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 this most beautiful of the parables of Jesus, the younger son specifically represents the sinner, the libertine 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 inevitably brings him down, but rather the sin he shares with his elder brother, the sin against the Father’s love, a terrible failure to love him in return for all his love and generosity.
In the case of the younger son, this profound ingratitude is perhaps more apparent, because by asking for his inheritance he treats the Father as if he were already dead, and then the prodigal compounds his lack of love and gratitude by running off and squandering His father’s hard earned patrimony on vile living. There is no real love present where one has so little awareness of the callousness involved in treating someone’s generous gift – 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 thrown away on the momentary pleasures of the flesh. The younger son’s life as a self-indulgent profligate is a testimony to his terrible failure to love his father, as his father loves him.
Now, it may not be so immediately apparent that the elder son is also guilty of this sin of ingratitude and failure to love. But he is. We sense that something is also very wrong with him 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 welcoming home of the prodigal son, his refusal to share the joy of the Father at the “dead” son’s return, even before he learns anything about his brother’s genuine repentance and desire only to be treated as a hired hand, is self-revealing. His attitude reveals the secret of his own sin of ingratitude and loveless sonship. What Jesus shows us is that after all those years of “service,” he still did not in any way share the heart of the Father. By his anger, his secret sin is unmasked; it reveals that he had given his service not out of love for his father, but solely out of a calculated sense of duty, aimed simply at profit and at one day inheriting the rest of His Father’s estate.
Because the elder son does not serve the Father our of love, he totally fails to understand the great love of the Father for both of his children, even for this prodigal son, and thus the elder son does not respond like the father, not even to the point of recognizing that this other son of the father is still his brother.
Now Surely the point here is that the elder son is now in danger of being “lost,” of being “dead”, for this lack of love is the final barrier to sharing the joy of the Father, which in this parable clearly suggests the idea of Heaven’s joy. He too must undergo a deep conversion if he is to find the path back to the Father’s love. In fact, at this moment, he is in greater danger than the prodigal son, for the prodigal at least has come to recognize his sin, and has come home to reconcile to the love of the Father, and to share his joy.
Finally, we learn from the parable, looking at the prodigal son, just what it is that draws sinners to repentance, and to find the way home? One might say that that in the parable the immediate cause seems to have been simply his physical hunger and the real danger of death he faced, and that is true enough. We might even say that at this point, the prodigal son’s contrition is what we would call imperfect, that is, not motivated really by love, but mainly by a desire to escape from his present desperate situation which literally threatens his life.
But that is not the whole story here, for the element of love is in fact not entirely missing in this conversion process. It’s there but somewhat hidden and mysterious. Surprisingly, the love that is acting beneath the surface here is really the Father’s love for the son, his love drawing the son back, giving him the very confidence to return home. It is the memory of that paternal love that draws the the son and gives him some insight into his own sin as the first step of conversion: “I will return home and say to the father I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Indeed, he even sounds like David who says almost the very same thing about his sin with Bathsheba: “I have sinned against the Lord!”
At any rate, what enables the son to recognize his sin and repent, is not simply his physical condition, but rather his recognition that he had sinned against two loves, the love of the Father in Heaven, and the father on earth, a love which he had experienced for years, even though he did not appreciate that love for what it was, nor 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, a love like God’s. It is this love that assures him that his father will forgive him, and will allow him to return even if only as a hired servant, and he knows that 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 repentance or without justice. He does not ask 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 just “ treat me as your servant” is all he asks. That is enough. The younger son cannot even claim to be motivated purely by love, as is his 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.
And this is how 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 him 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.
And it ends with the elder son 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 in this earthly feast ans more importantly in the eternal feast of Heaven.
There is so much wealth here that all the sermons till the end of time will not exhaust this parable’s 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 to 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 time for the alienated, the prodigal, the lost to come home, to recognize the Eternal 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. How different from the elder brother in the parable is Jesus.
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His mercy, and if it does not move our hearts, and set our feet on the path home to the Father, nothing ever will. May we never close our hearts to the love that God pours out on us, and then we too will be given far more than a ring and a cloak and sandals on our feet. We will be given the gift to once again live in the love of the Father.