Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Difficult Son

by Fr. Vincent Tobin, OSB


Fr. Vincent Tobin, OSB, shared this homily, which he gave on May 3, 2015, at the rosary pilgrimage at Monte Cassino Shrine.

"He emptied himself" (Phil 2:7) of the glory of divinity and became a helpless infant, radically dependent on his parents, like any infant. But his very existence became a threat to the frightened, paranoid powers-that-be.

Joseph and Mary took responsibility for his safety. However the flight into Egypt is interpreted, the brooding danger surrounding the child hovered over his parents, too. When the young girl from Nazareth gave her answer to the mysterious stranger, "I will it, let it be done," she, of course, had no way of knowing how the future would unfold.

But she did accept in faith that stretched back some 1,800 years to Abraham, her father in faith, that YHWH, the almighty I AM revealed to Moses in the burning bush, the God of the Covenant, would be true to his promise, that she could confidently place her absolute trust in him.

Walking to Jerusalem for the major feasts was customary for pious Jewish families, and hundreds of thousands would gather in the Temple courts, the size of some 36 football fields.

There is a scene in the Gospel of Luke (2:42-) where we find the 12-year-old boy-man making a conscious decision that he knew would cause his parents a great deal of anxiety: he said nothing about his decision to stay behind in Jerusalem and not join the caravan for the 63-mile trip back to Nazareth. They started off without him and thought he was in the crowd.

Three days later, they couldn't find him among their many friends and relatives, and with gathering dread they turned around and headed back the three-day trip to town. They were likely midway between anxiety and anger. Any parent whose child ever got lost in a huge crowd could feel the same kind of dread.

They finally found him, in the Temple (not according to the old tale - praying the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament). They asked him flat out (the text doesn't mention anger, but it's not hard to understand how they felt), they asked him why he did what he did.

The answer is almost flippant: what were you worried about? And then the reason, clear to him, certainly not to them: "Didn't you know I had to be about my Father's business, in my Father's house?" What could Joseph be thinking? But then the boy reverted to his dependent status: he went home with them and obeyed them.

On the whole, a very strange incident. Well, she and Joseph had a right to be upset, but... OK, he was her Son and she was his mother, puzzles and all. The heart has reasons which reason knows not (Pascal).

Some 18 years later, he left home and Nazareth for good and began telling everyone he met that the time for waiting for God's promise was on the verge of being fulfilled. Along with his mother and disciples, he was invited to a wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.

It was now the time to wake up, take God seriously, to stop compromising with the truth, time for action, to take a stand for or against God. Time was running out. Not to decide is to decide. Time to change the water of "my will be done" into the wine of "not my but your will be done." "In his will is our peace" (Dante).

Their Son wasn't being "nice"; he was upsetting people. One day when he was inside a crowded house talking with people, someone came from the outside and told him his mother and brothers and sisters were outside and insisted on seeing him (Mk 3:32).

Yes, they thought he was off his rocker, embarrassing the family. Maybe he was working too hard. Maybe some quiet time away with friends in the country would help. They didn't yet understand his priorities: His Father's first, then human family and relatives. He was being difficult again. People just didn't understand why he was doing what he was doing.

The pressure on his family must have been awkward and unwelcome. To say the least, his own mother was troubled over the ways things were going, and there's no biblical evidence that her difficult Son took time to explain. But she was his mother, and he was her Son. That had to explain everything. Love has reasons which the reason knows not.

Why does he go on about things that people don't like to hear? This business about the cross with all its hideous implications, willingly taking it up, carrying my own pain and helping others to carry theirs? It's all I can do to even think about carrying mine.

And for heaven's sake, this talk about eating his body and drinking his blood, how can he expect any rational human being to go along with that? No one was surprised when lots of people said no way and stopped following him. Why doesn't he just say nice things, cozy and comfortable things that appeal to the crowds and are welcome into everybody's comfort zone? Why does he have to be so difficult?

The mega-churches could teach him a thing or two about saying nice things that people like to hear. This mother brought up her Son to be kind and respectful. What happened between then and now? But, she was his mother and her love went beyond understanding.

Why do the Gospels report these embarrassing scenes? What was so important that the stories would be reported as long as the world lasts? In other words, what meaning can we take right now from hearing them? How do the decisions and words of a difficult Son and puzzled parents affect our lives and our decisions?

It's no surprise that we humans have a "do-not-disturb" category of acceptable sins that have passed our inspection and have been judged OK, at least for the time being, with the possibility of further review at some future date - maybe on our deathbed?

No matter all the puzzlement and embarrassment, she was his mother and she would stand by him whatever happened, even as she felt the criticism of so many who should have been glad to listen to him. He was her Son, she was his mother, come what may.

How many of you here today have experienced the difficult son, the difficult daughter? Rebellion is part of growing up, and runaway emotions take charge long before reason takes hold. In an age where just about anything goes, how can the example of Mary and Joseph help frustrated parents?

The difficult son who totals the family car while DUI; a young daughter high on drugs and in the lockup; a son or daughter who decrees in freshman year of college that religion has no place in the scientific age; the panic following an unwanted pregnancy; addiction to Internet porn; bulimia, anorexia. The list goes on.

When parents accept the reality, the person, they are not approving of self-destructive habits. Humility is reality, which must be faced. Pride is illusion, which must be exposed.

"When they saw him they were amazed and his mother said to him, 'Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety?'" His answer is almost flippant: "'Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know that I must be in my Father's house (Lk 2:48)?' But they did not understand what he said to them." They did not understand. But neither did they give up on him. They didn't disown him for embarrassing the family and spend the rest of their lives regretting it.

Love saw them through this family crisis, and through the Great Crisis years later, when a sorrowful mother stood weeping at the foot of a cross. She went through her Good Friday, as we all must, and then three days later she understood: "Peace be with you," he said. "It is I, do not be afraid."

Authority, it is said, is love with limits. And we say, "love is patient, love is kind, love never ends" (1 Cor 13:4). Love knows how to correct and keeps on trying, and trying again and again and knows no limits. Holy Mary, Mother of a difficult Son who taught the world to love, pray for us.

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.