By Fr. Glenn Jones
“I need more material.”
No … that’s not me speaking about this column, but rather something the world seems to say perpetually … as in “materialism”. “I need more stuff!” … regardless of the fact that the desire for more “stuff” never seems to satisfy, but rather feeds the desire ever more … rather a vicious circle.
It takes a strong and wise person to realize the negative effects of unbridled material desires. That hit home again this weekend in the Catholic Mass as we read the parable of the Prodigal Son … alternately called “The Loving Father”.
Most people know that story of Luke 15, the best known of all of Jesus’ parables. In it, the spoiled brat … whoops, I mean, “the younger son” … demands from his father his share of the inheritance that would be coming to him at his father’s death. Well, imagine your kid demanding: “Cash in the E*Trade account and give me half!”, or “I want the Beemer … now! I don’t want to have to wait ‘til you croak, you old … coot.” I have little doubt that MY dad would have slapped me out of my socks. And what does that younger son do with it? He blows it on riotous living—the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” of his day, ending up in the gutter. “Way to go, Einstein.”
So … the lad squanders his inheritance, thinking that the life with no rules … no authority to obey … no responsibility … would lead to happiness. And yet, the opposite is the result … regardless of how many may have told him of the inevitable consequences of his foolishness.
As a bit of an aside, isn’t that what we see every day? … the tragic substance, gambling and porn addicts who are miserable because they can’t quit? And yet … those things are so glorified! Obviously not all who partake fall into such addictions, but certainly the temptations—and possibly the physical and psychological susceptibilities—may be present.
Well … back to our story. So the young son … very predictably … is soon down and out; the world used him up and spit him out after it had squeezed him dry. He is reduced to feeding the unclean swine, even longing for their slop. But … even the pigs are considered of more value than him, so he is given nothing.
One of the (many) morals of this parable? Relationships over the material. The lad abandoned that which was priceless (the love of his father) for that which is so transient and worthless—fleeting and ephemeral physical pleasures. This is a slavery to the passions of which St. Peter writes obliquely: “…[promoters of the passions] entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved.” (2 Peter 2:17-19)
At least Jesus’ parable has a pleasant ending. The prodigal—to his credit—is at least wise enough to finally be, as Jesus relates: “Coming to his senses…”, or “coming out of his irrational foolishness”, and ultimately (if tardily) recognizes the futility into which he has fallen … that his father’s house—the house where love is—is where he truly belongs. His abandonment of the relationship for material passions led him not to freedom, but toward animality.
So the lad repents … and in one of the most moving images in scripture, the father sees him coming even from a great distance (watching for him) and throws aside all decorum and reserve to RUN to embrace his child … such is his love. The father does not even wait for the son to recite his whole rehearsed apology before directing a celebration … for the son was lost, and now is found.
We Christians, of course, see God in the father … ourselves in the son … for we realize our own failures against love of God and neighbor. But we also know that God’s is a ready forgiveness when we come back down the road … when we come home.
In our day this juxtaposition of the futility of passions at the cost of real and meaningful relationships hits home all the more. It may not be as stark as asking dad for the Beemer or for him to liquidate the brokerage account, but regards something even more precious: time. Time together … time engaging one another … precious time simply being with one another without a smartphone glued to our eyeballs. That little electronic device in itself is a type of material idol we tend to adore … bowed over it in perpetual worship. Like that possessed ornament in “The Lord of the Rings”, it becomes “myyyy preciousssss.” If you don’t think so, put it down and walk away from it for a day … if you can. Again St. Peter: “…whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved.”
The passions, of course, are not in themselves evil; they just have to be moderated by the cardinal virtues of temperance and prudence, which requires fortitude and justice—both to ourselves and toward others. Lasting joy will not be found in “things”, but in our relationships with others—with God, with our families and neighbors … and with all whom we cultivate friendship. In my remembrances of Los Alamos which I have so recently departed, it is not the house, the mountains, the forests, or even the church that I miss so much; it is the beloved family of my now former parishioners and other friends there. For, as the psalm affirms of all joy-filled relationships: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!…It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life for evermore.” (Psalm 133:1-3)
So, let us reject slavery to the material so much and rekindle those neglected relationships, that we might say with the Prodigal’s father … slightly adapted: “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because [love] was dead and has come to life again; [it] was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.