24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – September 11, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
What Do I Want Out of Life?
We’re gonna do a little exercise to start the homily today. I was going to pass out pens and paper so you could write, but then I realized that would just take way too long. So I need you to mentally write it down. No changing answers, ok? Ok. In your mind I want you to think of your top three personal goals right now. Think of a piece of paper in your mind, write down 1, 2, and 3 on the piece of paper, and then write down your top three personal goals, the three things you want out of life.
I did this exercise with the middle school kids in the Confirmation class I teach on Wednesday evenings. And their answers were predictable. Number one answer was to make a lot of money, to be rich. That’s their personal goal, what they want out of life. Second top answer was all of the stuff they wanted: the cars they want to buy, the houses they want, new phones, video games. The third most popular were the careers they wanted: play in the NFL or NBA, be famous YouTubers, influencers. And then there were a smattering of other things: travel destinations, relationships. and so on.
Now, when we hear that a bunch of middle schoolers said that their goals are to be rich and famous and buy nice cars and fancy houses and all of that, we can easily laugh—because it’s cute how they think that they’re going to be the next Michael Jordan or something. We know better! We know how being a millionaire and the next famous person isn’t really likely. And even if the kid has the potential, we still kinda laugh because we know that those goals are kind of childish.
But when we start to look at our own lives…I wonder if we ever grow up after middle school. Our top three goals are telling. What do you want out of life? What are your goals in life? Our lives are so wild and crazy in this day and age that I sincerely wonder if people have asked the question: “What is this all about? What do I want out of life?”
Because we want a lot of the same stuff our middle-school-self wanted, just different versions. We grow up and we realize that not all of us are going to be multi-millionaires, and we don’t really want to be. We just want financial security, able to take care of ourselves and our family. And we don’t need to be wealthy and be able to buy Lamborghinis and a mansion in the Hampton, we just want enough money to buy a nice truck and a good house, have money to get the new iPhone when it comes out, give our home a nice Chip and Joanna facelift. We don’t need to be famous, but we want to make a difference in our job. We don’t need to be going to parties at the clubs in New York with a-list celebrities, but we want to go on vacations where we can pretend to be rich and famous for a week. Again, we grow up, and grow out of “childish fantasies”…but when you think about it, it’s just different versions of the same goals.
Power: you want to be the boss, calling the shots. Money: If I have money, then I’ll be happy; money, cars, houses. Fitness: if I am going to enjoy life, I have to be fit and chiseled. Adrenaline rush: I’m always looking for the next thrill, the next fun time, the next time the Chiefs win the Super Bowl. Pleasure: the thrill of concerts, or relationships, or vacations. Honor: I want people to respect me, to have everyone’s admiration, be a “big deal.” Is this what it’s all about? Is this what life is about?
I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. A couple years ago I flew to Chicago to visit some of my classmates from seminary. And as I was on the plane, this young, very well-dressed man, probably about thirty-five years old, sat down next to me. And I was just wearing normal clothes, so he didn’t know I was a priest. And if you know me, I’m not real chatty on airplanes—but he sat down next to me and immediately started talking. He was very excited, just incredibly happy! You know, like when something really great happens and you just want to tell people? Well, lucky for me, he sat down next to me. He was a news broadcaster, and he had just received a big promotion, going to Chicago. After he had shared his news, he asked me, “So, what do you do?” And I said, “Well, I’m a Catholic priest.” And, as usual, people really don’t know what to say to that—I looked even younger back then, so I think “Catholic priest” was about the last thing he expected me to say. But he was a professional, works on camera, so he recovered quickly. And he asked, “That seems like it would be tough. Are you happy?” And I said, “Yeah.” And a little confused he said, “Huh. Why?” And so quickly I turned it around on him. I asked, “Well, are you happy?” And he said, “Well, yeah!” And I asked, “Why?” And he said, “I have a beautiful girlfriend, I have a nice house, a nice car. I just got a great new job up in Chicago, and a huge raise.” And so I asked again, “So you’re happy and fulfilled?” And then, he just got really quiet, and tears started to well-up in his eyes…and then for the rest of the flight he told me about how miserable he was. He told me about all the ways that (even though he had a woman, money, fame—even though he had all of this)—he told me about all of the ways that he felt like his life had no meaning, that he felt like something was missing, and he couldn’t explain it. He worked so hard and had accomplished so much, but still felt empty and unfulfilled. And this man is not unique. This is a common tale.
Are you an idolater? And why that might not be a “neutral” thing
This is just one more retelling of the story we hear in the Gospel, this story of the father and his two sons. And this younger son tells his father, “Hey, dad, so wish you were dead. But since your old bag of bones isn’t dying soon enough, what’s say you give me the inheritance that I’m going to get when you die?” And so the father gives his son the inheritance, and the son promptly goes off to a distant land and lives the life he’s been dreaming of since he was in seventh grade. And not surprisingly, it doesn’t go well. He has “everything,” but he’s left feeling empty.
Our first reading gives the Biblical lens for what is going on here: the story of the people worshiping the golden calf. Here these people are, they have just been rescued from four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea…and two weeks later, they’re already worshiping a golden calf. We laugh at them! “What idiots. Worshiping cow statues.” But what is an idol? It’s not just a statue. An idol is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.…anything [that] becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, …[that] is an idol” (Tim Keller). Another way to think about it is that idolatry is giving someone or something power over you other than God himself. Think about your schedule and how much time and attention you devote to God each week, how much of your life you are willing to sacrifice, to give to God, versus how much time you devote, how much you are willing to sacrifice for watching sports, your kids’ sports, your job, house plans, Game of Thrones. We all have our idols.
The problem with idols, with all of these things we place first in our lives? The problem is that they don’t fulfill. They can give us a lot, they can make for a very pleasant life, and very comfortable life, and life where you always have something to distract you from life. But these things don’t fulfill. And unless you think I’m making all of this up, you can go look at the data. We live in the most overabundant age in the history of the world. We live lives richer and more abundant than most any Emperor in the history of the world. You can have a steak from Kansas, avocados from Mexico, coffee from Africa, and salt from the Himalayas—all during a blizzard. Entertainment on demand. On and on and on.
And yet, in 2018—in 2018 life-expectancy in the U.S. dropped for the third straight year. Three straight years. The last time it dropped three straight years was 1918, when we were in the middle of World War I and the worst flu pandemic in recorded history. And it’s not because new medicines aren’t working! In fact, for the rest of the world, the numbers are going up. Our life expectancy is dropping because of what sociologists are calling “the three deaths of despair”: drug-related fatalities, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. And the group that (by far) leads the way? Middle-aged-and-older, working-class, white men and women. Suicide is up 30% since 1999, 40% here in rural America. And the one that pierces me to the soul? In kids 14-17, suicide is now the second leading cause of death.
We’re missing the point. We’re missing something. And we’re suffering because of it. Our kids are suffering because of it.
The Father respects our freedom…
From time immemorial, from Adam and Eve themselves, we have fallen for the great lie, a great deception. The great strategy of the Devil isn’t to possess you like some exorcist movie, or to convince you to do horrific crimes, no. His great strategy is to deceive you. And the lie, the deception goes something like this: “God is not a father, or at least not a good father. And you can’t trust Him. And He’s holding out on you. And He does’t really love you. And if you would just be done with Him, you could finally find happiness.” That’s not just what he did with Adam and Eve, that’s what he does with you and me: he casts God in suspicion, and tells us that God is not to be trusted. And he tells us instead to trust in ourselves, to work hard, to provide for ourselves—that we can give ourselves everything.
The younger son in our Gospel fell for this lie hook, line and sinker. And went off looking for happiness in the same places we so often turn. And the father in the story lets him go! He doesn’t beg and plead for him to stay, he doesn’t lecture him, no. He respects his son’s freedom. Experience is the best teacher, so the father lets his son experience exactly what it is he think’s he’s looking for. He lets his son leave, go off into “distant lands.” And it’s there that the son realizes that he has fallen for the great deception. All of our problems stem from one problem: we don’t believe that the Father, that God himself can actually fulfill us.
…but He is on the lookout for our return!
The good news this is that the Father isn’t done with us. He hasn’t cut his losses and abandoned us. He is on the lookout, waiting for us to come home. At the very sight of his son he is moved with compassion, runs to us, embraces us, welcomes us home! He isn’t throwing things in our face, he’s not shaming us, condemning us. It’s only mercy and love, overabundant love!
The hard part for us? Making that move toward home. Acknowledging that we have strayed. Admitting that we are off in a distant land looking for happiness and fulfillment and satisfaction elsewhere. Calling out our idolatry of our job, our kids’ sports schedule, our convenience, the Chiefs, golf…you name it. The hard part is admitting that we are in a distant land, far from the Father, looking for happiness apart from Him. Even if our butt is in a pew! Even if our butt is in a pew every Sunday! Our heart can be very, very far from God. We can hide behind the facade of being a good person, but our heart can be caught up in everything but God.
The simple invitation this Sunday? Come home. Start taking those steps toward home. Give Him your heart. That’s all he wants. Make the words of the son your own prayer, “I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned.’” If you have been avoiding Confession for a while, go to Confession. Take time to come to the Father’s house throughout the week; make a commitment and put it on your calendar to spend an hour in adoration—any time! The Father is waiting, eagerly waiting your return. He wants to shower his love on you. Come home. Give him your heart. And let Him begin to fill your life in ways beyond your imagining.