12:35 PM 2/20/2011 — Some weeks ago I had mentioned in a homily, quite in passing, the penchant of this present generation to submit religion to a sort of litmus test, Secular people will decide—based on their own semi-political and social preferences—what they think religion should be concerned about, then pass judgment on a religious group based on whether it conforms to what they think it should. As I recall, what brought the subject up at the time was a female news commentator who had a problem with a tiny Protestant church somewhere which was protesting the building of a strip club right next to their church; and her remark was that this church should concern itself with doing good deeds rather than telling people how to live. But she’s the one who decided that the church has no business telling people how to live. After all, Jesus’ first words as a preacher after his baptism in the Jordan by John were, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
It’s very easy to criticize something like religion when you presume the right to define it for yourself. Real faith in God requires that we believe in him simply because he is God, not because he has proven himself to us. A lot of people approach the whole question of God the same way they would approach a political election: they listen to what a candidate has to say; and, if he says enough things that they agree with, then they vote for him. But God isn't running for anything, and he does not require our votes in order to exercise authority over our lives. So often a priest will meet someone in confession who has been away from the sacraments for a long time because something terrible happened to them;—they lost a spouse or a child or had to suffer some terrible illness—and this shook their faith in God as if, somehow, God let them down: "I lived a good life, so why would God let this happen to me?"
I always recommend them to read the book of Job; and many of you have heard me preach from it at funerals. It begins by saying how there was no man in all the world more pleasing to God than Job, and how God allowed Job to be tested by Satan by having everything taken from him, including his children, and finally being afflicted with a horrible chronic illness. And his wife thinks he's crazy because he continues to praise and worship God. And Job's response to her is one of the most famous verses in the Bible: "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, naked I shall return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
Now, we don't see that kind of faith very often. Our faith is not unconditional like Job's. We put in the hours by living a good life, then we expect God to pay the wage—in spite of the fact that Jesus told us, on more than one occasion, that reward and punishment are not in this life, and that God allows it to “rain on the just and unjust alike.” But we ignore all of that. We still believe that God should reward us for our good life now; and, if he doesn't then there's something wrong with him.
That's part of the message of the Second Sunday of the Triodion in which we read the parable of the Prodigal Son which is so familiar to us. Yes, it is a story about forgiveness; and we should feel comforted by the fact that God is always willing to forgive as long as we are willing to repent. But there's a lot more to the story than that. We often overlook the fact that, in having the father in the story react the way he does to the older son, Jesus has completely thrown out every notion of human justice there ever was.
We always overlook the older son in this story. We always focus on the younger son, the prodigal son; that’s why we call it “the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But the older son is important, too. He's the one who comes to his father and says, "What the heck are you doing? This son of yours takes your money, wastes it on high living and loose women, then when he's broke comes crawling back asking for mercy; and you give him more than you've ever given me, who never once disobeyed you my entire life. It's not fair!" And he's right! In doing what he does for the prodigal son, the father is unfair; he has done a gross injustice to the older son. And isn't the reaction of the older son exactly how we react to God when we think he's been unfair to us? We lose a loved one to death, for example—a child or a spouse or a parent—and we don't care that God has taken that person to himself; we only care what we think he's done to us. Or we or someone we love is forced to suffer a long or painful illness. We don't care that he's given that person a great opportunity to avoid Purgatory by allowing them to sacrifice here on earth; we only want him to be nice to us now.
The use of this familiar parable as the Gospel lesson of today's Liturgy gives us an opportunity to reflect on the fact that God doesn't deal with any of us according to the rules of human justice. God owes us nothing. And even if we live a perfect life of perfect virtue, God owes us nothing. Living the way God wants us to live is what we owe to God; and, salvation—which is the only goal of the Christian’s life—is a gift; it is not payment for services rendered.
As the Triodion continues and we begin to move ourselves into a spirit of self-denial and self-evaluation in preparation for the Great Fast, let us pause to reflect on what kind of conditions we have placed on our love and worship of God, and be thankful for the fact that God has placed no such conditions on us, making forgiveness of our sins only a confession away.
Father Michael Venditti
No one said life was supposed to be fair; and salvation is not payment for services rendered.
The Second Sunday of the Triodion, known as the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.
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