Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Jos 5:9a, 10-12
Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
2 Cor 5:17-21
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
Imagine a couple on their 25th wedding anniversary. They have been together in good times and bad, raised children, stuck with it through arguments, sickness, and troubles at work and home. They built a home, supported each other when their parents died, celebrated together when their children married. and joyfully welcomed beautiful grandchildren. On the day of their silver anniversary, the husband comes home from work with a bouquet of roses and a bottle of champagne. He kisses his wife, hands her the flowers, pours the champagne, and offers a toast, saying that he couldn’t have wished for a better twenty-five years. His wife sips the champagne and responds, “Thanks, honey. But looking back, I think I definitely could have found someone better than you.”
In that moment, something changes – something big. But what? The shared sacrifices and joys are still there. The long years of commitment and trust are still there. The couple have always been faithful to each other. They have forgiven each other many times. But everything looks very different. Why?
Because in some things, some very important things, attitude is just as important as action.
If the chef at your favorite restaurant doesn’t like you, you’ll get over it, as long as the food is good.
If your mechanic hates his job and would rather be a stand-up comic, you won’t stop taking your car to him, as long as he keeps it running.
But if you meet your favorite author and she tells you she hates writing, her books will seem different to you from then on.
If a fireman carries you out of a burning building, and when you thank him, he says, “Don’t bother. I only did it because my supervisor was watching, and I was afraid I would lose my job if I didn’t” – well, you’ll still be alive, and you still be grateful, but much of your admiration will be in ashes.
Imagine lying in the hospital, recovering from surgery, still in pain and waiting for the doctor to tell you if everything went all right. In comes the chaplain. He sits down and asks you how you are. He listens as you tell him about your aches and pains, your worries and fears. He prays with you, gives you holy communion, and blesses you. As he gets up, you thank him. He says, “No problem. Will that be cash or charge?”
Imagine a man receiving a Father’s Day card telling him what a great Dad he is. Imagine that father saying to his child, “No need to thank me. The law of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania says I have to support you. I don’t want to go to jail.”
Now imagine coming before the Lord to offer thanks. You say, “Thanks for the gift of life, thanks for the gift of health, thanks for all the food, thanks for the body and blood of your Son, thanks for forgiving my sins, thanks for all my happiness.” And then, at the very end, you add, “I must be great to deserve all those gifts.”
In an instant, everything is different.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is about that difference. Jesus is under attack for spending time with sinners, so he tells a story about two brothers. One is hard-working, responsible, and obedient. The other is lazy, irresponsible, and insensitive about his father’s feelings. Jesus shows us the two of them, and says, “Be like the second son.”
Why? The older son models all those virtues we would like to have for ourselves, and that we wish others had. Parents seek to instill in their children the virtues of hard work, responsibility, obedience, and respect for their family. So why does Jesus point to the son with none of those virtues, and say, “If you follow me, be like him”?
Because in some things, some very important things, attitude is even more important than action.
Both sons are sinners, but the younger son realizes that he has sinned, recognizes that he needs forgiveness, goes to his father and throws himself on his mercy. That attitude makes all the difference.
As St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, we all need to be reconciled to God. The hardworking, obedient, virtuous son has a lot going for him, but he lacks the right attitude, the recognition of sin and the desire for forgiveness, and without that, all the good that he does become weak and pale. Without a sense of how far short he has fallen, all his service amounts to little. Because the father wants more than obedience and hard work: He wants his son to recognize that the greatest gift he has is his father, being with him, being a family. The son claims he is being treated unfairly, but what he really says is this: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders. Now pay up!”
How must the father have felt to know that his son’s love came with a price tag, that all the time his eldest boy was caring for the sheep, cleaning the stalls, and clearing the weeds, he was also keeping count, running a tab, filling out a time card?
So it is with us. God wants us to care for the sick and the poor. God wants us to raise our children to follow Christ. God wants us to come to Church, to pray, to read the Bible, and to forgive our enemies. But God wants us to do it all knowing that we are sinners, knowing that all we have received is a gift, and all we pass on is a gift. What we do not see, we will not repent. The failure to recognize sin will lay waste to our lives, like cancer undiagnosed, like addiction denied. The failure to call sin by its true name, to repent it and to confess it to the Lord, will leave us starving at a table covered in food. The failure to seek God’s forgiveness leaves us like Israel, wandering in the desert, wandering away from the Lord no matter in which direction we go.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” This is the attitude of a Christian. This is what makes our good deeds different from a barter, our Lenten sacrifices different from a deal. This is why we start every Mass with the words, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” Because without those words and without that attitude, we will become the older son.
When we open our mouths and put out our hands at communion time, we will think we are receiving no more than we deserve.
When we wake up each day and eat our fill and enjoy time with our family and friends, we will fool ourselves into thinking we have earned it all.
When we come to Mass, give to the poor, and forgive the trespasses of others, we will also be looking forward to that final day, when God writes us an eternal check for being such good children.
In the one thing that is necessary, the one thing that is eternal, attitude is the difference between life and death. Our forgiveness will always be imperfect, our hope will always be flawed, our good works will always be too few and too weak. Whatever we think and do and pray, however little we offer, if we do so knowing we have sinned and repenting of that sin, all the rest will be added.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” This has been the prayer of every saint in these windows, every great leader of the Church, every wise teacher and happy mystic and devoted servant of the poor. Let it be our prayer this Lent, that Christ’s love may run quick in our veins, that we who are dead in sin may come to life again.