The Prodigal Son

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Josh 5:9-12; Ps 33; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3.11-32

The parable of today's Gospel, that of the Prodigal Son, gives us extraordinary insight into the nature of sin, repentance and the mercy of God. This parable is also important for recalling the importance of the 'forgotten' sacrament, the sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation.

With regard to the nature of sin, the word 'prodigal' means a kind of 'extravagent wasting' or 'driving forth', expressing two of the main characteristics of sin. Just as the son drives himself forth, that is, separates himself from his Father and his Father's House, so a sinner separates himself or herself from God and from the Church. Just as the son's life of debauchery relies on his wasting what his Father has given him, so sin is parasitical and can only live off the things of God consumed in a disordered fashion. Indeed, once the son has spent his Father's money, the country in which he is living experiences a severe famine, showing how once the good things of God have been consumed, a society of sinners cannot fill its emptiness. The son in this distant country then 'hires himself out' to feed pigs with husks, a sense of the way in which sin reduces someone to servitude and wretchedness. The notion of feeding pigs would have been especially ignominious, since the Jewish people regarded pigs as unclean, but there is another meaning to the mention of pigs. Jesus, you may recall, once exorcises a legion of unclean spirits from a man, spirits that then depart into a herd of pigs, driving them over a cliff to drown. The implication is that a herd of pigs symbolise a sort of mass of disordered appetites, the state of the soul addicted to unclean things. The mention of husks is significant since they are the worthless outer shell of food, in other words, things that look like food but cannot satisfy. So the lesson is that sin leaves a sinner in a wretched state, trying to feed his mass of disordered appetites with things that look attractive but cannot satisfy. Notice the detail that no one gives the son anything, in other words, there is no charity, no genuine love, in a society of sinners. Once you have spent what you have in a life of sin, no one wants to know you.

At this point, the son finally 'comes to his senses', a point which underlines the irrationality or insanity of sin, even by the measure of human wisdom. The son says to himself that even the Father's paid servants have more than enough to eat and he resolves to return to his Father and make a confession of his sin asking the Father to take him back as a paid servant. Notice that the son is not motivated to return to the Father because he has wounded His Father's love but simply because he wants to escape from his wretched state. To become a servant, of course, is simply to work for pay. The important lesson here is that we don't have to have what is called 'perfect contrition' to be forgiven. Even to have 'imperfect contition', that is, to want to escape from sin in order to escape from wretchedness, is sufficient motivation for God to forgive us and welcome us back by means of confession. And notice what a welcome the Father gives his son. He runs out to meet him, clasps him in his arms and kisses him tenderly. When the son begins to confess his sins, the Father puts the best robe on him, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. He orders a feast to celebrate because this son, who was dead in his sin has come back to life; he was lost and is found. The 'best robe' may signify being clothed in the virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit; the ring probably signifies the 'spiritual espousal' of the soul to the Holy Spirit. With the words of Christ, even the smallest word is not wasted, and even the gift of the sandals signifies an important detail. Sandals have soles underneath but are open above, indicating that the person is raised from earthly matters and is open to divine wisdom from on high.

So the message is that there are numerous gifts that accompany the act of returning to the Father and confessing ours sins, and these gifts are bestowed even when we act simply out of enlightened self-interest, that is, simply because sin leaves us in a state of wretchedness and misery. Of course, there are many details that are left implicit in the parable. We do not know, for example, what happened the day after the feast. Perhaps the son who had been welcomed back would want to make some response, out of love, just as many notorious but repentant sinners have wanted to do penance. The people of Israel, after their escape from Egypt, spent years in the wilderness purging their vices or tendencies to sin, a point alluded to in the First Reading, when Lord says to Joshua, "Today," that is, after forty years, "I have taken the shame of Egypt away from you." In the New Testament, the chief tax collector, Zaccheus, undertakes to make recompense, and more, to anyone he has defrauded by his life of sin. St Augustine, for example, after leading a debauched life for many years, poured out all that he had in service to God for the rest of his life, becoming a Christian, a priest and later a bishop and great teacher. The great warning, however, concerns the other son. The parable breaks off before the issue of the elder son is resolved, but at the conclusion, the younger son is inside the house, symbolising the Church, but the elder son is outside refusing to come in. The elder son has indeed followed his Father's orders, but does not understand his Father's love, and there is a risk that he will remain outside, that he will not go to confession himself out of pride and anger at the mercy that the Father has shown to the repentant younger son.

In conclusion, may we keep in mind the tremendous rejoicing in heaven over a repentent sinner. May God take away our fear of confession this Lent and help us to return to this sacrament if we have been away for a long time. May we not feel resentent at notorious sinners forgiven by God, so that we shall not exclude ourselves from the communion of saints through our pride and shall be ready to celebrate the great feast of Easter with joy.

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