LENT #4: A Tale of Two Sons

4th Sunday of Lent (C) – March 27, 2022

Holy Name – Bushton, KS

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34:2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Wells That Leave Us Thirsty, Lands That Leave Us Hungry

One of the things that always sounds great to me is watching Netflix all day long. All day. Sleep for fifteen hours, watch Netflix for nine hours—ah, the perfect twenty-four hours! Recently when I was sick I had the opportunity to do that: just sleep as much as I could, watch some Netflix. But as I reflected on that, I noticed that it didn’t make me happier, it didn’t leave me satisfied. In fact, aside from getting my rest to recover from the flu, it left me feeling not so great—I felt betrayed by it. Here I finally could sleep as long as I wanted, watch Netflix, not have to worry about anything … and at the end of it I felt just as empty as before. Nothing changed.

Another example (and I think I shared this before)—but this past year for my retreat I (I go on a retreat with the same group of priests every year, a group of about forty priests, and I don’t choose the location, I just go)—this past year the retreat house we went to was located…in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Carry that cross, Father Michale!” And when you fly in to West Palm Beach, Florida, everyone is just so excited!“West Palm Beach? Ah, have you been there? Mama mia! Ah! I love Palm Beach.” The buzz is palpable! People are living out their wildest fantasies: renting a luxury car for the week, fancy restaurants, endless sunshine, spending it with friends and family, and just having an overall paradisiacal experience. “If this were heaven, I hope I die tomorrow!”

But, as amazing as it is, it doesn’t solve anything. It didn’t solve anything for me. Yeah, it is nice! But pretty soon, the “nice” and the “amazing” wears off. The weather being seventy-five and sunny every day isn’t that great. The food is good, but eventually it’s just food—we have food here. The ocean is incredible, but then the salt gets annoying and the beach just leaves sand everywhere. I don’t know anyone that enjoys living out of a suitcase. And eventually it ends and you go back to your real life.

Like I was talking about last week with the story of the Samaritan Woman and her well, we have all of these different wells we go to, wells that we think we can drink from and be satisfied—but just like Jesus says, we’re left thirsty. These don’t satisfy our thirst. Sleeping and watching Netflix all day? Well that’s nice, but it doesn’t really solve anything. Going to Palm Beach, Florida? That’s nice, but it doesn’t solve anything. 

The prophet Jeremiah has this summed up. God speaks to the people and says, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jer 2:2). Remember, this is God speaking. And sometimes we think of God as this machine “up there,” with no feeling and he just controls everything. But listen to how God is speaking: “I remember how devoted you were to me.” Here is this great relationship, this love, like a newlywed couple. But then he goes on, “What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves?” (Jer 2:5). Doesn’t that sound like our lives? God has been there for us, and yet we start straying, starting chasing after other things, run away toward something else that entices us—and God’s left there going: “What did I do?”

Then God goes on, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer 2:11-13). God is saying, “Why are you trading me?” He’s like, “I’m this spring, this spring of living water, just gushing water! And you’re leaving that because you’re like, ‘I’ve got a better idea. Let’s get away from that spring of water and dig our own wells.’” And they weren’t even wells, they were just holes in the ground to store water. “We’ll dig a big hole and start filling it with water ourselves.” And God’s going, “So wait, you left me, this spring of living water, to go do your own thing, because you thought maybe you could dig a whole big enough, so you could fill it with water, so this would be a better supply? And it’s a broken cistern, it does’t even hold water, the ground just sucks it all up.”

Sin ≠ Breaking the Rules

That’s what’s going on with us, that’s what temptation is. Sin is not just “breaking the rules.” Sin and temptations to sin are things which draw us away from God; things we choose over our relationship with the Father. And it’s not that you’re a bad person, or that you don’t love God. I mean, you love God, right? You “love God in your heart.” But every once in a while there is this reality—there’s this real pull inside of you toward something else, something that you think will satisfy you in a way that God and God’s plan will not be able to.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the temptation isn’t going to be to kill someone! The temptation will be to start thinking about how much better things would be if that person wasn’t around—and that leads to resentment, and broken relationships, and on and on. The temptation isn’t going to be to randomly cheat on your wife on day! The temptation will be to start thinking about how this other gal is so much nicer and she listens and things feel “right” with her—and that becomes a slippery slope. And on and on. But do you see what I mean? The temptation is never to do something obviously evil. The temptation is to start thinking that the spring of living water has dried up, and that I need to go dig my own cistern.

This is the story of the Prodigal Son. He feels this pull to go to a “distant country,” to live a life of dissipation. And so he takes the money from his father and goes out and lives his life however he wants. He does all of these things that he thinks are the desires of his heart: drugs, sex, and rock and roll. He thinks this will make him happy. But he’s miserable. And he’s left hungry and dissatisfied. His cistern is broken, and it holds no water.

Holiness ≠ Following the Rules

But some of us take this to the opposite extreme. Some us think that holiness and perfection…well that comes from following all the rules. But again, just like sin isn’t just “breaking the rules,” holiness isn’t just “following the rules”—“I go to Mass every Sunday. I don’t eat meat on Fridays. I say my rosary”—as good and important as these things are! And they are! But in this situation, even though we aren’t running off to a life of dissipation like the prodigal son, even though we stay, even though we keep “following the rules”—we can start to feel like something is missing, we can start to feel resentful, we come to Mass “because we have to.” We are just as hungry and have a desire for more—but we just reduce our desire.

And this is the older son. He had reduced everything. He knew the teachings and the doctrines, he knew the rules and morals of honoring your father and what not. He probably wanted to go do what his brother was doing, but he suppressed everything within him, he stayed there with his father. And what happened? He was bitter and resentful and unmerciful. He had everything, but he was miserable too.

The Father

And in the midst of this story, there is one simple fact: the father remains present. And all he proposes to his boys is the joy of companionship with him. Both of them gave that up. One in search of something else that would fulfill. The other in clinging to doctrines and rules, and suppressing his heart. The father offers himself as the response to their searching. His presence. He tells his older son, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” 

One son recognized that. One son saw that this presence, that living in the father’s house corresponded to the deepest needs of his heart. And in that great scene, he returns to his father. He follows once again, he clings to his father once again.

We are both sons—usually one more than the other—but we are both. At times we are out looking for something that will satisfy. And at other times we’re very dutiful, but resentful and feeling like being here isn’t helpful at all.

And yet the key is to recognize that everything, every good thing comes from the Father. The fullness of life, the joy, the happiness, the satisfaction we’re looking for—all of this comes from the Father. And the Father is waiting, on the lookout for the day we will return to him. He is eagerly waiting to bestow this life on us! He’s not going to beat us over the head and ask, “Why were you so stupid looking for happiness apart from me?” No. He runs to us and embraces us.

The question is: How long will we keep looking for that happiness and satisfaction and joy in other places? Or when will we stop seeing the Father as an oppressive rule-giver, but rather as a loving Father trying to give us more than we could ever ask or imagine?

The Father will lead us on a path to the fullness of joy and happiness and peace and satisfaction—but that comes through a daily interaction and life with Him. We have to start asking and praying every day to know the path, to follow the path. We have to start developing a real relationship with the Father, not just following His rules. That is when we start desiring to remain in the Father’s house—when we know that only He can give us the life, the fullness of life we desire.

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