I have had a life-long interest in etymology, the study of the origin of words and phrases. I subscribe to the Merriam-Webster “Word of the Day”, not for the definition, but for the etymology of the word. I think it was in my first year of theology, the word “prodigal” came up. I thought to myself, “I know that one, it means having lived a less than worthy life, a sinful life.” – probably based on the older brother’s assessment of his wayward, wandering younger sibling. Who knows? Perhaps the older brother was correct, but the word prodigal means “a profuse or wasteful expenditure.”
And of course, nowhere in this passage is the word prodigal used. It is simply the title by which we all easily remember the parable.
The parable invites us to consider who is being wasteful. The younger son, wastefully spending his inheritance which he very rudely asked of his father? The older son wasting his energy and animosity on the circumstances of his brother’s leaving, returning, and reception back into the family? The father wasting his time searching for the wayward son each day? Wasting his reputation as he runs through the village to greet him? Wasting the opportunity for some “tough love?”
Of course things like a 50th high school class reunion, can sometimes be the impetus to ask that of ourselves? Have we lived a good life? Have we done good? Have we done enough? And the whole host of ancillary questions that can attend to such an occasion.
I think all those, while good questions, are not the important question.
In my Franciscan Order’s tradition we have many saints. Certainly Sts. Francis, Clare and Anthony are the most notable and celebrated of the early saints. But St. Bonaventure is someone to whom I am partial. I often come back to one of his great insights. He wrote that humility is the guardian and gateway to all the other virtues. Later in the passage he comments that the first evidence of such humility is gratitude.
Gratitude as the ground on which all the other virtues find their grounding.
Maybe that is a good lens for our parable today. The father of the story humbles himself, perhaps humiliates himself in the eyes of his village peers, as he keeps sentinel for his prodigal son. His gratitude is on high display in receiving his son, in the party he commands to celebrate, and many other ways. The encounter with the other son is also one of humility and an expression of gratitude.
The older son, at least in the moment, is having a problem with gratitude – and hence so sign of humility. The younger son? Hard to tell. Maybe gratitude comes later if at all.
What about us? Are we grateful? Grateful for the Catholic education our parents provided for us here at Bishop Moore? Grateful for our classmates? Grateful for our teachers? I know that I am forever grateful for Mrs. Marilyn McCann who wise counsel pointed me towards the US Naval Academy and the first step on the path that has become my life. I could go on to list a cornucopia of people and opportunities for which I am grateful, but that would be my list. You have your own list of spouses, children, peers, and so much more for which you are grateful.
Rather than centering on what we have done or could have done, a more foundation question is have we lived a life of gratitude? Have we expressed that gratitude to the others. Have we been grateful enough? Or have we been a bit prodigal?
During this reunion weekend it is a chance to pause in our lives to recount, remember and to be grateful and to take the opportunity to express that gratitude in thanksgiving, in eucharistia. And so how very appropriate that we conclude this reunion weekend with Eucharist, with thanksgiving, in gratitude for the many gifts we have received.
Humility is the guardian and gateway to all the virtues. And the first evidence of it is gratitude.