Jesus preached by way of parable. I reckon that, if it worked for the master, the disciple can ply the same craft, which is why I often begin sermons with a story, something that, hopefully, has a emotional hook to draw in the hearer.
But the Parable of the Prodigal Son is already so emotionally evocative. There’s no need to tell another tale. Instead, I would like to focus on that moment, when the errant son, as Saint Luke puts it, "comes to his senses" and realizes that it’s time to go home (15:17). That’s a pass most of us will face at some point, if by "home" one means a return to an earlier place in life. So, the question is: how does one know that it’s time "to go home."
Of course sometimes we don’t exercise a choice. We lose a job, our spouse leaves us, a beloved one dies, illness takes away our ability to go forward. In those cases, we have no alternative but to return to an earlier place in life, though, even then, why and how we choose to accept that fate makes a difference.
But what of those moments when we are faced with a choice, one that presents itself as a return to an earlier time, a decision that might even appear to be a retreat? How do we decide that it’s time to seek a divorce, leave a job, close an active friendship, move on to a new place? All of these are, in their way, akin to the decision of the prodigal son, who decides that it’s time to go home, to retrace his steps and return to an earlier place in life.
Should it be because one is hurting? Unhappy? Disillusioned? Depressed? Because one lacks the energy to move forward and cannot find rest? Because one meets with opposition and hardship at every turn? Is that how we know that it’s time to go home?
In an emphatic word, "no." All of the above are marks of profound suffering, but suffering is not in itself a sign that we are not doing God’s will. That’s the question which the disciple must ponder. There’s an often repeated maxim in the Christian spiritual tradition. The one who reads hardship as a sign from God has the Evil One for a mentor. Why? Because God often does ask us to do that which is hard, patiently and faithfully to labor at that which taxes our strength, offers scant emotional reward. If one pulls out and goes home in the face of difficulty, one will never accomplish either the will of God or anything else worth doing in life. As hard as it sounds, sorrow and suffering should not be interpreted as signs that God no longer requires our faithful service.
Then what is a sign that it’s time to go home? Let me tell you a little story — See what I did? Lured you into thinking there would be no story this time. You should have known better! — Many years ago, shortly before I was to be ordained a deacon and thus to declare lifelong celibacy, I was summoned to a meeting with the rector of our seminary, Monsignor Charles Murphy. I believe that it’s a canonical requirement for a seminary rector to meet personally with those about to be ordained. He’s to be morally certain that they are prepared for that which they are about to choose.
I deeply admired Monsignor Murphy. His formation conferences were superb, and he’s still the best preacher and presider I’ve ever encountered. Always began with a little something from people like Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy.
We met after a banquet. I distinctly remember him sitting in his chambers, his collar removed, in a white, French cuffed shirt. He had more than forty of my classmates to review. I suppose he was doing interviews every chance he got.
He surely asked me if I thought that I was ready to be ordained. Knowing myself, that answer would have been long and involved. This was his follow-up question. "Terry, could you ever, under any condition, see yourself leaving the priesthood?"
My answer was short and sure. I said that I came from a long line of folk who kept their promises. That if I took a vow, I would die before I abandoned it.
He sat back in his chair, sighed for a moment without sighing — the mark of a great pastor — and said, "Terry, think about that again. You would never leave the priesthood under any circumstances? Suppose that ministerial life drove you to drink, and that, try as you might, you could not separate the two? What if it drained so much from you that you no longer wanted to live? Or you realized that your very ministry was hurting others? Do you really think that the Good Lord would want you to continue in those circumstances?"
"Well, no...I guess not."
"We can suffer greatly doing God’s will, even to the point of death. Look at the death of the Son. But God doesn’t ask for self-immolation, of any sort."
And there’s the sign that it’s time to turn around and go home, to return to an earlier place in life: when the very spot you occupy is death-dealing rather than life-giving, for you and for those around you. When suffering is destroying rather than deepening your humanity. Often, that knowledge can only come with the aid of others, and great prayer!
There is an additional sign. Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught it very clearly. God doesn’t lead by way of desolations and sorrows. God draws us forward with consolations. If it’s time to change course, even apparently to go backward and to return home, you’ll know, because, in your moments of peace and joy, in times when you feel the presence of the Lord, you won’t be focused on aversion so much as attracted towards something, even something in your past. It’s always a question of running towards, not running away.
The Prodigal Son knew that it was time to go home. He wasn’t running away from a pig sty, though he did leave it behind. He was headed home, home to search for a love, a way, that had been lost. In that sense, heading home was moving forward, and that’s what it must be for each of us.
Joshua 5: 9a, 10-12 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32