It’s a wonderful story isn’t it? The parable of the prodigal son is really a gospel within a gospel, the heart of the good news that Jesus brings to a sinful world. It’s so simple that even I can understand it; and yet it’s so profound that no one can fully plumb its depths. And so today we’ll just skim the surface and see if we can take away some little nuggets of God’s wisdom that might help us better know God and ourselves.
Let’s begin by asking: Who’s described as the happiest, the more joyful in this parable? The answer, of course, is the father. Now, I’m sure the younger son is also happy, but that’s not mentioned, is it? Because it’s not the main point of the story.
You see, this story is all about the joy of Our Father, Our God – and because of this, I’ve always thought it should have been called the parable of the merciful father. Just recall how happy the Father is when his son returns. The Father’s joy is the last thing the son expects, but the first thing he encounters. This joy is the heart of the parable and a sign of the depth of the Father’s love.
You see, love reaches its completion in forgiveness. And since God is love, He is also forgiveness. This is why He finds such joy in mercy. The joy of the Father! The Father who rejoices in finding us, in forgiving us. And it’s in this joy, that Jesus lives! It’s this joy He wants to share with us. What did He say to the Apostles?
“I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete” [Jn 15:11].He wants us to be totally happy, something that happens most completely when we experience His forgiveness.
This is the joy that Jesus desires to bring us, so He can reveal the Father to us, so we can enter into His relationship with the Father. How did St. Paul put it?
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” [Rom 8:15]
Now, the father isn’t the only person in the parable, is he? There are also the two sons. And both are sinners.
The younger son is the obvious kind of sinner, the kind we all see and recognize because his sins are so large, so public, so in your face. Oh, yeah, he’s a sinner all right. His journey begins with selfishness, a selfishness that takes him from the home of his father to a place of sin and personal gratification, to a place where relationships never last. When his money disappears, so too do his "friends." And then he’s alone, mired in the mud of a pigpen, just as he’s mired in sin. And it’s there, immersed in his sinfulness, in the midst of all that filth, that his conversion begins.
Before he ever gets out of the pigpen, he admits his sinfulness, and finds two things: Contrition: "I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you...” And the need for penance: “Treat me like one of your hired hands." [Lk 15:18-19]
Keep in mind that penance is for growth, not for punishment. That’s the difference between God’s justice and our justice. Our prison systems, although we like to call them correctional institutions, are really places of punishment. Rarely are they places of reparation, repair and correction; rarely are they places of growth.
Penance is reparation, repairing or correcting a sinful lifestyle; and its purpose is to help us change that pattern. "Doing penance" means taking steps to change your life, to make room for something new.
Of course, conversion can’t happen or even begin, unless we expect forgiveness. And forgiveness awaited the younger son, didn’t it? The father, in his wisdom, expected his son to return. Why else would he wait and watch for him? Seeing his son in the distance, the father runs out to meet him with an embrace and a kiss. Through one loving gesture, the father forgives the son—and the son hasn't even made his confession yet!
When the confession comes, the father hardly listens, because the important thing isn’t confession, but that his son has returned. The son doesn’t need to beg for forgiveness, he’s already been forgiven. This is the glorious Good News! God's forgiveness, just like His love, doesn't stop. This is the loving God Jesus reveals to us: the loving God who can’t not forgive!
Ah, but there’s another son, isn’t there? There’s the elder son, who seems like the perfect son. He honors his father. He works hard. He doesn’t ask for favors. Yes, he’s the perfect young man, the kind we’d all like our daughters to marry.
Oh, he seems respectable, but beneath that perfection, beneath the surface, there’s a hardness, a simmering hatred that bursts through the surface when his sinful brother returns and is given the royal treatment.
What does he do? He becomes angry and stays outside, pouting in the darkness. It’s always in the darkness where the worst sins are committed. He hates his younger brother, the foolish one who took the money and ran, the son who spent his birthright on sin. But he hates someone else as well.
He also despises his father, because he can’t stand the thought of his father’s forgiveness. You see, he’s also motivated by selfishness, but it’s a darker kind because it hides under the cover of respectability, the kind that says, “I’m better than you. I’m holier than you. I deserve more than you.”
Oh, the elder son was a sinner all right; he just didn’t think he was. He despises his father for being so forgiving, but it never crosses his mind that he needs that same forgiveness.
Yes, like the two brothers, you and I are also sinners. But the question each of us must ask today is: Which kind of sinner am I? Am I the in-your-face, party hearty kind of sinner, weak of will and easily led astray? Or am I the hateful, resentful, unforgiving, pouting kind of sinner, the sinner who places himself above all others? I suspect, for most of us, we have a bit of each in us.
But once we answer that question, once we know who we are, only then do we come to realize not only that we need forgiveness, but also that we need to forgive. It’s this knowledge, or the lack of it, that determines where we go from here.
Brothers and sisters, forgiving is no big thing for God. On the contrary, He delights in it, because forgiveness completes God’s love. In forgiveness, love is at its strongest. In forgiveness, love, especially God’s love, generates new life.
Yes, God’s delights in forgiveness. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Yes, it’s truly the Good News!