In recent years, a greater number of parents than perhaps at any other time prior would agree that one of the biggest contributors to their stress, biggest threats to their sanity comes from one source. Disney. Specifically Disney’s animated movies. Now that wasn’t the case for decades. Being born in 1973, Disney’s new releases were few and far between. Looking at the list of their animated films on Wikipedia, I only remembered Pete’s Dragon from my time. Some older movies which probably were re-released in theaters or showed up on television when I was growing up were definitely family favorites – especially The Jungle Book or One hundred and one Dalmatians. But I don’t remember them becoming an ever-present part of our lives with books, toys, and I can’t really even remember any of the songs from them.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – March 27, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
But even being a celibate priest of 22 years now with no children of my own, that cartoon factory has found a way even to torture me with their recent films. They start out as creative and enjoyable the first 25 times you hear and see them. But as they become these phenomenons with streaming services, practically entire industries based on one film, what was cute and catchy can become something closer to Chinese water torture. That started during my college years with Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The saturation of the songs being played all over the place was mild to somewhat annoying. But nothing compares to this current era, where I’m guessing I will unsettle a great number of people with just three words: Let it Go.
Yes that power anthem, Let it Go from the 2013 movie Frozen can reduce some to convulsions. Having three nieces, who were almost 8, 4, and 2 when Frozen was first released (and a year older when it hit the home video/streaming market) that was an education to what parents have to go through. My three nieces that might have been the last time they were all united in enjoying something. My Mother’s great hopes or Italian curse that my oldest brother when he tortured her growing up that his kids would pay him back could never have dreamed how those wishes would be fulfilled. Of course, she helped by buying the youngest a dress that when she pushed a button would light up and just play just a few seconds “Let it Go – Let it Go.”
This was all the disclaimer for today’s homily and to get all that out of everyone’s head. Because at the risk of triggering many people – those three words kept coming to mind praying with these scriptures: Let it Go. These scriptures are all talking about the transformation that God is trying to bring about, reminding us the newness that deep within we long for in our lives is possible, the healing of all that is broken can happen when we “let it go.” But what is the “it?” Looking at these scriptures, “It” is actually a bunch of things.
I had to laugh in the first reading from Joshua because there is a specific “it” that the men experienced – namely, they had just been circumcised. (!!!!!) What was that about? The people of Israel had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years unable to enter the land God had promised them. That 40 years had just ended, and one of the last things to happen for this “new” day to dawn, when finally “the reproach of Egypt” was removed from them was when the men were circumcised. They finally fulfilled that part of the covenant that the people of Israel had made with God, but had not honored in the wilderness. But to be sure, that was just one outward expression of what was happening spiritually, internally among all the people during those 4 long decades.
The reason they wandered for so long? Despite God unleashing 10 dramatic plagues on all of Egypt for enslaving His people until the Pharaoh would let THEM go… Despite God parting the Red Sea for them to march forward to freedom and then unparting the Red Sea on the Egyptian forces chasing after them as they left slavery behind, eliminating that threat from reemerging … Despite His promises being fulfilled time and time again and just asking for His people to reciprocate in trust, in faithfulness, – – they would constantly come up short. And it would take these 40 years of wandering in the wilderness to learn how to “let it go.” The “it” being: Their unfaithfulness. Their doubts. Their overthinking and overcomplicating things. Their hesitations. Their fears. Once they have, once they let it go: all of those things, we hear of the joy that comes as we read that first reading. They have finally made it to their long-promised homeland, there celebrating the Passover, the great celebration of God’s deliverance, their no longer eating manna that mysterious bread that God provided to sustain them (that had gotten a bit boring to eat at that point) but were feasting on the produce of the land… the land God had promised them, they were experiencing fulfillment.
But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the delay for this fulfillment was completely the people’s fault. God is always faithful to His promises. But He is waiting for us to believe that trust that, live as people who are faithful to Him and Him alone. And the fact that the people would lose this promised land, would end up enslaved again – and not just to foreign enemies and ruthless leaders, but worse to the devil himself as they would end up enslaved to sin, was a result of their reverting back to some of those things they had let go of, and started to cling to once again.
Humanity would start to rely on themselves, put their faith and trust in themselves and the things of creation rather than the loving creator. They would slowly move to treat God as this disinterested bystander who they would try to appease with surface-level affection in their worship of Him, and minimal observance to His laws – constantly making loopholes to His commandments – and find themselves lost, divided, and desperately in need of a savior.
Yet as Jesus arrives on the scene, we see time and again they fail to recognize God incarnate. They fail to accept Him as He tries once again to call His people to recognize their narrow visions, the misinterpretations of scripture, the limitations they have put not just God Himself, but who they are and who they are supposed to be. Jesus is constantly trying to capture their hearts and minds to these obstacles calling them to “let it go.”
This Gospel is another example of Jesus trying to do just that. This is possibly the most well-known parable of the scriptures – which has often been mis-titled as “The Prodigal Son.” Why mis-titled? Because that’s too narrow a description of the story and it almost makes us put all of the focus on the one son. If we let that happen, we can find ourselves falling into the messed up thinking of the oldest one who is only interested in comparing and contrasting him and his brother. In the process miss the one character that deserves the attention: the Father.
I had a relative who every time this Gospel came up would file that recurrence in her mind to tell me the next time she saw me that she didn’t think it was right, she agreed with the older son, who she described as the faithful one… and gave me examples of how unfair it was that she had to go to Mass every Sunday and someone who makes a death bed confession could, as she put it, skate right into heaven. In my early years of priesthood, I would debate her about how she was missing the point. I’d point out that disagreeing with Jesus isn’t a good spot to be in. After some years I tired of arguing and kind of disengaged. Which saddens me in retrospect now that she has passed on. She didn’t realize that she didn’t just agree with the older child in the story, she had become them. Which is truly sad. Because if we do that, we miss the joy of being God’s beloved sons and daughters right here and now. We can miss the truth of what it means to be saved, what it means to be known, what it means to be loved by the Father.
Because as bad as it is that the younger kid disses his father saying he can’t wait for the old man to die and wants his inheritance now, gets it, and then completely blows it… What is equally troubling is what you realize is that the older son has been just going through the motions. He’s saying and doing the right things but doesn’t know the gift that both sons shared with their loving Father. The older son doesn’t even realize how angry and resentful he’s grown in his heart to his brother and his father. It’s almost like he was envious that the younger guy had the nerve to get his share when he did. And now that it seems like “karma” was a real thing after all and the younger brother has made a complete mess, is desperate, and sheepishly come home, he loses it that the Father is just going to welcome him back. That the Father still loves him. It never crosses the older brother’s mind that the Father’s heart was broken at what the younger son had done. He’s just as self-centered as the other guy and worse is oblivious to it.
No, it shouldn’t be called the Prodigal Son, nor even “the ungrateful children” – the point that Jesus wants us to focus on is the lavishly loving and merciful Father. It’s when the younger son lets go of his pride, his arrogance, his sinfulness, and humbly comes back that he is finally able to see the depth of love the Father has for Him. For the older son, will he let go of his pride, his arrogance, and resentment? Will he recognize how he’s only had a surface level of respect for his father? Will he experience the love, the mercy, the reconciliation the Father sees as the greatest of gifts that he wants both his sons to share? It all depends on whether he can let it go.
What is the “it” for you today? The “It,” you need to let go of? The thing that’s causing tension, isolation from God, from others? These readings are coming at a pivotal time for us. We’re just over the halfway point of Lent. Maybe the hopes and promises you intended on Ash Wednesday have become distant hopes and forgotten promises. Maybe you’ve been able to be faithful to the calls to Fast, Pray and Give but have gotten frustrated as you compare what you’re doing to what others have not been… you’ve lost a sense of the why, the who you’re ultimately doing it for and find yourself relating to the older brother. Maybe it’s a mix of both.
Wherever it is we find ourselves, ultimately what matters is that we are here – in the Father’s House. With 3 weeks to go, we are to focus on the truth that St. Paul reminded us of in the second reading today. That because we have been baptized, we are already a new creation – the old things have passed away. But history tells us, we can find ourselves like the people of Israel reverting back to those “old things” and choosing to enslave ourselves by grasping onto Fears… Doubts… Overthinking… giving into temptations…. ignoring sins that we’re one confession away from being forgiven of… Making changes to live this “new” life of Christ rather than reverting to old ways. The Loving Father sent His only Son and poured out on us the Holy Spirit so that we would find it easy to let it go and know and be known; to love and to be loved by Him alone.