Genesis 27:6-40 / Luke 15:11-32
We know what we love the most when we see that for which we are willing to do anything to acquire or achieve. We may do so in ways that inspire or in ways that repulse, with calm dignity or with wild abandon, through direct assertion or by cunning and craft. Should we ever let anything stand in our way, ever let forces outside of us or within our own hearts cause us to back down or hold off from pursuing our desire, then we can know for sure, whatever we tell ourselves, whatever stories we spin for others, that we do not really love what we claim to pursue so much we we might think.
It is in light of this basic truth of human desire that we ought to hear the two grand stories the Church puts before us today: Jacob's deception of Isaac to receive from him the blessing promised to his brother Esau, and the parable of the prodigal son. On first hearing, we might find ourselves drawn to sympathy for Esau who, after all, was cheated out of his father's blessing, undone by his father's blindness coupled with his brother Jacob's wiliness and his mother's shrewd dealing on behalf of her favorite. Likewise, the prodigal son, even though he devoured his substance with harlots and only returned home to avoid his self-caused hunger and destitution, we probably find more likable than the older brother. While the older brother may be better behaved — Behold, for so many years do I serve thee, and I have never transgressed thy commandment — he grieves when the household is rejoicing, thinking only of his lack of celebration, not of the good of his brother's return. Jacob we tend to find least attractive, with perhaps the exception of his mother Rebecca, for his deceit of his own father at his brother's expense.
I would suggest, however, that in seeing things this way, we have it all wrong. Of the sons in these stories, it is only Jacob who knows and values what he wants, who desires the blessing of his father so much that nothing will be allowed to get in his way. We ought to remember that Esau, despite his eventual tears which move Isaac to give him some remnant of a blessing, had earlier, and without hesitation, sold his birthright to Jacob for bread and a bowl of lentil stew. In other words, for all of his protests to the contrary, Esau shows no real desire to share in Isaac's blessings, and in his taking of foreign wives, even less desire to fulfill the promise made to his father through the promise made by God to Abraham and his descendants.
The sons in the Jesus' parable are no more worthy of emulation than Esau. Neither of them, the younger, prodigal son nor the elder, dutiful son, ever shows any real love for his father or joy to be in his presence. The younger son comes back for calculated reasons, and is willing to live as a hired hand, to relinquish his status as son for the sake of room and board. The elder son, while dutiful in every way, receives no joy from that duty nor from living with his father. On hearing the elder son complain about not having had even a goat to celebrate with his friends, one can detect some pain in the father's reply, Son, thou art always with me, and all I have is thine. Neither son understands the father's love, and neither seeks that love and the blessings that flow from it.
Now that we are well into our Lenten observance, how much do we still crave the things we have set aside, the time we have lost to prayer in place of our hobbies, the satisfaction we have lost to hunger and abstinence in place of our favorite foods? Have we clothed ourselves in penance as Jacob clothed himself in the garments of his brother, in the skins of goats, smelling of the smell of a plentiful field, only to draw back from getting our blessing? Or have we happily undertaken our penances, willingly set aside out pleasures, not to say to our heavenly Father with eyes downcast I am not worthy to be called your son, but on the contrary, with boldness that could easily be mistaken for brazen assertion, have we claimed our birthright as brother and sisters in Christ, sons by baptism of God Most High? Do we love our God enough, do we seek the blessing of the Holy Trinity, seek by the friendship of the Spirit to be so conformed to the Son that we are received by the Father, that we will allow no worldly concern, no fleeting pleasure, to stand in our way, and be willing to have nothing less than the best that God can shower upon us?
In Thine unceasing goodness, O Lord, we beseech Thee, keep safe Thy household: and, since their only hope is to lean on Thy heavenly grace, may the protection of heaven be their steady defense.