Homily: The Prodigal Son

Posted 2019-04-01 by @saintmichaelyyc

Here is Fr. George’s homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday), March 31, 2019.

English Transcript (Fr. George Madathikunnath)

“The Hound of Heaven,” written by Francis Thompson, is one of the best- known and celebrated religious poems in the English language.  It describes the pursuit of the human soul by God.  The poem tells the story of a human soul who tries to flee from God as it thinks that it will lose its freedom in the company of God. The poem begins, “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him.”

This is the story of Thompson’s own life.  As a boy, he intended to become a priest.  But the laziness of his brilliant son prompted Thompson’s father to enroll young Francis in a medical school.  There he became addicted to opium that almost wrecked his body and mind.  He fled to a slum and started earning a living by shining shoes, selling matches, and holding horses.  He began to write poems and essays and slowly to realize God’s love in his life.  How Francis tried to run away from God, how God “hunted” him, how Divine love caught up with him – these are the themes of his stirring poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”  Once we realize, as did the poet Francis Thompson and some of the saints, that God in His love for us, pursues our souls to the ends of the earth and beyond, then we will try to return to that Love and allow the Hound of Heaven to “catch” us. 

Today’s Gospel tells us about the breadth and depth and height of the Divine love of the Hound of Heaven for each one of us. The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel Lessons in our Bible. No other parable adequately portrays the depth and the mysticism of the goodness of God towards His prodigal sons. Of all Jesus’ parables, this one is the most richly detailed, powerfully dramatic, and intensely personal. It’s full of emotion-ranging from sadness, to triumph, to a sense of shock, and finally to an unsettling wish for more closure.

Most people today are somewhat familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. Even those who know next to nothing about the Bible know something about this tale. Its themes and its language are deeply ingrained in our spiritual and literary traditions. William Shakespeare, for instance, borrowed plot points and motifs from the parable of the prodigal son and adapted them in The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV. Since John Wilson’s declaration that Prince Hal is a “prodigal prince”, critics have read the Henry IV plays as adaptations of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11–32). The word “prodigal” appears more often in The Merchant of Venice than in any other play in modern history. Richard Helgerson suggests that stories of prodigals embodied the ongoing conflict between the two Renaissance traditions of “civic humanism and courtly romance,” in which “Humanism represented paternal expectation, and romance, rebellious desire” . Alan R. Young attributes the popularity of the theme in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century drama to its flexibility for exploring theological issues and “such special contemporary concerns as education, the proper use of wealth, and the responsibilities of a prince” (52-3). Young includes Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, which were written around the same time as The Merchant of Venice, among the plays that use the Prodigal Son motif.

The parable of the Prodigal Son spreads itself across twenty-two verses in this pivotal chapter in Luke’s Gospel. With so much lavish coloring, dramatic pathos, and fine detail carefully woven into this word picture, it seems clear that the vividness of the parable is deliberately designed to highlight the parable’s central meaning. Whenever we hear a parable, to benefit from it, we compare ourselves to each of the characters in the parable to see what similarities we have with them. The characters are familiar, so it’s easy for people to identify with the prodigal, to feel the father’s grief, and yet still sympathize with the elder brother-all at the same time.

The story is memorable on many levels, not the least of which is the gritty imagery Jesus invokes. The description of the prodigal as so desperately hungry he was willing to eat husks scavenged from swine food, for instance, graphically depicts his youthful dissolution in a way that was unspeakably revolting to His Jewish audience. The younger son had a dissatisfaction, a longing for something and so he tried to satisfy it by going away and living a loose life. This is true of the people of our age. People thirst, they search, they long for something beyond their imagination.  Today, so clouded is the mind and the soul by the noise, the glamour and the empty promises of the world. The younger son, who demanded his freedom. The kind of freedom he wanted is the freedom that the world talks about today: the freedom in whose name crimes may be committed, revolutions conceived, riots incited; in short, license, for which so much blood is spilled today in our streets by those who want their privileges, with no regard for the rights of their neighbors. In modern terms, he wanted to turn on to narcotics, to engage in lotteries and sexual passions to appease his lust. Today’s prodigal son is enticed by the world, with its hippies and yippies, its agnostics, nihilists, and revolutionary anarchists.

So, our young man is enticed by the world and all its sinful allurements. He unashamedly stands before his father and demands his “rightful share” of his father’s estate, as if his father were already dead. The only time many young men today realize that their fathers exist is when they are in need of money. And the father in our parable, like so many fathers today, could not say no to his son; he gave him all that he asked for. And even then, he did not stop loving him. Obviously, the father in the parable represents God our Father in heaven. We notice from these parables that God is somehow incomplete if not loved by us! When we come back to God he throws a party! Love is a risk, it depends on the response of the other person. Yet God has taken that gamble with us. How does God feel when we don’t respond? Does God ever grow tired of loving us? No, God keeps believing in love and in our potential to respond.

The character of the elder son in the parable to see if we are in any way similar to him. The elder son, despite the fact that he was with his father all those years, was shocked that his father threw the party. He still didn’t know or understand his father’s heart; maybe the servants understood his father better. The elder son never felt accepted, appreciated or loved by his father. That was his problem. So, his resentment towards his younger brother was really pointing to a deeper wound; he did not feel loved. The older son had no real relationship with his father. He was distant and aloof.

Let me conclude todays homily with a story of a seagull. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a novel written by Richard Bach, an American writer and pilot. This novel tells about a bird named Jonathan who feels bored with his daily life. He wants to find something new and more meaningful things in his life. There was a question that did haunt Jonathan – the question that haunts us all when we have nothing to distract ourselves with. The question we ask ourselves when, for some reason or the other, we find ourselves sleepless at night. Can I fly higher? Can I fly farther? Is there more?

The flock asked itself no such questions. The mundane preoccupations of life had them too much in thrall to consider deeper questions. But Jonathan knew that he could drink deeper of life than they did. One day, he announced that he intended to fly higher and further than any seagull before him. The effect of his words on the flock was interesting, to say the least: “Seagulls are not meant to fly higher than this,” is what they said. “What makes you think you’re different from us?”

Jonathan’s answer was that he was not content with mediocrity, especially if he knew that he could attain greater heights. The rest of the flock became very angry with him – they called him He wanted the power to fly higher than he had ever flown, to see sights he had never seen. There is something deeper inside the novel. Seagull is a symbol which represents the human being and how people deal with their life. Those who succeed in dealing with their problems will transform into a higher-level person. And those who fail in dealing with their problems will be dragged into a zone which is called “comfort zone”, just be ordinary; or may fall into a prodigal son. So as Bach says, “We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill.”  Amen

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The Prodigal Son, Fr. George Madathikunnath, 31/03/2019, 89.95 KB

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