Homily: Prodigals, Pig Slop, Pornography and Penance

Coming to our senses

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt, 1662–1669)
The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt, 1662–1669) (photo: Public Domain)

Note: The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks came up a number of times in Sunday’s Mass at my home parish of St. John’s in Orange, NJ — but not in my homily. I was open to it, but the readings, especially the parable of the prodigal son, led me in other directions. I was surprised at how important the topic of pornography became in this homily; still, I tried to keep the main focus on God’s mercy and on two of the three things that are called “penance”: repentance or contrition and the sacrament of confession. (The third kind of penance, prayers or other outward works of “satisfaction,” wasn’t discussed.) This lightly edited version is actually longer than either of the two forms of the homily as I preached it, but blends together things I said on both occasions, and in written form best expresses what I wanted to say. — SDG

The mercy of God is powerfully revealed in all of today’s readings. In the first reading, God forgives his people after their idolatry; Saint Paul recalls how God showed great mercy to him when he was blaspheming Christ and persecuting the Church; and Jesus gives us a powerful threefold parable of mercy, culminating in one of the best known and best beloved passages in the entire Bible, the prodigal son. Perhaps the most beautiful of Jesus’ parables, Pope Benedict XVI wrote.

In this parable the depths of the Father’s love and mercy are made known, the Catechism says, in a simple and beautiful way that only the heart of Christ who knows the Father’s heart could reveal. What we discover here is not only grace and forgiveness, but joy and celebration. The shepherd who finds the sheep and the woman who finds the coin call together their friends and neighbors to rejoice and celebrate. The father welcomes the prodigal with the finest robe, a ring; he even butchers the fattened calf for the party. It’s a welcome far beyond what the son expected.

This is very different from what often passes for forgiveness in our daily experience — not always, but often. When we forgive each other, it often amounts to a kind of longsuffering, reluctant, wounded semi-return to the status quo, so things are almost like they were before, but not quite.

I think many people feel or suspect that God’s forgiveness is like that: Yeah, he’ll forgive you…again…he’s God; it’s what he does…but he’s not necessarily happy about it. The truth is that God is far more eager to forgive us than we are to repent and be forgiven.

Perhaps we know this, but it doesn’t sink all the way in. We don’t come to confession, or the sacrament of penance, like there’s going to be a party afterwards! It’s more like going to the dentist for a cleaning or the doctor for a checkup: something you do because you have to.

Maybe we even put off coming to confession — for a lot of reasons, but maybe one reason is we feel like we aren’t really ready. Not this week. Maybe next week. I’m afraid I do this with my visits to the doctor. If I haven’t been eating well or exercising, and I’ve put on weight, the last thing I want is go to the doctor and hear what he has to say about my health. Maybe a month from now I’ll be eating better and exercising more, and then I’ll go to the doctor and get better news.

That’s probably not the healthiest instinct when it comes to going to the doctor — but when it comes to going to confession, it’s insane! God doesn’t want us to get our act together first and then come to him. Can you imagine if the prodigal son thought, “I blew everything, I’m destitute…I can’t go home like this. I need to get back on my feet, earn some money, and then I’ll go back home”?

God doesn’t want that. All he wants, in that beautiful phrase at the key moment in the parable, is for us to “come to our senses.” To ask ourselves, “What am I doing?”  To turn in disgust from the pig trough we so often settle for instead of the good food that the father wants for us. To get up and go to our Father.

This world is full of pig slop — garbage so many chase after all their lives without ever coming to their senses and thinking “Why am I living like this, chasing after all this slop instead of what really matters?” (You have to remember, of course, that swine were unclean to Jews, so it didn’t get any lower than slopping pigs.)

That was the son’s situation in a way even before the money ran out and the famine arose. We often overlook the famine, by the way, but it’s an important part of the parable. In modern terms, we might say there was a downturn in the economy, a financial crisis — like eight years ago, when the real estate bubble burst.

Before the bubble burst, it seemed like things were going great, but they weren’t. That’s what living in sin is like: It’s living in a bubble. At the time it may feel like you’re living the dream, but it’s unsustainable, which is another way of saying it’s a lie, an illusion. The crash is coming. Famine is coming. Bubbles burst. It’s what they do. Sin is always going to make you miserable in the long run, no matter how it feels at the time.

That was the son’s situation before the famine, when he was squandering his inheritance in “a life of dissipation.” The older brother mentions prostitutes: what we would call sins against the sixth commandment, which forbids adultery and all forms of sexual immorality, including some forms that weren’t available in Jesus’ day. They didn’t have the Internet then.

That particular form of immorality — pornography — may be our era’s defining form of pig slop. It’s a factor cited in over half of divorces, and even when it doesn’t lead to divorce, it poisons marriages, relationships and individuals. In the younger generation, the millennial generation, it’s having even worse effects.

I should mention that in many respects millennials are doing better than their parents and grandparents, than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Recent headlines tell us millennials drink and smoke less, use illicit drugs less, commit fewer crimes, and engage in less violence. They’re also less sexually active, so in many ways (many, but not all) there’s less sexual immorality among millennials.

Has some kind of cultural bubble burst in connection with some of these bad behaviors? Perhaps. But it doesn’t help if the bubble bursts, and instead of coming to your senses and coming home to the Father, you just turn to slopping pigs. And when it comes to this particular form of pig slop, pornography, millennials are worse off than prior generations. And it’s poisoning them.

In a way, the poisoning itself is partly responsible for the tapering off of other forms of immorality. It’s like how if you have too much to drink, you might be more likely to commit certain other sins — but if you have way too much to drink, you aren’t going to be committing any other sins for awhile. And if you drink way too much day after day, for months and years, it takes such a toll on your mind and body that you become as incapable of other sins as you are a healthy life.

So the poison or the disease that in the Boomer generation led to higher divorce rates and infidelity has now progressed to the point where many young people have a diminished interest or a diminished capacity for actual intimate relationships, let alone marriage and family. Instead of dissolute feasting, there’s famine.

But the point of the Gospel isn’t how bad pig slop is — any form of pig slop, whatever it may be for any of us. The point is how great God’s mercy is, how eager he is to forgive and restore us, more eager than we are to repent and be forgiven.

It’s not even like he’s waiting around for us to come to our senses on our own. The sheep doesn’t make the first move toward the shepherd. The coin doesn’t make the first move toward the woman. That moment when the prodigal realizes he’s sinned against heaven — any time that happens, that’s heaven itself at work. That thought in your mind, “Maybe I should go to confession this week” — that already comes from God.

Maybe we’re not the prodigal son or the lost sheep. Maybe we’re the older brother or one of the 99 other sheep. Did you ever wonder how the 99 sheep felt about being left behind while the shepherd went after the lost sheep? What are we, chopped liver? Hello — we’re the sheep that didn’t get lost! Pay some attention to us!

Jesus doesn’t tell us how the sheep felt, but he does tell how the older son felt about the welcome his little brother received. He was angry and resentful, like the Pharisees who objected to Jesus eating with sinners, with lost sheep. I think sometimes Pope Francis’ focus on reaching out to lost sheep has a similar effect on some of the flock.

In any case, whether we’re the prodigal son or the other son, there are going to be areas in our lives where we need to come to our senses. Whatever our issue is, God is more eager to forgive us than we are to repent and be forgiven. Even if we’ve gone back to the pig trough again and again. The shepherd never says “Well, I went after that sheep before, but now it’s on its own.”

In whatever ways we need to come to our senses, there’s a celebration in heaven waiting, right now, for you and for me.