HOMILY – 24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR “C” 2013 Catholic Charities USA Annual Gathering

Introduction I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but if we did a survey of everyone in this church – and there are a lot of us – I would venture to guess that just about every one of us, at some time in our lives, have prayed to Saint Anthony to find something for us that we lost. (I see lots of heads nodding!) I’m sure we could spend the rest of the day sharing our favorite St. Anthony stories. Truly, Saint Anthony is the Catholic Church’s lost and found department.

Lost and Found Lost and found: that is certainly the point our Lord is getting at in the parables we heard in today’s Gospel. We can all relate to the examples of losing something of great value to us, and the sense of happiness and relief that comes from finding it and getting it back. Such are the parables of the shepherd who finds the lost sheep, and the woman who loses 1/10th of her assets, and then finds it and gets it back. In the third parable, though – the beloved Parable of the Prodigal Son, what has been dubbed the “Gospel within the Gospel” – the son loses more than something of great value. Yes, he does lose that, too; he squanders his inheritance and loses all of his possessions. But he loses even something more: he loses himself. He does so out of his own foolishness. He effectively disowns his father: asking for his inheritance before his father died was like writing his father off as dead; he then ends up in squalor due to his own reckless living, utterly deprived of his dignity as a child of Israel. Surely, there could have been no lower humiliation for him than to serve a Gentile, and to do so by tending swine. It is not at all difficult to understand this dynamic on the human level. I cannot help but think that the father knew exactly what was going to happen. The text says:

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“While he [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him.” The father was awaiting his son’s return. I don’t think, though, that this was that sort of frantic hope against hope, the sort of attitude where he would be thinking, “maybe, oh just maybe, he’ll come back home; oh I really, really hope so.” Rather, I think it was more like the father was expecting his son to return any time. In this sense, the son’s immaturity becomes manifest: he is like the child who threatens to run away from home – the parents let their child go, because they know their child won’t be away for very long, especially when dinner time rolls around! Read in light of the first reading for this Sunday’s Mass, we can see how this is an illustration of how God so often treats us. Notice the dialogue between God and Moses in the desert: did Moses really get God to change His mind not to wipe out the chosen people? Or rather, was God leading Moses through this experience to steel his nerves, to strengthen him to be the leader that God needed for His chosen people? Look at how the dialogue plays out: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved.’” This is quite a change of tune, since God was so often reminding His people of what He did for them: “I have chosen you from all the nations of the world”; “I have brought you out of the land of Egypt”; “I have worked marvels before you.” And then notice the subtle flip in discourse here in what Moses later says to God: “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own [he raises the ante here: “your own”!] people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand?” The Lord needed a strong leader for His people, for they had sunk into spiritual squalor, which – as is inevitable – devolved into moral depravity.

The Virtue of Solidarity The response to such a situation, the solution to such stripping of human dignity – whether moral, spiritual or material, whether it is the result of what one does to oneself or is inflicted by another – if we look closely at the readings for today’s Mass, we can see

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that the solution is one of those foundational principles of Catholic social teaching: solidarity. Notice the context of Parable of the Prodigal Son: it is the third in the triad of parables about lost and found. The first is the Parable of the Good Shepherd, who goes in search of the lost sheep. The Good Shepherd, of course, is Jesus himself. Now consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son from this vantage point: he sets off “to a distant country”; he finds himself “in dire need”; he then says to himself, “I shall get up [that is, arise] and go [return] to my father.” Can we dare think that, in this parable, that Jesus himself is the prodigal son? He sets off to a distant country, for he leaves his heavenly throne to come all the way down here to earth, assuming our lowly human flesh in the mystery of the Incarnation; although without sin, as Saint Paul says, he became sin for us, identifying himself with our “dire need”; he then arises and returns to his Father in the mystery of his glorification, the Resurrection and Ascension – as the father says to the older son in the parable, “your brother was dead and has come to life again.” The mystery of the Incarnation, the entire Paschal Mystery, is the ultimate act of solidarity: Jesus goes even to the point of identifying himself with our sin though he himself is sinless, even to the point of dying on a cross to forgive our sins, to undo what we had done to ourselves. We already see this prefigured in God’s first Covenant with His people, in His solidarity with the people of Israel in the desert: He remains faithful to them, guiding them, delivering them to the Promised Land, despite their persistent infidelity to Him. God Himself models for us the virtue of solidarity. And so it is that Blessed (soon to be Saint) John Paul II could define “solidarity” in his Encyclical on human labor Sollicitudo rei socialis in this way: “This … is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

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There is one last element to this story, left hanging there, disturbingly so, like a dangling participle at end of a sentence (at least, disturbing to those who are sticklers for English grammar). That, of course, is the older son. Here, too, we see a subtle inverse of language. The son says to the father: “when your son returns, … for him you slaughter the fattened calf”; the father then says to his son: “we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.” In an even wider context, we can see how this ending of the fifteenth chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel is best understood by reading it in the light of how the chapter opens: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” This is indicative of the growing division between those who accept Jesus for who he is and the message he proclaims, and those who reject him. The older son is illustrative of the attitude of so many of the leaders of Jesus’ own people: here there is no sense of solidarity, of compassion, of responsibility for others. The lesson couldn’t be clearer, and I almost feel like I have to apologize to you for being so redundant as to even say it, but nothing could be clearer from the teachings of our Lord all throughout the Gospels than his condemnation of the attitude which places exclusive focus on fulfilling duty, obeying external rules and regulations, to the exclusion of interior adherence in faith to the One who saves us from our own spiritual demise, an adherence manifested by attentiveness to those in need. Indeed, this is the attitude that spurns those who do not measure up, leaving them on the margins of society: the “tax collectors and sinners.”

Catholic Charities: Eucharistic Ministry “We are all really responsible for all.” Thank you for what you do to translate the virtue of solidarity from an idea to a lived reality; thank you for giving us credibility, that we really do believe what we say we believe, and we really are who we say we are; thank for you showing our love and care for the tax collectors and sinners of our own time, those for whom it’s so easy for us to just forget about, and prefer that they remain

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invisible to us: the homeless mother; the undocumented migrant; the person suffering from AIDS; the abandoned and frail elderly; the at-risk youth with little or no family support; and so very many others! Thank you for putting flesh on the Catholic vision of human dignity, a complete and comprehensive vision of what it means to be truly human: physical and spiritual, material and moral, immediate practical assistance and spiritual solidarity. In this way you extend the mystery of the Incarnation, for Christ becomes present in any genuine act of Christian charity. As Pope Benedict puts it in his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est: Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which the human person always needs. And so: Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for others, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift. Conclusion Ultimately, your work is Eucharistic: Christ becomes present through Christian charity, and it makes all of us more truly human, more the way God created us to be. It changes the giver and the receiver; indeed, everyone gives, and everyone receives. This is true solidarity. Although we may have sensed ourselves being lost, we now find ourselves deep within the love of God, exactly where God wants us to be, for our own eternal happiness with Him. Thank you for what do, thank you for being here. It is an honor for us to host you.

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