This morning, Jesus tells us the parable of the Prodigal Son, of his older brother, and of the Father who loves them. In this Year of Mercy, it would seem appropriate to speak about the Father’s mercy: about how he comes out of the house to meet them both; about how he doesn’t even wait for the son to say “treat me as one of your servants”—for the Father loves his son.
Yet, it is helpful to consider how it was that the two brothers needed mercy in the first place. And so, we continue our journey through the Seven Deadly Sins. Today, we see that what brought the sons to need mercy were their sins of Envy and Greed.
(Be forewarned: Greed is going to take 90% of this homily and leave only 10% to envy.)
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Greed. Usually we equate greed with money and, even more so, with a kind of “hyper-capitalistic” greed: corporations that are concerned with only their bottom line; landowners who overcharge and do not care for their tenants; individuals who possess the spirit of present-day Gorden Gekko who, in the 1987 movie Wall Street, famously declared “Greed … is good.”
At the same time, however, there is also a “socialistic” greed that says that everyone around me should pay for my lifestyle. (And notice I say lifestyle—not life’s necessities). Socialistic greed wants just as much as the hyper-capitalist. Of course, it would want us to believe otherwise or that it goes about it in a different way. But, it really doesn’t.
That’s because greed isn’t just about money and things. It’s about our expectations. We expect certain things because we think we need them. But, if we are honest, oftentimes our needs are not really needs. For example, an eighth grader may say, “Mom, I need a smart phone!” Does he? Why do you need it? “Well, because,” he begins to rationalize, “everyone has one.” This is not a need. The eighth grader will not die if he does not have a smart phone.
Greed does not know the difference between needs and wants. Greed needs everything. “Father, give me the inheritance that is coming to me,” says the younger son. Does he need it? No. He has all his life’s needs taken care of. Indeed, when he is greedy, he will find himself in dire need: hungry—and not only for food, but for what he needs most: his Father’s love.
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When greed becomes cultural, the effects are disastrous. For example, to my high school teens: you do not need a $80,000 college education. Sure, you want one, but you don’t need one. For most of you, it would not be smart to go after such shiny fruit. Rather, you could go to a junior college for two years, get all of the credits you would have gotten at the big expensive institution (but at half the cost), and then transfer to the “places you’ll be from.” Greed says, “No. No, that doesn’t work. I need to take out student loans…”
Well, I tell you, there is no greater modern birth control today than $80,000 in student loans. Really. Graduate with 80k in loans, get married (and we’re not even going to talk about how much people are greedily spending on receptions!), and then see how many kids you can afford. “We’ve got $80,000 in loans” couples are saying. "We’re going to wait to have kids"—which, translated, means “We can’t afford them.” Because #Greed. High schoolers, be alert: you are making your future family’s decisions, now.
Expectations, when they become fossilized, are called entitlements. Hyper-capitalisitc greed and socialistic greed both believe that they are entitled something. And when they aren’t given, there grows the rotten fruit of resentment and even contempt. Sometimes, this grows further into manipulation so as to obtain or, worse, possession by force.
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It is worth repeating that greed is not simply about money. It could also be about one’s kids and their vocations. For example, it often happens to me that a high schooler will say, “Father, I think I have a vocation to the priesthood or to the religious life, but my mom wants grandkids.” Parents even tell their kids that! “I want you to pass on the family name” or “I’m going to be lonely if you become a sister. Who is going to take care of me?” Well, parents, you should have had more kids.
I have even heard some parents try to manipulate their children by saying, “Honey, you’re too beautiful to be a sister” (as though sisters were ugly! Some of the most beautiful people I know are sisters. Just yesterday I offered Holy Mass at the Carmelite Monastery and a sister there was setting up my vestments in the sacristy. And there was such a holiness about her, a beauty that inspired me and even gave me greater fervor to how I would offer the Mass).
“Honey, you’re too beautiful to be a sister”?—Notice what the greed has done to those parents. It has blinded them to the beauty of their kids’ hearts; it has blinded them to the beauty of vocation; it has blinded them to the beauty of Jesus’ own poverty. For this reason, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Why is this? Because such a man avoids the cross.
When it comes to prayer, the greedy person is distracted by their stuff—the television instead of prayer, the organizing instead of spiritual reading, the vacation and skipping Mass. Even now, we are distracted by what we have to do later today. We are the cold-hearted who say, “When will… the Sabbath be over that we may begin to sell again?” (Amos 8:5)
The greedy person easily becomes a workaholic, busy, and rarely tithes. If he is generous, it is often with the mixed intention of being seen or making a profit from it. They cannot see people, but only the advantage that people give them; numbers. The greedy person will become dishonest, steal, and even defraud so as to get what they want. They are consumed by the things they consume. They are the Pharisees whom Jesus once indicated as lovers of money (Luke 16:14).
How I wish they would “come to their senses.” To visit the Missionaries of Charity here; to give and to not count the cost; to be free…. Come to your senses before God does it in another way!—through financial ruin, through tragedy, or through death (at which point, it is too late. You will be like the rich man who cries out to Lazarus from across the abyss, saying, “just a drop of water to cool my tongue” or “let me warn my children, lest they enter into this fiery hell…”
Repent. And see the robe that your Father will give you, and the ring, and the sandals. The robe is your dignity, the ring—a sign of the family—is your identity, and the sandals (they would have been worn only by the free, not by slaves), this is your freedom. And the feast is heaven.
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And so, now..... Envy. The older son is scandalized that the Father would take such a greedy man back. And then—and then!—lavish treasures upon him! The older brother is envious. (And notice, envy is the older brother of greed).
Envy is an emptiness. It is the only of the Deadly Sins that does not achieve its sinful object: gluttony feasts; lust sees; greed hoards… Envy, however, is envious precisely because it does not obtain what it wants. It is perpetually empty. And therefore it is angry. Resentful. And it copes with this through gossip.
For example: notice the older son. When he hears the “sound of music,” he doesn’t go to the source for information—he doesn’t go to the Father. The older son goes to the servants! And they talk about the Father: “Do you know what your father just did?” “I can’t believe he did that.” “You should have been the one to have the feast…”
When the Father learns about his son’s envy, what does the father do? He does the exact same thing that he does with the younger son: He comes out of his home and meets the son—even when this oldest one isn’t walking to him.
And what does the Father say? “Everything I have is yours.”
The ring? It’s yours. The robe? Yours. The sandals, the feast—it’s already all yours. Everything! And yet…. that’s not enough for the older son. He wants the satisfaction of being The Only. Envy cannot welcome anyone to its self-feast.
In so doing, envy—just like greed—has become blind. You see, the Father isn’t just rings and robes and sandals and feasts. The Father has more than that. He has a heart. He has a heart full of mercy. And when he tells the older son “Everything I have is yours,” he is not only offering mercy to the older son, the Father is also saying that you have my very heart of mercy. Within your very chest is my very heart. You have within you the very source and capacity to forgive and to love and to do so superabundantly and joyfully.
This is the greatest of all treasures. But the son does not see it. He does not see its value.
As a result of this, the older son pouts and remains outside the feast—which is Jesus’ way of saying that he is in hell. This is what envy does.
Do you envy others—their possessions, their lifestyle, their health, the apparent blessings that they have in life? Stop it. And take a moment to reflect. “Everything I have is yours.” That’s God saying that to you right now! “Everything I have is yours.” What more do you want?
We must stop and reflect—because all around us is grace! We are awash in gift after gracious gift. We too must come to our senses! Let us repent of our envy!
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Let me conclude with something that St. John Vianney once said about envy and greed. He said, “My children, I tell you, you will have less to suffer following the Cross of Christ than from serving the world and its pleasures.”
In other words: I know that the Cross looks frightening. I know it involves suffering. The pain of simplicity and of not having stuff and of looking silly because of it. But that suffering is nothing compared to the pains our hearts will and do feel when we are consumed by greed and envy.
This is Lent. Let us repent. And resolve to enter the merciful heart of Jesus Christ.