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Archive for September 16th, 2019

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Don’t Be the Fattened Calf

Picture for a moment someone who has spent a lifetime building a small fortune.  He’s labored day in and day out.  He’s been responsible with his property and considerate of the people who had worked for him.  He’s planned and built not only for his own future but also for that of his children and grandchildren.

Then one day, out of the blue,  his youngest son comes along and asks for his share of everything.  Why? is anybody’s guess.  Perhaps he’s bored.  Perhaps he’s restless.  Perhaps he’s tired of life in the shadow of his father.  Anyway, his request is brazen, to say the least, and something tells me that the son never for a minute thought his father would really give it to him.  But he did;  and that set in motion the story of the prodigal son.

I have to wonder if the father was just a little bit nuts.  Had he taken leave of his senses?  Who knows.  But whatever the case, the son knew that he had just hit the jackpot.  What he didn’t know, however, was this.  He was just about to glimpse the wisdom of the old saw that warns us to be careful what we wish for.  It’s nice to get what we want;  but every now and again it turns out to be a very mixed blessing.

69DBE606-1CC5-4E66-A609-34A50DB9F669This great story from Jesus goes on to detail the adventures of a son who was about to learn an awful lot.  He now had more money than God, or so he thought.  He must have thought it would last forever, so there was nothing to do but enjoy.  But little by little he frittered it all away.  Soon enough it had all slipped through his fingers, and then he came face to face with reality.  He had no money;  nothing to eat;  and no one who cared enough to stand by him in time of trial.  Worse still, he had none of the discipline that had driven his father to succeed.  His father had made everything look easy;  and for the first time in his life the son may have realized just how great a man his father really was.

As I reflected on this parable and tried to read between the lines, it finally hit me that the father was neither naive nor unwise.  In fact, he knew his son and likely had seen this day coming for a long time.  After all, someone who had been such a careful planner and disciplined worker could not be blind to the faults in his two sons.  He knew what made them tick. He knew most of their strengths and weaknesses.  And he knew that his younger son still had a lot of growing up to do.  But the father couldn’t make his son grow up.  The son needed a semester or two in the school of hard knocks to learn it for himself.

The key ingredient to the success of this story is love.  If the father had loved his money more than his son, he might have turned his son down flat. But he saw potential in his son, and letting his son grow up was worth more than a bank vault full of gold.  So he literally invested in his son and turned him loose.  Then he kept his distance and from the sidelines he let his son make his fill of mistakes.  And finally the day came when his son came to his senses and came home.  It was the moment for which the father had waited for months or years.  He had his son back — with value added.

ED32442B-975F-4DA3-8211-7364DB345517There’s a host of intriguing characters in the parable of the prodigal son.  There’s almost too much to digest when you add in the father, the prodigal son, the jealous older brother, stewards and workers, and the chorus line of men and women who graciously relieved the younger son of all his money.  Over the years I’ve preached on many of the themes that they have suggested, and so I asked my confrere Fr. Lew who I should concentrate on in this sermon.  Should it be the father?  Or one of the two sons, as I’ve done in the past?  His reply?  “The fatted calf.  Nobody ever preaches about the fatted calf.”

I mulled that over for about a minute, and I realized he might be on to something.  That fatted calf was the truly tragic figure in the parable.  Worse still, he never had the self-awareness to see it coming.  But I finally ditched that topic and I’ll save it for next year.

As for the main characters in the story, each has a lesson to impart.  The older brother, hard-working and obedient, was also jealous and insecure in his father’s love.  Life for the older brother was really all about himself, and that’s no way to live.

As for the prodigal son, he learned some of life’s lessons the hard way.  We have to hope that he realized the importance of love over money.  Love transcends and transforms all — even the life of someone who knows he’s hit rock bottom.

7DEE7C17-BE94-43C9-BE07-586F57C0A883The biggest take-away for me is the extraordinary character of the father.  For him money wasn’t an end in itself, and he used it well.  Some may think he was blind to the failings of his son.  Others may think that perhaps he hoped to buy his son’s love by giving him everything he wanted.  But the father was way too shrewd to be taken in by his son’s façade.  He knew his son well, and he knew he’d be back — a changed man.

Two things I leave you with today.  God is our loving and seemingly too generous father.  God gave us life, and God let’s us live our lives freely, sins and all.  But God always waits for the day when it’s time for us to come home.  And God’s there to welcome us as a loving father.

Sooner or later all of us will step into the shoes of each of these characters in this parable.  We will all be the older brother, and let us pray for the insight to see how envy and jealousy can corrode all the good that is in us.  At times we’ll all be the prodigal son, and let us pray for the wisdom to realize that forgiveness is always there for the asking.  It’s forgiveness from God and from the neighbor we’ve sinned against.  It’s there for the taking, but we have to ask.  And sooner or later we’ll be called to be the loving parent who has to take a chance on a friend or neighbor.  Sometimes taking a chance on another person is a big risk.  But if we risk nothing, we get nothing.

And lastly, there’s this business of the fatted calf.  Don’t be the fatted calf.  There’s no future in being someone else’s lunch.  Instead, be self-aware.  Look ahead to see what’s coming down the road for you.  And above all, like the father of the prodigal son, live your life to the fullest.

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NOTES

+I’m happy to report that I did not get into my car a single time this week.  All the same, it got off to a busy start on Monday September 9th.  That day was the annual retreat for my department at Saint John’s University — the Office of Institutional Advancement.  I was responsible for the first hour of the retreat, and I enjoyed my presentation.  That said, I cannot speak for my colleagues.

+On September 10th the monks gathered in the wing of the Quadrangle that now houses most of the public offices of the Abbey.  It is space reclaimed from the student health center, which moved last year to another building on campus.  For the first time it provides us some meeting space for guests, as well as a delightful set of conference spaces.

+On Saturday September 14th, the feast of the Holy Cross, we had our monthly day of reflection in the monastery.  Joining us for part of the day were nine students from Saint John’s University, who had scheduled a “work and prayer” day in the monastery.  For work they joined some of the monks in digging potatoes in the garden.

F01C6458-1DC8-40E2-8D1D-B20AAC9527CF+On Sunday the 15th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon that I delivered.  It is based on Luke 15.  Later that evening I joined the students from Immokalee, FL, who are studying at Saint John’s University.  This year we have five freshmen, bringing the total number of students from Immokalee to eleven.

+The photos in today’s post are a mixture that I took on Sunday evening as I wandered about campus.  I stumbled on one of the choirs lined up in preparation for taking a group photo, and they looked elegant as they stood around waiting.  The third photo shows two students who work with the emergency medical team of The Saint John’s Fire Department.  They were parked in front of the church following a call they had just made.  The door to the University dining hall is flanked by two beds of stones, and students have a tradition of piling them up artistically.  In their own way I find them quite artistic, as the two final shots suggest.  Above them is a photo of nine of the students from Immokalee, FL, with whom I had dinner.

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