The Prodigal Son And His Jealous Brother: Human Responses To Love   2 comments

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale, California on Sunday 6 March 2016 (Lent 4). The Gregorian Brothers of Province VIII were holding a weekend retreat at St. Mark’s and were invited to supply homilists for the Sunday morning services.

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

It seems to me that these two sons represent, between the two of them, a few very human responses to love.

The first son—the one we call The Prodigal—has no interest in love at first: he is only interested in the material gain he feels is his birthright. Once that is gone, even in his repentance he has no expectation of love—because he knows he has done nothing to deserve love.

We don’t really know what his response was to his father’s loving reception—all we’re told is that they begin to celebrate—but I imagine it was astonishment, disbelief, perhaps even distrust.

His jealous brother, meanwhile, has performed the motions of love, but only with the expectation of reciprocation. Though his outward actions have been different, he, like the Prodigal, seems to see his father merely as a means to an end.

And so when his irresponsible brother comes home to a kingly reception, he naturally feels unfairly treated. He has checked all the “loving son” boxes that his brother has abhorred. Why is it the prodigal who gets the party?

When I first began to meet members of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory a few years ago, I was taken aback—even to the point of discomfort—with the love that emanates from them. From my first few gatherings with them, I felt loved in a way I have never felt outside of family and close friends—people who have known me for years and been a part of my life. And this was from men who had just met me. But men who have been living a vow of chastity for years—a vow to live with all in God’s love.

My Gregorian spiritual director began all his correspondence to me with words like “Beloved” and “Dear One”; he expressed gratitude for my friendship, said how much he gained from our conversations. The Brother who was appointed my official mentor in the community began and ended every conversation we had by saying “I love you.”

And in all these cases—because I am a human living in our distrustful world—a little alarm goes off in my mind: this can’t be real. I’ve only known these men for a short time, and I haven’t done anything to earn their love. And yet despite my learned response of distrust, their love expressions were so clearly genuine.

Meanwhile, both my spiritual director and my mentor were talking with me about God’s love, and how it is not to be earned, not dependent on anything I can do or fail to do. And I finally put two and two together: the brothers love you not because of anything you have done, but because you are a beloved child of God, made in God’s image—just as they are, and just as every human being is. You are loved not because of who you are, but because you are.

I talked with my mentor, Br. Ron Fender, now of blessed memory, about this love early on in my formation—both my delighted feeling about it and my initial distrust of it. Br. Ron told me, “So often when someone tells us that they love us, I suspect that deep down in the very pit of our psyche, we think: ‘So, what is wrong with you?’…the Love of Christ is something we like to hope for, but all too often it is something we really do not truly accept. We sit in Church on Sunday and hear the good news of Love, but we do not believe a word of it.”

These two sons in the story do not trust that their father loves them innately: they believe they are living in a meritocracy, where love is earned or lost based on behavior.

The Prodigal, once he finally discovers his need for the father’s love, hopes, instead of the love he knows he has forsaken, merely for a servant’s wage on which to survive. He is met not with subsistence but abundance.

It’s worth noting that the son’s repentance is not necessary for the father’s love: the father’s love was constant. What the repentance does is make the reconciliation possible.

The Jealous Son, when he learns the truth of his father’s love, is outraged: how can one who has not worked to earn the father’s love the way I have receive it? And indeed, why does he receive it in greater form than I ever have?

(I have heard someone suggest that perhaps Hell is not a place, but the jealous state of mind of those who get to Heaven only to find that the guest list also includes those of whom they don’t approve).

What answer does the jealous son receive? “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The father’s love was always there and did not need earning. Why deny it to another who is also beloved? Love is not a zero-sum game; there is plenty for everyone.

Our culture—our human point of view—tells us that we are only worthy of love if we have achieved something: if we have done all the right things and look and act the right way. Jesus tells us in this parable—and through his whole life—that God loves us no matter what. There are probably things that each of us does that God would rather we not do, but those things do not change God’s love for us. God is waiting for each of us to return, waiting to wrap us with the finest robe in Heaven’s closet, and celebrate us with a lavish feast.

A foretaste of the feast—and the reconciliation—is before us today, in a simple meal of bread and wine. As you come to the table today, look around at the members of your human family and know that each one of them, too, is beloved, is worthy of the feast.

And since Paul tells us in the second letter to the Corinthians that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us,” where might that lead us from Jesus’ parable? Paul reminds us of God’s forgiveness, and our responsibility upon receiving it; how might we understand that responsibility to reconciliation through this parable?

As far as we know, Jesus never wrote a sequel to this story; we don’t know how or if the sons changed as a result of these events. But I’d like to think that they better understood their father’s love for them, and that it affected their relationship both with their father and with each other. And that a generation later, this story might replay itself with the sons now showing their love and compassion to their own offspring.

Because I think that Jesus’ point is for us to initially see ourselves reflected in one son or the other—or perhaps both—and then to learn from and follow the model set by the Father. To love regardless of merit. To love unabashedly, unashamedly, and without expecting reciprocation. This is part of that message of reconciliation that Jesus has entrusted to us.

What is necessary for us to share love is that we trust that we are loved ourselves. That we trust what we hear every Sunday: that God loves us.

The final verse of our hymn (“When Christ Was Lifted From The Earth” #603 in the 1982 Hymnal) this morning says: “Thus freely loved, though fully known, may I in Christ be free, to welcome and accept his own, as Christ accepted me.”

Dear Ones, believe that God loves you. Trust Jesus in his message through this story. God loves you more deeply than you can possibly imagine. Picture God wrapping you with a fine robe, feeding you with a banquet in your honor—feel that image in your heart.

And then: go share that love with everyone you encounter. Let them know that they, too, are loved—no matter how unworthy they might seem from our human point of view. Find your own way to bestow upon them a fine robe and lavish banquet.

And if you are saying, “No. Not me. God may love everyone else here, but not me…”

Yes, you! Believe it.

Posted 7 March 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Homilies

2 responses to “The Prodigal Son And His Jealous Brother: Human Responses To Love

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  1. Dearest Brother Scott Michael
    How proud I am of you and the wonderful message of hope and love that you gave. How different our world, and the current political discourse would be if God’s words of love for everyone would be accepted. Makes me want to get a tattoo!! In the words of Hepcat–“keep on keepin on”. My love always to you, Aunt Nancy

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