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When I was growing up, my mother always came to me when something had to be done around the house. That made sense because my older brother used to help out my father with his chores, like mowing the lawn and fixing the screen door. My younger brothers were too young to know anything so I was the one who vacuumed the floor and put away the dishes. One day I asked her, “How come I always have to do everything?” She said, “Because it makes me happy, and when I am happy, you are happy.” I always thought that was a good answer.
One evening I was at my desk correcting my students’ papers from my class at St. John’s Seminary when my cell phone rang. Fr. Dave, the provincial, called me. He said, “What are you doing right now?” I said, “I am doing VIS.” He asked, “What is VIS?” I said, “Very Important Stuff.” He said, “Oh good, I am stuck in an airport and I am supposed to say a Mass in Milton in an hour. Can you take it?” I answered, “Let me get this straight. You want me to drop what I am doing so I can do your job?” Actually, I didn’t say that. I told him I could take the Mass. Why did I tell I would do it? Because when the boss is happy, I am happy.
My spiritual life is very simple when God is happy, I am happy. Now take the story of the prodigal son. The older son in the parable is not happy because his father is happy about the younger son’s return. That doesn’t make any sense to me. The son should be happy because the father is happy. Because when dad is happy, he is happy.
In the story, the elder son returns home from work, but this time he hears music and a party for his long lost brother. He gets angry. So this is my question: What is so wrong with the brother for getting mad? Isn’t it normal to get a little upset, after all the brother lost half the farm and the business, and now he is rewarded with a party? In order to understand what went wrong with the brother, we have to re-tell the parable.
Let’s give the story of the prodigal son a happy ending. I will play the part of the son in my new version of the parable.
So there I am the faithful older son working in the field, and I look up and see my father. I give dad a wave, and he acknowledges me with a nod. So I lean on my shovel and think, Dad has not been the same since my younger brother left home. He never smiles anymore; he forgot how to laugh, he hardly eats because he lost his appetite, and he doesn’t sleep well. He is a man in mourning. Often he just stands in the road and stares into the horizon, hoping. I better get back to work. Anyway, I finally finish and call it a day. I walk over to the house to put the tools away in the barn, and I hear music coming from the home. I ask one of the workers what is going on. He said, “Your brother has returned safe and sound, and your dad slaughtered the fatted calf.” I said, “So he slaughtered the fatted calf. I see. He must be hungry again. He must have his appetite back again. And I bet he remembers how to laugh again. I am going to that party because I am going to really enjoy seeing dad smile again.”
Not long ago, my father went to the trout club, and one of the members went over to him and said, “I brought my grandson to fish, but he hasn’t caught anything all day. Can you help him out?” So dad went to the pond and took a look at the grandson’s fly-rod. He replaced the leader and put on one of dad’s “special” flies and gave the kid some instructions. He said, “Fish are lazy like people. They do not want to chase around a healthy fish. So when you retrieve the fly, make it look like it is injured with jerky pull and pauses. Dad and the grandfather watched the boy from the picture window inside the clubhouse as he made three casts and caught three nice rainbow trout. Needless to say, the kid thought my father was the greatest fisherman he ever met. A few days later the grandfather bumped into me and told me the story. He said to me, “You know your father is a remarkable person.” I said, “I know that.” And then he said, “You are very lucky to have him as a father.” And I replied, “I know that…that is why we are best friends.” God is not just a boss and if we do everything he tells us we will get paid well. The parable is about friendship.
Remember the parable of the lost sheep. Let’s say I am the shepherd of the lost sheep. I lost a sheep and I am not going to get it because I know what will happen if I do. I will return to the flock, and now two sheep are lost. Then I will have to leave in search of the two, and five sheep will wander off. I can’t risk losing more than one sheep. So I stand there thinking how nice it would be if I could find it, and while I am in thought, I look over my shoulder and see ninety-nine sheep approaching me. I said to them, “What are you looking at”? They said, “We want you to go find him and bring him back.” I replied to them, “I know what is going to happen if I run down that valley. You guys are all going to start to wander away.” They assured me, “We are all going to stay here like a unified team. You will find us all here when you get back because we are behind you.” And that is why Jesus called the ninety-nine sheep the ninety-nine righteous sheep. The only way the shepherd can go after the lost sheep is if he has ninety-nine righteous sheep. The righteous sheep will not get a ride on the shepherd’s shoulders or have a party. They get something better—a close relationship.
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