In today’s readings we see the familiar story of the prodigal son. It’s something we hear every year and often is the subject of many retreats and reflections. It’s a great parable, as are all of Jesus’ wonderful metaphors and analogies. I’ve put myself in the returning sons place before, thinking of all the times I’ve squandered the things I’ve been given or been rude to my parents. I’ve put myself in the other sons place as he grows angry at those who get what he feels he deserves, even refusing to come into the banquet. I’ve put myself in the father’s place, running out to meet the returning son and trying to smooth the ruffled feathers to bring in both children under the same roof. Today it dawned on me, I’ve never put myself into the hands of the man delivering the pods.
What? The pods? It’s interesting that I never even noticed this person until today. The scripture says “he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but no one would give him any.” These were carob pods which many people still eat today in place of chocolate. This man in need was asking for food, maybe to more than one person.. But they would not be swayed to give him even the scraps that they fed to the animals to fatten them up. How often have I been that man? The one who was blessed with so many things, but used them for my own gain? To me the pods represent those gifts we have been given, not just monetarily but also our spiritual gifts. The swine represent that which is unclean, that which is sinful. Am I using my gifts for my own joys? My own good? Or for the true good of the other? When the prodigal son at rock bottom asks me for food, do I refuse to give it to him?
Saint Frances de Sales said we should seek to grow the good that is in another for their own sake, not ours. That’s so important in our lives. To not only stop to recognize the good that is in another, but to spend time helping them to grow in that charity. That means journeying with them, regardless of their situation. It also means to “accentuate the positive not the negative.” That’s a difficult thing to do at times. It doesn’t mean that we do not share the truth. It does mean though that we have to meet the person where they are. That when we find them wallowing in the mud and slime of the world, we are there with the sweet fruit of the Holy Spirit to share with them and feed them. It means we must stop putting our pearls before swine, feeding our own wants, egos and desires.
All too often that man-made glory feeds our egos. We see that conversions are happening, people are having a moment with Christ before our eyes and we think “I did that!” It is a high! It makes us want to do it more, frequently not simply for God but because we want that consolation. We want that good feeling. The world has invaded the religious sphere with that thought, hasn’t it? “I don’t like the music.” “The homily was boring.” “We always do the same thing, again and again.” “The pews are too uncomfortable.” “But baseball!” There is something to be said about beautiful liturgy. Music that swells the soul and makes us burst forth in joy! We don’t need a performer though. Not a stagehand who doles out the performance and revels in the accolades. That is just taking these beautiful gifts that God has given us and throwing them on the ground for our own sinful gluttonous demons to devour. It’s when we truly offer those gifts to the other, for the good of the other, that’s when the prodigal is fed by the hand of God through us. Then we can journey with them back to the Father’s banquet to join the party as well.
To do any of these requires humility. The ability to step outside of ourselves and encounter the other. To see them standing there begging for some kind of spiritual nourishment. That’s what the devout life is all about. Joyfully ‘living out our relationships in love.’ Love is never selfish. It never serves just the person. It is rather sacrificial, self giving, and filled with God’s presence. It is an act of will that puts the other first, and in doing so, draws others to the Christ light that shines forth from us. As a prominent preacher once said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
His servant and yours,
"He must increase, I must decrease."