24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life (I Tim. 1:14ff)
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a parable for all ages, but has a particular importance for an age like ours in which true penitence – a genuine sorrow for sin – is becoming a rare thing. The prodigal son surely represents each of us in one way or another, if we honestly understand our situation before God. And the prodigal’s path to forgiveness of his sins and reconciliation with his Father – clearly Jesus’ most wonderful portrayal of His Father in Heaven – is most instructive when it comes to finding our own way back to God Our Father.
In the parable, the younger son specifically represents the libertine, the sinner who is enslaved to his senses and wastes his life in the pursuit of immoral pleasures of a sensual kind. And this libertine son will be brought to his senses, will begin to see the mess he has made of his life, only when he has wasted everything he has inherited and discovers, as such libertines often do, that once their money is gone, so are their so-called friends who gladly helped them waste it, but then quickly abandon them to their sad fate.
However, the parable seems to teach us that the worst sin of the younger brother is not really these sins of the flesh, which bring him down, but rather the sin he shares with his elder brother, the sin against the Father’s love, by a terrible failure to love him in return.
In the case of the younger son, this profound ingratitude is perhaps more apparent, because in asking for his inheritance he treats the Father like he were already dead, and then compounds his lack of love and gratitude by running off and wasting His father’s hard earned patrimony on vile, loose living. There is no love where one has so little awareness of the callousness involved in treating someone’s generous gift to us – here perhaps the fruit of a lifetime’s hard work – as if it were valueless, as if this generous bounty is something simply to be wasted on the momentary pleasures of the flesh. The younger son’s life as a self-indulgent profligate is a testimony to his failure to love his father, as his father loves him.
But it may not be so immediately apparent that the elder son is also guilty of this sin of ingratitude and failure to love. We sense that something is wrong with him also from the way he jealously and angrily reacts to his father’s act of mercy toward the younger son who has come home. Even though he was not a libertine like his brother, even though he has faithfully served his Father in the family business for years, there is something deeply disturbing about his behavior toward the father’s mercy and generosity. His bitter reaction to the Father’s welcome of the prodigal son, his refusal to share the joy of the Father at the dead son’s return, before he knew anything about his brother’s genuine repentance and desire only to be treated as a hired hand, reveals the secret of his own sin of ingratitude and loveless attitude. What Jesus shows us is that after all those years of “service,” he still did not share the heart of the Father. His secret sin is unmasked, that he had given his service not out of love, but solely out of a calculated sense of duty, aimed simply at profit, at one day inheriting the rest of His Father’s estate.
Because the elder son does not serve the Father our of love, he fails to understand the love of the Father for both his children, even his prodigal child, and he thus does not respond like the father, not even to the point of recognizing that this other son of the father is still his brother. Surely the point here is that the elder sonis now in danger of being “lost,” for this lack of love is the final barrier to sharing the joy of the Father, which in this parable clearly echoes the idea of Heaven. He too must undergo conversion to the find the path back to the Father’s love, and at this moment he is in greater danger than the prodigal, for the prodigal at least has come to recognize his sin, and has come home to reconcile with the Father, to share his joy.
Thirdly we learn from the prodigal in the parable what it is that draws sinners to repentance, and to find the way home? One might say that it’s immediate cause was simply his hunger, the danger of death he faced, and that is true enough. We can even say that at this point the prodigal’s son contrition is what we call imperfect, not motivated purely by love, but mainly by a desire to escape from his present situation which literally threatens his life. But that is not the whole story here, for the element of love is not entirely missing in this conversion. It quickly appears. But surprisingly the love that is acting first here is really the Father’s love for the son, drawing the son back, giving him the confidence to return home. It is that paternal love that first of all gives the son insight into his own sin – the first step of conversion: I will return home and say to the father I have sinned against heaven and against you. What enables the son to see his sin is not so much his physical condition, but rather the love of the Father which he had experienced for years, even though he did not appreciate that love for what it was, and respond in kind.
Likewise, the Father’s love for the son gives to him a second gift, the confidence to return home. He first recognizes his sin against that love – I have sinned against heaven and against you – and he knows what a great sin it is because he now sees what a great love His Father has for him. This love assures him that his father will forgive him, and will allow him to return even if only as a hired servant, as he knows he truly deserves nothing more – I am no longer worthy to be called your son. There is no question here of asking for forgiveness without justice, for mercy without justice, as if the Father’s love would produce a mercy that would now overthrow justice by giving part of the elder’s son inheritance to the younger who had wasted his own. The younger son does not desire that at all – treat me as your servant. That is enough. The younger son cannot even claim to be motivated purely by love, as is the Father, for his life of sin made that impossible at the present moment. It is enough just to be safe in the hands of the father whose love rejoices in the return of his dead son to life. It is the Father’s love that counts, and the father’s love will restore his own.
So the parable ends. The son is found who was lost. The younger son’s conversion must continue, and if it is successful he will one day share not the Father’s worldly goods, but the father’s love, his ability to love, which is worth more than all the inheritance he could provide in material terms. He will learn to repent from love, and to forgive from love, and that will make him a true son of his father, pointing always to the heavenly Father who showers his blessing on the just and the unjust alike, at least in this world. How many times Jesus taught this in the Gospels – what good is it if you love only those who love you; if you forgive only those who love you. But the elder son is left in indecision. He must convert to come into the feast, he too must learn to have the heart of the Father, if he is to share the eternal feast of Heaven.
There is so much wealth here that all the sermons till the end of time will not exhaust the meaning for us Christians. But today we need to see this parable in terms of the sacrament of Penance, to learn what it means to repent, to convert, to seek forgiveness; to learn how merciful the Father is to those who truly come home and ask his forgiveness. Unfortunately today there are all too few who come home; and if they do they come home to argue with the Father, and defend their way of life rather than recognize it as sin. Or worse they stay at a distance, like the proud elder brother who values earthly goods more than the love of anyone, and in the midst of moral and even physical ruin remains defiant to the last.
It is always the right time for the alienated, the prodigal, and the lost, to come home, to recognize the Love of the Father who did not spare his only son, that we might be forgiven and have a new life in Him. It is time to recognize that the true elder son is one who shares the heart of the Father and thus handed himself over for us, the prodigal ones, that we might share his inheritance from the Father. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if it does not move our hearts, and set our feet on the path home to the Father, nothing ever will. Let us never close our hearts to the love that God pours out on us, and then we to will be given far more than a ring and a cloak and sandals on our feet, the gift to once again live in the love of the Father.