcomes him back with abundant mercy. Yet that’s missiong the point entirely. The Prodigal Son is not about the younger son. It’s about the older son. The one who can’t understand why the Father forgave the youngest. When you look at the context of the parable this is clear. In the beginning of the chapter, it reads, Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, «This man receives sinners and eats with them.» [20]
Jesus talks about the zeal for the ones who goes seeking out the lost. The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go find the other. The woman who turns her house upside down to find the lost coin, and then calls all her neighbors to rejoice at what was lost but now is found. This is the zeal to bring back those who are lost. Do we have that same zeal? Does not everyone hear know at least one person who has walked away from the faith? What do we do to invite them back? Or do we look around us and say, «Well, I must be doing ok. I mean, I go to mass every Sunday.» Or «what is that person doing here? They have such a nasty temper.» Are we zealous to bring back those who are lost? Let us offer the invitation to all out there who are lost and struggling to find their way. In our Gospel, our Lord tells us, Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.[21] Let us be the cause of such rejoicing.

[1] Luke 15.7
[2] Luke 15.12
[3] cf. I Corinthians 4.7: For who sees anything different in you? What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?
[4] Theophylactus. Quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea: Lucam. Ch.XV: Lectio iii
[5] Psalm 82(81).7
[6] Luke 15.13
[7] St. John Chrysostom. Quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea: Lucam. Ch. XV, lectio iii
[8] Isaiah 38.10-11a
[9] Ps 139(138).8
[10] Luke 15.14
[11] Luke 15.15
[12] St. Ambrose. Quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea: Lucam. Ch. XV, lectio iii: “Fitly did he begin to be in want who abandoned the treasures of the wisdom and the knowledge of God, and the unfathomableness of the heavenly riches. It follows that he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country.”
[13] St. Augustine. Ibid. “One of the citizens of that country was a certain prince of the air belonging to the army of the devil, whose fields signify the manner of his power, concerning which it follows. And he sent him into the field to feed swine. The swine are the unclean spirits which are under him.
[14] St. Bede. “But to feed swine is to work those things in which the unclean spirits delight. If follows, and he would have filled his belly with the husks which the swine did eat.”
[15] Cf. Lev. 11.7-8: And the swine, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean to you.
[16] Ephesians 4.17-18
[17] Matthew 15.11
[18] Luke 15.20
[19] James 4.7-8
[20] Luke 15.1-2
[21] Luke 15.10

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