In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, in today’s Gospel we hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of the most famous stories in all of literature, a moral tale that offers us a stark lesson about sin and forgiveness precisely because it is so vivid in detail and compelling in scope. Our Lord grabs the attention of His audience as only a great storyteller can. With no other tools at His disposal than His voice and His word choice, He sets a most dramatic stage, draws his well-conceived characters into the spotlight at just the right time, and gives his listeners license to imagine the world that these characters have created for themselves. We practically see and hear the revelry of sinful abandon abroad, and we can contrast that with the joyous feast back home. We practically taste the bile from wanton hunger when sins have played their course, and we can contrast that with the taste of the fatted calf when the wayward son is back. We practically feel the foreboding sense of doom when the self-righteous sinner demands on his terms the inheritance in store for him, and we can contrast that with the palpable joy when in the end the contrite son embraces his patient and loving father. If we were to describe telling and hearing this tale with the lexicon of modern-day cinema, we could say that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is fully immersive, a 3-D theatrical experience made 4-D when we are able to smell “the husks that the swine did eat” and to feel the beat from all that music and dancing. Yes, Our Lord is a great storyteller, indeed the greatest of all time, but He is not angling to win the First Century version of an Oscar or a Tony. He is surely not looking for good reviews from the in-crowd or accolades from the fashionable. He has only one objective here. He wants His audience, and that includes you and me, to put aside everything else for a brief period of time and to listen; and He is telling His story so dramatically precisely because it is so hard to get us to listen. Indeed, when confronted with truths we really do not want to hear, we fallen humans really know all too well how not to listen. We are particularly expert at this. There are so many ways to be distracted, so many objections to raise before giving the truths a chance to be told, so many ways to rearrange the truths in our minds so that they seem to conform comfortably to our own half-baked ideas and prejudices. Sins may be indulged down many different paths, each fork in the road invariably leading down to the same old Hell, but all those paths start at the same point. It is the moment Adam and Eve refused to heed God’s commandment, when they shut their ears to His voice so that they could better hear their own. If we are honest with ourselves about when we too started to trek down one of those dark and twisted paths, when we too left the sunshine to walk among the weeds and the thorns, we shall discover likely that it is when we made a conscious decision to ignore our conscience, to close our ears from our elders, and to shut away our hearts from our God. No wonder God must speak so dramatically, painting His parable with such vivid colors, when we are so far lost in that dark forest below. It is a miracle we hear anything at all but our own minds tempting us into yet more waywardness.
Consider the younger of the two brothers in the parable. Rather than wait for his time, which is supposed to be sometime after his father has died and his older brother has had an opportunity to handle the estate, he self-righteously walks up to his father and demands his share. “Father,” he says, “give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.” He says this as if this is a debt that he has the right to call at any time. He is not listening, not heeding the customs and the norms that would be quite familiar to him, not acknowledging the higher law that governs all such matters. Instead, he is demanding, acting like he is the creditor and God is the debtor, pushing his case in a courtroom in his mind wherein he alone serves as prosecutor, judge, and executioner. Closed off as he is from any voice other than his own, it is no wonder then that he is prodigal with what is given to him. For excess, riotous living, wasteful spending, boastful cajoling, these are the sad and predictable ways we all too often try to aggrandize the marks we leave on this world. “Live large,” “paint the town red,” “go big, or go home,” these catchphrases suggest the fun that is in store if we live out our whole lives like a weekend in Las Vegas, but consider the people who try in actuality to live their lives this way. Do we not see people so puffed up with themselves as to be caricatures? Do we not see well fed tyrants made mad by their own god complex? Do we not see the burnt out, addicted, insolvent, ghost of a man still popping quarters into a slot machine, because he is convinced that Lady Luck is waiting for him still just around the corner? We often define sin as the reckless overfeeding of our own appetites, but that begs the question of why, especially when we continue to feed our passions for sex, or money, or food, or public acclaim long after those appetites have been satisfied. Why gorge ourselves with our own sinful excess when frankly those sins are no longer particularly alluring anymore? Why spend to the point of poverty when the old party has long since lost its edge and the prostitutes have shuffled home?
The reason is that in every sin there is a refusal to listen to any terms of conduct or moral codes of responsibility that we have not imposed upon ourselves. We do not stop until we are totally lost and impoverished, for we do not want to abide anyone else’s insistence or request that we stop and turn around. When we refuse to listen, we hear only ourselves, and we learn to love our own counsel better than God’s, let alone our neighbor’s. We become citizens of a place far from God, a place where everyone is alone among many, a reality where no one listens to one another. And so the prodigal son, starving and destitute in that faraway place, “would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.” Way out there so far from God and home, no man heeded his plight, for where every man is a god, no man is a saint. Absent divine grace giving him the wherewithal to question his own plight, and to start to pick himself up from the mud, the prodigal son ultimately would have been deafened by his sad refusal to listen. He would have been blinded by his own sad refusal to see. Like when Pharaoh pursued Moses and the Israelites even into the Red Sea, so would the prodigal son’s heart have been hardened. In the parable, we see the sinner make the long trek back to his father, who we shall understand has been waiting for him all this time. What we do not see, but what is implied when Our Lord tells us that the prodigal son finally “came to himself,” is that the Holy Spirit has awakened him from his deafness and his blindness, so that he has a chance to make a choice to give up his ball and chain and to go back home. Through the Spirit, the Father in fact goes out to him, even in that faraway place, and He will accompany him all the way to the joyous feast that is in store. God will heed us, even when we have stopped heeding Him. He will listen to us, even when we have forgotten how to listen to Him or to anyone else.
Sitting in a jail cell far from his home, the great twentieth century saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is in a place as cold and as sparse as the prodigal son’s once had been warm and extravagant. His path has taken him deeper into the Father’s heart, just as the prodigal son’s path for a time had taken him farther from the Father’s heart. The one is a saint, a very real man imprisoned by the Nazis for having helped Jews to escape; the other a sinner, a character in a parable whose trek is meant to teach us a lesson; but the insight for both is the same. Bonhoeffer wrote letters to the faithful from behind bars, and several of his guards quietly transferred these letters to his fellow churchmen on the outside. In one of these letter, Bonhoeffer writes about the value of really listening: “The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening for God’s Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love is shown by the fact that God not only gives us His Word but lends us His ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.” There is nothing wrong with having our own point of view, or when necessary making our demands, but if we are to act from a position of love for God and for our neighbor, then in all things we first must start by listening. We must listen to God. We must listen to the people around us. We must really hear them for whom they are, what they need, and how we may be best responsive to them. The prodigal son does not really start to listen to anyone until he has lost everything. Sometimes, that is what it takes for us to know how we have been blinded and deafened by our own puffed up god complex. Hopefully, by grace, we may wake up and return home before we have reached rock bottom. Regardless of when and how we awaken, we shall learn the same lesson: Listen. Stop, get out of your own head, and listen. Let the Holy Spirit be your guide back into the arms of Christ Jesus, the Good Shepherd who wants to take you back home to the Father. This will not be easy at first, for we have learned to be intransigent in our sins and much too mindful of ourselves. Nevertheless, if only we shall listen, we shall come to know that with every step we take away from God, and with every step we take back home to God, God is with us. His Spirit is in us the whole time. His Son is by our side sharing in this long journey as only the God Man can. And the Father waits for us, as did the father in the parable for the prodigal son; Our Maker and Our Redeemer setting up the feast for our joyous return.