St. Therese and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), September 15, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Basilica of St. Therese, Crypt Chapel
Lisieux, France
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Pilgrimage to the Saints and Shrines of France
September 15, 2013
Ex 32:7-11.13-14, Ps 51, 1 Tim 1:12-17, Lk 15:1-32

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 


St. Therese Little Way Points out the Essential Christian Attitude

Today in the Gospel, Jesus gives us three parables of his mercy: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. These parables bring us to the heart of the Gospel. As we discussed yesterday here at the Basilica of St. Therese in Lisieux on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Jesus’ love for us was so great that he allowed himself to be lifted up like a serpent upon the Cross to take away our sins and the sins of the whole world. Christ came, as St. Paul tells us today in the second reading, in order to save sinners. St. Therese wished not only to be a recipient of that great grace of salvation, but someone who shared Christ’s thirst to share his mercy, uniting herself in all she did to Christ’s love upon the Cross for others. The great wisdom of St. Therese’s little way of spiritual childhood is in living the essential spiritual attitude Jesus in calling each of us to in the background of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Treating the Father as if he is dead

When many look at the sin of the younger brother in today’s powerful parable, they see the life of debauchery, wasting his inheritance and living lower than the pigs whom the Jews considered unclean animals. But it happened much before that. It was in treating the Father as if he were dead. That’s what the gesture means to ask for his inheritance, because one gets an inheritance only when the person giving it normally dies. This junior Son proceeded to waste all that the Father had given him in a downward spiral of egocentric hedonism until he was living and behaving worse than swine. Few of us, I think, are quite so radical. We know the Father is not dead. We don’t want to waste his gifts in a life of sin. But we’re susceptible to the same general tendency he succumbed to. We want to “grow up” and leave home, to do things on our own, to be less dependent on the Father than we were before and more self-reliant and self-sufficient. Just like so many of us as kids can’t wait to grow up and be out on our own, so we often experience a similar temptation spiritually. Whereas we once used to live with our Father, talk to him everyday, sacrifice for him and observe his sacrifices for us, we can basically spiritually move out. Sure, we may still love the Father, but we love him less than we used to. We talk to him now once a week. We visit with him less than that. When he offers to do something for us, we say, “Thanks, Dad, but I’ve got it covered.” Everything begins in losing sense of the most important spiritual attitude a Christian can have, divine filiation, that we are God the Father’s sons and daughters and he loves us so much that when given a choice between saving our lives or saving Jesus’ live, he chose us over Jesus, as Jesus, too, chose to give his life to save ours.

But the main point of Jesus’ parable was about the older brother, because he was the one who represented the Pharisees and scribes who at the beginning of the passage took offense and complained because Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And in him we see the same root of sin.  He doesn’t really know the Father either. When the younger brother hit rock bottom and decided to come home with his rehearsed speech about how he had sinned against heaven and against his father, begging to be treated and fed just as a slave, he had no real concept of the love of the Father, as if the Father could ever treat his son as a slave. Prior to his leaving, however, that’s what he obviously thought, that living in Father’s house was a type of servitude. We see the same attitude in the older brother who never left. Outraged that the Father had killed the fatted calf for the return of his younger brother, he complained, “All these years I have served you and not once did I disobey your orders and yet you never once gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” Just as he didn’t have a familial relationship with his Father, so he didn’t have one with his brother, either, saying instead, “When this son of yours returns…” No wonder why he couldn’t understand the Father’s joy that his lost Son and been found, his dead son had come alive again! For him, his brother, was just a fellow slave, a fellow employee, a housemate. His coming home was like a broken tools’ starting to work again, not the spiritual resurrection of a beloved family member.

So many times we can relate to God the Father similarly, treating him as a distant Deity just waiting to punish us for every transgression, someone whom we’re called to obey at the risk of penalty or simply out of duty, but never someone we really let love us as madly as he wants to love us, someone whom we never truly love in return. And that leads to so many problems with others, whom we view, not as true spiritual siblings closer to us by baptism than our natural brothers and sisters are by blood, but as “this son of yours,” “this daughter of yours,” who has wronged us and doesn’t deserve mercy not to mention a celebration.

Divine Filiation

St. Therese teaches us the solution to this spiritual cancer that fails to take seriously our divine filiation, to base our entire life on letting God the Father love us in his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit, and seeking to love him in return. She was living at a time in which so many within the Church were like the older brother in the parable. It was a time of Jansenism, a Catholic Calvinism, relating to God as a cold and distant figure full of laws and rules, of whose graces we could never be worthy and therefore we should just do our duty and offer ourselves as victims to divine justice so that he doesn’t exact the punishment on us and others that we all deserve. It was a paralyzing fear of God and his judgment that failed to grasp the depth of the love of God and just lived in fear by the multiplication of duties, never really grasping the joy of God’s mercy, which leads heaven to celebrate more over one sinner’s return that for 99 righteous person’s virtues.

In response to this we have her little way of spiritual childhood, which is a way of conversion to the essential aspect of our Christian life.

Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospel, “Unless you convert and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God.” This doesn’t mean we need to become childISH. The Lord does call us, like Jesus according to his humanity, to “grow in wisdom and understanding” and to “come to full stature in Christ.”  To become like little children means to return to our true dependence on the Father and begin to allow him to continue to raise us to become perfected as he himself is perfect, to become merciful as he is merciful, to receive our true inheritance from him — which is the riches of his mercy — and not squander it but share it. St. Therese wrote about this little way, “To remain little before God and to remain little is to recognize one’s nothingness, expect all things from the good God just as a little child expects all things from its father. …  To be little is not attributing to oneself the virtues that one practices. … It is not to become discouraged over one’s faults, for children fall often, but they are too little to hurt themselves very much.”

Grasping God by the Heart

Once we grasp that we are poor little children, then we learn how to relate to God and particularly to his merciful love. Talking about the mercy of God, St. Therese encouraged everyone to follow her lead and grasp God by the “heart.” She said: “Consider a small child who has displeased his mother, by flying into a rage or perhaps disobeying her; if he sulks in a corner and screams in fear of punishment, his mother will certainly not forgive his fault; but if he comes to her with his little arms outstretched, smiling and saying: ‘Kiss me, I won’t do it again,surely his mother will immediately press him tenderly to her heart, forgetting all that he has done… Of course she knows quite well that her dear little boy will do it again at the first opportunity, but that does not matter; if he takes her by the heart, he will never be punished…” She drew a conclusion: “I have long believed that the Lord is more tender than a mother. I know that a mother is always ready to forgive trivial, involuntary misbehavior on the part of her child. Children are always giving trouble, falling down, getting themselves dirty, breaking things – but all this does not shake their parents love for them.” Nor do our faults shake God’s love for us.

She was able to have this child-like confidence in God’s love because she understood the whole meaning of the Incarnation. She once wrote that she could not understand how anyone could be afraid of a God who became a child. God became small precisely so that we shouldn’t be intimidated by him, so that we wouldn’t be afraid. St. Therese teaches us in her little way of spiritual childhood that none of us is “perfect” in following the Lord, that we all need the Father’s mercy, but that the Father loves us and never tires of being merciful with us.

This comes through in her poems. Many of her poems have been set to music and my favorite among all of them, which I’ve been singing for 16 years, goes, “Moi si j’avais commis tous les crimes possibles, Je garderais toujours la même confiance, Car je sais bien que cette multitude d’offenses N’est qu’une goutte d’eau dans un brasier ardent.” “If I had committed all possible sins, I would still have the same confidence, because I know so well that this whole multitude of offenses is nothing more than a drop of water in a blazing furnace,” the furnace of the Father’s merciful love.

When Blessed John Paul II came here for the first time in 1980, he called her “our saint” a saint for our times, and confessed that that was always the way he looked to her in his own life. He said that grasped the “fundamental mystery,” the “reality of the Gospel,” that we have truly received “a spirit of adoption that makes us cry out ‘Abba, Father!’ The “little way,” he continued, is the way of “holy childhood,” adding that nothing could be more fundamental and universal than the fact that God is our Father and we are his beloved children. “To be a child, to become like a child, means to enter into the heart of the greatest mission” to which Christ has called each of us: to recognize one is God’s beloved child and be occupied with the affairs of the Father, just like Jesus was when he was 12 and discovered in the temple. And the chief mission of the Father in sending the Son and together with him sending the Holy Spirit is to remind us of the Father’s unending merciful love. That’s the mission St. Therese took up so passionately that even though she never left her Carmel, she was named a co-patronness of the missions, because she always prayed for the success of this mission of mercy. Rather than being like the older brother in the Parable who resented rather than rejoiced in the Father’s mercy, she lived out her whole life begging for that mercy for herself and others. I was very moved this morning going to the confessional in the Cathedral of St. Peter here in Lisieux where she made her first and so many confessions. But I’m always even more moved by all that she did before entering the convent to pray for the conversion of Pranzini, a terrible convict about to be executed. Just like Moses interceded for the Israelites in the first reading today, whe sacrificed and prayed for Pranzini for days before his scheduled execution and right before he died, he asked for a crucifix and kissed it three times. She helped pray this convict to become a second “Good Thief” and steal God’s mercy at the very last second.

Entering into the mission of praying for mercy for others

Before she died, St. Therese said that she would spend her heaven seeking to do good on earth and praying for God’s mercy is the greatest of all the roses she showers down from above. We know that she is interceding for us now for this very grace. Let us receive it. Let us take advantage of the graces on this pilgrimage not only to go to confession but to make the best confession of our life, a confession like those we made with all our hearts when we were still spiritually childlike. That is what gives God, the Blessed Mother, St. Therese and all the saints the greatest joy in heaven. That is what gives a penitent soul the greatest joy on earth. And that’s the path by which we hope to follow St. Therese’s little way all the way home to the Father’s House in heaven, where he has prepared for us a celebration not with a fatted calf, but with a Lamb, looking as if he has been slain, the very Lamb that in a few minutes we will be so privileged to receive.

The readings for today’s Mass were:

A Reading from the Book of Exodus (Ex 32:7-11, 13-14)
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. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ “I see how stiff-necked this people is, ” continued the LORD to Moses. Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’” So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people. The word of the Lord.

Responsorial Psalm — I will rise and go to my father (Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19)

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.

A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

A Reading from the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 1:12-17)
Beloved: I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. The word of the Lord.

Alleluia — “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation”

Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk 15:1-32)
The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. “Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’” The Gospel of the Lord.