Monday, March 15, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 4th Sunday in Lent

Readings: Josh 5:9-12; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-32

I mentioned last week how humbled and inspired I have been while hearing confessions at parish reconciliation services this Lenten season. There’s a flipside to that observation, one that fits very nicely into this Sunday’s gospel. The flipside is that there are "few human situations that cause more anger, more anxiety and worry, more guilt or more tears than family problems." Today’s gospel is rife with family problems: the younger son demanding his share of the family inheritance early, the father grieving the loss of his son and then later welcoming him home, the elder son’s inability to accept his brother’s reconciliation and his father’s generosity.

And those are only the surface issues. This gospel passage just cries out for a midrashic expansion. Midrash was a Jewish literary technique that tried to "read between the lines" of a scriptural story. So many of the stories in the bible are tersely told; the reader just thirsts to go deeper. The midrashic writers attempted to do that. The most-commented on midrashic passage of the Hebrew bible was the story of Abraham taking his son up the mountain to be sacrificed. The biblical text says nothing about Abraham’s state of mind as he’s walking with his young son up the mountain. The rabbis tormented themselves with the question: What in God’s name was going through his mind in that conflictive situation—that the ways of God should be so contradictory? (Don’t we still deal with that today!) Many midrashic writers tried to fathom that!

When I consider a midrashic reading of the Prodigal Son story, several issues come immediately to mind. The father sees the younger son returning even before he gets to the house. You have to wonder: how long has he been looking and hoping for his son to return, for years? You wonder: how often he turned over in his mind: where did I go wrong? What did his mother and I do to make him leave home in such a way? (From hearing lots of confessions I know these questions still trouble many parents today.) Then there’s the issue of the younger son: what exactly were his motives? Did he just want to make sure he got his share of the inheritance? Did he just want to sow some wild oats? Ah yes, and there’s the older son. Instead of seeing all the remaining house and lands as totally his, did he fester for years with the thought that his younger brother had a chance for a blast and he didn’t? Why does he cope so poorly with the reconciliation between his father and his brother? The gospel doesn’t tell us, but if one reads many of the "Dear Abby" columns in the newspapers one can answer pretty clearly----they don’t do it very well. These are just the three main protagonists in the story; we
haven’t touched what the mother and the servants might have felt. In the end we can understand the truth of the saying: "few human situations cause more anger, more anxiety and worry, more guilt or more tears than family problems."

The purpose of these stories and their midrashic expansions is precisely to draw the listeners or readers into the story, not to give advice but to make us re-examine our own family issues. We are to more carefully consider the family attitudes we have and the choices we have made in the past. Family issues can always weigh heavily upon us, but it’s also true that often we haven’t thought through carefully our attitudes and behaviors—like the other brother in the gospel, who couldn’t see how good he had it. Or sometimes, like the younger brother, we have to come to our senses and admit our past rash decisions. That takes a lot of humility and courage—particularly in family situations. Or like the father we have to live with the uncertainty of knowing fully our own implication in what has happened. Our family concerns never really come to an end....because we ourselves are part of the story. We are still shaping the answers by how we live. So let’s take a few moments of quiet to consider again this story of family relationships, because there’s a pretty good chance that we are already very much
in the story ourselves.

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