Sunday, September 15, 2013

Been There, Done That... Or Not...

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc daphenator

Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with the expression been there, done that? You know what it means, right? We typically hear it being used in American movies. Usually by younger people. Say, for example, an adult suggests visiting such and such a place. Or engaging in this or that activity. But the youngster is not interested. Has made plans of his/her own. Been there, done that, s/he may exclaim. Which is the same as saying, I’ve already experienced that before. So don’t make me do the same old thing again. Let’s move on to something else. And there is, of course, an even faster, even shorter way of saying all this. Just one word: Boring! It’s quite amazing, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? How quickly some of us get bored. How much we seem to need constant stimulation. How important it is for us to keep trying new things. To keep buying new gadgets. How difficult it is for some of us simply to remain with the familiar. Or what we think is familiar.

But not everyone is like that. Not too long ago I visited an elderly person who had just been hospitalised. And she showed me a couple of novels she had brought with her to keep herself occupied. Actually, I’ve read them several times already, she confided with a smile, But I still enjoy reading them again. In stark contrast to the been there, done that mentality, this person knew from experience that repetition doesn’t always have to be boring. That experiencing something more than once can actually heighten our enjoyment of it. Perhaps even enable us to see things–interesting and important things–that we may have overlooked the first time round.

I mention this, because I suspect that been there, done that is just the sort of unspoken reaction our gospel reading for today might evoke in us. We are, after all, very familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Probably know it like the backs of our hands. What possible good can come from hearing it yet again? Boring!... And yet, perhaps the parable has something more to teach us? Perhaps there is even someplace new and interesting it can lead us? But there’s only one way to find out. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to look at it again. To allow it to address us anew. To let ourselves to be there, and do that at least one more time...

For a start, let’s consider to whom the parable is addressed. Typically, we focus our attention mainly on the younger son. The one who goes astray. The one who sins very obviously and grievously against his father. The parable then becomes an invitation to big sinners, like the younger son, to repent and to return to God, our heavenly Father. Which may make the rest of us, who may not be conscious of having committed very serious sins, to feel as though the parable is not for us. Or that we have already been there and done that. Already repented. Nothing more to do. Boring! Let’s move on to something else.

And yet, perhaps there is another perspective to take. When we listen to the parable in its context in the bible, we see something rather different. Notice how the reading begins and also how it ends. It begins with a complaint raised by the scribes and the Pharisees. People who consider themselves already righteous in the sight of God. No longer requiring repentance. They are unhappy that Jesus is spending much of his time with tax collectors and sinners. Those very much like the younger son in the parable. And it is in direct response to this complaint of theirs that Jesus tells three parables. All of which speak about things that have been lost. A lost sheep. A lost coin. And a lost son.

Notice also, how the reading ends. It ends with an invitation. The older son, who considers himself loyal and faithful, is angry with his father. Not unlike how the scribes and Pharisees are angry with Jesus. The boy refuses to go into the house to join the celebrations. He complains about being unfairly treated. His father comes out to plead with him. To invite him to go in. And that’s where the reading ends. Will the elder son go into the house and celebrate? Or will he choose to remain outside? We don’t know. The ball is in his court. He has to choose whether or not to move. Much like how the scribes and the Pharisees have also to choose how to react to the mercy of Jesus. So it would seem that the parable is really addressed more to the elder son than to the younger. More to the Pharisees than to the sinners.

But what is this movement that the older son is being called to make? What does it mean to enter the father’s house? Our other readings help us to answer this question. Notice how, in the first reading, it is God who appears to undergo a movement. The Israelites have fallen into idolatry. They have sinned and are lost. And God’s first reaction is apparently one of anger and of indifference. Anger at the people’s disloyalty. And indifference to their fate. God tells Moses that God will destroy this people, and make Moses a great nation. It’s as though God sees the Israelites as a failed experiment. As an expendable commodity. Let what is lost remain lost. God can quite easily replace it. And God can, of course, do just that. As John the Baptist says in the gospels, God can even raise up children to Abraham from stones (Luke 3:8). But Moses does not agree to this plan, even though he stands to gain from it. Instead Moses reminds God of the covenants that God has made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He reminds God of God’s affection for the Israelites. This people is not just an expendable commodity, but a precious child. A lost son needing to be sought after and brought back. As a result, quite incredibly, God relents. God moves from anger and indifference to mercy and compassion.

And isn’t this also the kind of movement that we see in the life of St. Paul? Before his conversion, Paul was named Saul. And he was an angry persecutor of Christians. He threw many people into prison. Indifferent to their suffering. But then everything changed when the crucified and risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. From an angry persecutor, he became a zealous missionary of God’s mercy. And it is about this incredible change that Paul is writing in the second reading. How did he make this radical movement? From anger to mercy. From indifference to compassion. He did it by experiencing for himself God’s boundless mercy. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, he writes. I myself am the greatest of them.

What a huge difference there is then, sisters and brothers, between Saul and Paul. Between the Pharisee and Moses. Between the elder brother and the loving father. What a great distance between anger and mercy. Between indifference and compassion. Between pride and humility. And isn't this the same distance that Jesus came to bridge for us? Jesus who, by his Cross and Resurrection, has shown us God’s mercy. Has ushered us into the joy of the Father’s House. Has inserted us into the warmth of the Father’s embrace. And isn't this the same distance that we are all called to keep traversing? The same gap that we are all called to keep bridging in our world today? A world that tends all too frequently to treat people as dispensable commodities. To be discarded like failed experiments. A world that swings between callous indifference and self-righteous anger. A Pharisaic world, unable to appreciate its own need for the mercy of God. A world of the elder brother, still unable to accept the gracious invitation to enter the Father’s House. Still unable to utter the words from our psalm response: I will leave this place and go to my Father.

Sisters and brothers, without a doubt, we are all very familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We have all been there and done that. And yet, could it be that this beautiful story still has something to say to us? How might it be calling us to continue moving from anger to mercy, from indifference to compassion, today?


  1. Many years ago, a Jesuit once told me to see things from a different perspective - he shared something simple and pragmatic - like changing the position of the decorations on my writing desk or a picture on the wall... and with this new change, we can see things differently.

    with a change of paradigm shift, a change of perspective, like when I read a book a second or a third time, I will make new discoveries - and see things which had skipped my eye previously...

    Hence, it is probably the same when I read the story of the Prodigal Son over and over again - each time I re-read this story, when I remain open to God - He will unfold more new spiritual gems and my understanding of God and of His Love will become clearer -

    if only we allow God to come and embrace us - I suppose our lives will never be the same again!

    Deo Gratias.

    Seeing Is Believing


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