Chapter 13: The Parable of the Prodigal Son
This parable has been considered to be the precious pearl of the Gospel, since it tells the story of a merciful father, who welcomes home his sinful son and who, at the same time, invites his elder son to participate in the festivities. What is your experience with your biological father? Does he embody goodness, compassion and love, or, instead, have you endured tyranny and harshness? If someone sins against you, do you wait until he comes back to you, or are you no longer bothered about him? If ever he comes back to you with an apology, do you seek revenge, or do you forgive him and accept his apologies? Do you restore him to his original place in your heart?
Every single person sins. Only God is sinless. Man is constantly subject to temptation and to commit errors. Moral standards can correct our behaviour to bring us back from the path of evil, especially when we know that there is a compassionate and merciful God, who washes away any errors, large or small. Our problem may be in not being aware of our sins; it’s why our meeting today sets out for us the meaning of sin and its consequences, by shedding light on the Sacrament of Penance, which we experience, throughout our lives, after Baptism. Indeed, on the very day of Baptism, there is no confession of sins; but after Baptism, we have a duty to ask the priest for the Sacrament of Penance. Let us hope that our meeting today will shed light on God’s great mercy for us, as well as on the gravity of the sins we bear, so that we may repent.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
11He also said, “A man had two sons. 12The younger said to his father, ‘Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. 13A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
14 “When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, 15so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. 16And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. 17Then he came to his senses and said, ‘How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! 18I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; 19I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.’ 20So he left the place and went back to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. 21Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, 24because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. 26Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ replied the servant, ‘and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; 29but he answered his father, ‘Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. 30But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property-he and his women-you kill the calf we had been fattening.’
31 “The father said, ‘My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. 32But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.’”
2. 1- Explanation
Jesus explains in this parable the desire of the younger son to leave his father and to live independently, after having asked for his part of the inheritance. Despite the great love of the father for his son, and his paternal desire for him to remain in the home, we see how he respects his son’s freedom and his decision to lead his own life. The father waited patiently until his son returned; he accepted his repentance and restored his status as his child, he is so overjoyed to see him return. At the end, he goes out to beg his elder son to enter and participate in the joy. All this shows the breadth of God’s generosity in His dealings with us.
The younger son thought he would achieve happiness in living on his own in a life of sin. He realized that happiness acquired with money is a false happiness, for it led him to lose his dignity as a child of his father. He asked for his share of the inheritance, yet his father was still alive. By choosing to move away from home, he began to feel deprivation, in such dire need, that he wished he could eat the food of pigs, but was denied even that. When he came back to his senses, he humbly acknowledged that he had sinned and decided to express his repentance by asking only to be a hired servant of his father. Experience of the love lived at his father’s house, and his certainty of his father’s fidelity to this love, encouraged him to repent. This child has lost the status of son, but the father has not lost his status as a father. He was waiting for the return of this sinful child because his love is greater than any ingratitude towards himself. He did not ask his repentant son the reasons for his departure and his return, and he did not blame him for spending all his inheritance; he was content, on the other hand, to throw himself on his son’s neck and kiss him tenderly, in order to give him the love that had been lost, and long sought, for a while.
This is a striking example of the immense love of the father, forgiving sins unconditionally:
- Sin and its consequences: impoverishment of values, social degradation, loss of dignity, lack of everything because of the loss of everything.
- Conversion and its components: contrition, confession, repair.
- Forgiveness and its fruits in the new life symbolized by four elements:
- a) the best robe is the state of holiness through the recovery of the beauty of God’s image in us.
- b) the ring is the covenant of fatherhood and sonship between God and man, as a token of the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven.
- c) the shoes point to the new direction on the path of daily life behind the Lord Jesus.
- d) the feast of the fattened calf is the participation in the banquet of the body and the blood of Christ at Mass.
In this parable, the father goes out twice. The first time, he goes out to welcome his younger son on his return from a distant land; and the second time he goes out to beg his eldest son to come in and participate in the joy of the party. The elder son criticized his father for not being fair to the one who had remained faithful at home. But the father did not use the law to defend his paternal right and his freedom to do what he wanted with his own property while he lived, but lowered himself to the level of his elder son’s way of thinking, to help raise him up to the level of sonship. Although the elder son did not turn towards his father by saying: “My father”, yet the father answered him in love by calling him: “My son!”, thereby making clear the intimate relationship between them. And in response to the elder son who says: “Look! … But, for this son of yours …”, to which the father responds: “But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.” The real conversion expected by the father is not, in fact, that of the younger son who came home so as not to starve, but rather that of the elder son who is unable to establish a real relationship with his father on the one hand, and with his brother on the other hand.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
In the context of this parable, at the beginning of Chapter 15 of Luke, in the same vein, Jesus speaks of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) and the woman who is searching for a lost penny inside her house (Luke 15:8-10). The parable of the loving father (Luke 15:11-32) talks of the loss of two sons: the younger son outside and the elder son inside. Wherever we are, lost near or far, outside the community or inside, we are called to return to the merciful love of God that awaits us.
We can see in the figure of the younger son, the image of sinners, those distant from God, tax collectors, and all converts from paganism to the Law of God. In the elder son, we can see also the image of all pious Jews, Pharisees, and all those who claim to be very closely connected with God and His cause, though far removed from His mindset. If we have sinned a lot in our lives, or if we consider ourselves balanced in our behaviour, this Gospel will address us in order to invite us to conversion.
Being stubborn doesn’t bring any profit! Contrition leads us to salvation and rejoices the heart of God. We must not get angry if we consider Him to be unfair to us; on the contrary, we are called to be patient and always ask ourselves if we are at fault. We must not be judges of others, but brothers, and walk together on the road of continuous conversion that leads to infinite love.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: The Mystery of Repentance and Reconciliation
When the believer receives the sacrament of Baptism and clothes himself with Christ, all his sins are erased, and he becomes a new man. But what is he to do when he commits a sin? Baptism is given only once. The Lord revealed that God’s mercy is infinite, and he commanded us to forgive each other without measure, as he told Peter, that he should forgive his brother up to seventy times seven times. If the Lord wants us to forgive this much, how much more would He forgive us? Therefore, he entrusted his Church, through his Apostles, with the task of proclaiming forgiveness of sins to all men. God does not want the believer to die in his sin, and He does not accept that sin takes him away from the loving relationship with Him; thus, through the sacrament of reconciliation, God stoops down to the sinner and allows him to enter into communion with Him anew.
When the believer recognizes God’s immense love for him, he realizes that in his life he has many ways of behaving, many thoughts, words or actions that betray the covenant with God. He will then repent and decide to return to God, asking for forgiveness. The Church asks the penitent believer to approach the priest and ask him for Confession; the latter will listen to his confession of sins, share with him God’s word – as in all the sacraments of the Church – and pardon him in the name of the Holy Trinity.
Why go to a priest? Is it not enough for man to repent directly to God? Indeed, the relationship with God is, of course, personal, and it is beneficial for the believer to build this relationship with Him, which feeds on daily prayer, thanksgiving to God for all His blessings, the abandoning himself in His hands when he has problems and worries, and asking for forgiveness for all his sins. But, in addition to this personal side of the faith, the Church has an important role. It is she who has given me the Baptism by which I became a living member of the Church of Christ; it is she who nourishes me by teaching me the Gospel; and it is she who confers the Sacrament of the Eucharist on me. Therefore, Christ called his disciples, instructed them before he sent them to proclaim the Good News and repentance, as well as giving them the authority to forgive sins.
The believer is not asked to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation every day, but the Church recommends, in her ecclesial precepts, that it should be received at least once a year; That being said, it may be beneficial for this sacrament to take place several times a year, that is to say, from time to time, when the believer commits a grave sin, or when he feels the need to renew his loving relationship with God, because he is no longer practising his faith as before or because he has moved away a little from the fervour of faith.
4- Reading and Meditation: Origen (c.185-254)
The Sacrament of Penance
But perhaps the hearers of the Church may say, generally it was better with the ancients than with us, when pardon for sinners was obtained by offering sacrifices in a diverse ritual. Among us, there is only one pardon of sins, which is given in the beginning through the grace of baptism. After this, no mercy nor any indulgence is granted to the sinner. Certainly, it is more fitting that the Christian, for whom Christ died, have a more difficult discipline. For the ancients, sheep, he-goats, cattle, and birds were killed and fine wheat flour was moistened. For you, the Son of God was killed. How could it please you to sin again? And yet, lest these things not so much build up your souls for virtue as cast them down to despair, you heard how many sacrifices there were in the Law for sins. Now hear how many are the remissions of sins in the gospel.
First is the one by which we are baptized for “the remission of sins”. A second remission is in the suffering of martyrdom. Third, is that which is given through alms. For the Saviour says, “but nevertheless, give what you have and, behold, all things are clean for you.” A fourth remission of sins is given for us through the fact that we also forgive the sins of our brothers. For thus the Lord and Saviour himself says, “If you will forgive from the heart your brothers’ sins, your Father will also forgive you your sins. But if you will not forgive your brothers from the heart, neither will your Father forgive you.” And thus he taught us to say in prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A fifth forgiveness of sins is when “someone will convert a sinner from the error of his way”. For thus divine Scripture says, “Whoever will make a sinner turn from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” There is also a sixth forgiveness through the abundance of love as the Lord himself says, “Truly I say to you, her many sins are forgiven because she loved much.” And the Apostle says, “Because love will cover a multitude of sins”. And there is still a seventh remission of sins through penance, although admittedly it is difficult and toilsome, when the sinner washes “his couch in tears” and his “tears” become his “bread day and night”, when he is not ashamed to make known his sin to the priest of the Lord and to seek a cure according to the one who says, “I said, ‘I will proclaim to the Lord my injustice against myself’ and you forgave the impiety of my heart.” What the Apostle James said is fulfilled in this: “But if anyone is sick, let that person call the presbyters of the Church, and they will place their hands on him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and if he is in sins, they will be forgiven him.”15