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Try Harder
Deacon Mike Meyer / Saturday, March 26, 2022 / Categories: Blog, Homilies

Try Harder

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

          One of my most frequent thoughts during diaconate formation was: “Why haven’t I heard this before?” Every class seemed to reveal something new about God or our faith that I’d never learned in my then 41 years as a practicing Catholic. One of the fascinating facts we learned in our Moral Theology class came to mind as I was preparing this homily: Lawrence Kohlberg’s three stages of moral development.

In the first stage, typically seen in children up to about age nine, external factors govern our moral decisions; we judge actions based upon rewards and consequences. We do what we need to do to get what we want and avoid punishment. So at this stage, we tend to be pretty self-centered and opportunistic. The second stage ranges from teens to adults. At this level of development, our sense of morality is tied to personal and societal relationships. We still respond to rewards and consequences, but we accept that certain behaviors are needed to promote personal relationships and social order. At this stage, we tend to be good-enough citizens, but we still look out for number one. In the third stage of moral development, we center our sense of morality on higher, more abstract principles to the extent that we’re willing to suffer the consequences of breaking laws and societal norms that we believe are unjust. People in this stage are extremely altruistic and self-giving. Now the most fascinating aspect of this fascinating fact: most adults never progress past the second stage. Only 10 to 15% of adults reach stage three in their lives.[1] Our readings today strongly suggest that 85 to 90% of us need to try harder.

I thought of this fascinating fact because the cast of characters we meet in our Gospel represent all three stages of moral development. Let’s take a look. What level do we think the Prodigal Son has reached? Hold up your fingers—one, two or three. I see a lot of ones out there. Ooh, that’s not that the finger we usually use for the number one. I see a couple of twos. Well, I’d say he’s at stage one. It’s all about him. The Prodigal Son asks for his inheritance without a single care that he’s really telling his father that he wishes he were dead, and he spends it all on profligate living. Some might argue that he redeems himself by coming home and confessing his sinfulness, but many biblical scholars question his sincerity, claiming that he’s confessing because he’s hungry, not because he’s sorry. I’m not wholly convinced by that argument, but I still give him a one.

How about big brother? Let’s see a show of fingers—only nice fingers this time, please. I see some ones, more twos. Big brother’s a little tougher, I think, and not just because I have a big brother, and I enjoy judging him harshly [just kidding, Chris]. I also see the older brother as level one. He seems to speak from a heightened sense of justice, but he’s only focused on what he deserves and what his brother does not. In his view, he obeyed Dad’s orders, so he deserved the robe, the ring, the sandals, and the fattened calf. Little brother did not, so he deserved bupkis. Big brother was all about rewards and consequences, and that’s a level one. By the way, if you’re keeping score, don’t. We can reasonably disagree on our assessments of these characters, as long as you understand that I’m right.

Now the father. Fingers up! Ah, no surprise here—I see a lot of threes, and I agree with you. The father’s been dissed big time, especially in the eyes of Jewish law and custom. He has every right to send his son away with nothing or take him back only as an indentured servant. But what does he do? He runs to him, embraces and kisses him, dresses him in the finest clothing, and throws a big party to welcome him home. His response reflects over-the-top altruism in my book. Now, some might argue that he gets a few demerits for raising two sons who never made it past stage one, but my altruistic heart still gives him a three.

We have another group to talk about—the Pharisees and the scribes. Cast your votes. I see a lot of ones, a few twos. I vote level two. We tend to judge the Pharisees and the scribes harshly because their behavior is often the subject of Jesus’ toughest teachings. But if we try to look at it objectively, the Pharisees and scribes are judging Jesus based upon the laws and societal norms given by God to promote order and justice. That’s what level twos often do. Their problem is that they interpret these laws and customs for the benefit of the law, not for the people they’re intended to benefit and not in light of the higher principle that undergirds those laws, which is always love.

Now for the scary part: How do we rate ourselves, the only person we’re qualified to judge? No need to show fingers this time! You’ll recall that 85 to 90 percent of adults never develop past level two. That means that Jesus is addressing this parable—to us. We are the scribes and Pharisees. Now before we get too depressed by that realization, we have great hope—there’s still room for us to grow, if we try harder.

The main message of all of today’s readings is that God is constantly inviting us to move to level three, to live his altruistic, self-giving Kingdom here on earth. God longs for us patiently, waiting to lavish us with overwhelming, unrelenting, unrepayable generosity, joy, and prodigal love.[2] Even a little progress on our part makes the heavens rejoice. But God isn’t satisfied with level one or level two. As C. S. Lewis describes it: “Every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, ‘God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.’”[3] God created us all to be the best person we can be, and he sent his only Son, the perfect level three, to show us how. In the Christian game of life, trying harder means listening to him.

Today marks the mid-point of Lent, Laetare Sunday, a day we rejoice in anticipation of the Easter mystery, a mystery of reconciliation and prodigal love. Perhaps we should mark this day with a little self-reflection and self-assessment. Where am I in the three stages of moral development? For those of us who may need to up our game, maybe we could try a little harder during these next few weeks of Lent and thereafter so that by the time the Lord runs to welcome us home at the end of time, we can all raise our hands high and chant in harmony with the angels and Saints, “We’re number three!”

Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; Psalm 34; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

[1] Lumen, “Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development,” Education, Society, and the K-12 Learner (accessed March 24, 2022),

[2] Mary M. McGlone, “The God of Parties,” National Catholic Reporter 58, no. 12 (March 18-31, 2022), 19.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 202-203.




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