Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Living the Parable by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." So to them Jesus addressed this parable: "A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, 'How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."'
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son. But his father ordered his servants, 'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field and on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, 'Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, 'Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.' He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"
Our Lord's parables differ from all other stories. We merely read all the others; we must live and participate in the parables. They take root in our hearts only if we place ourselves in them. This is true of no parable more than that of the Prodigal Son. When we see ourselves in this dead and risen son, the lessons take root. We discover the horror of sin, the nature of repentance and the gift of forgiveness.
First, the horror so sin. At the son's selfish request, "the father divided the property" (Lk 15:12). That already gives us a clue about sin's effects: it divides. Then the son "set off to a distant country" (Lk 15:13). he departs - divides himself - from his father and brother. At the same time, he also departs from himself. We refer to his sinful life as one of "dissipation" or "dissolution" because he disintegrates within himself. And "what is more afar off," asks St. Ambrose, "than to depart from one's self?"
Sin causes this threefold division: from God, from others and from ourselves. When we dissolve our union with God, we find our union with others and ourselves dissolved as well. "I disappeared into many things," said St. Augustine about his own dissolute life. His words capture the horror of sin: we, God's own image, disappear. At the moment of temptation we think that we will be happier, more fulfilled. In reality sin separates us from ourselves and makes us less complete. We disappear into many things. This explains why sin offends God: because it brings disintegration to what He loves.
Given this truth about sin, we can better understand the nature of repentance. The sons' contrition begins with him "coming to his senses" (Lk 15:17). Or, as other translations have it, he "came to himself." If sin divides us, then logically repentance involves a restoration to ourselves. We must recognize that our sins do not define us. In fact, they violate the truth about us. They lie about who we are. We need to "come to our senses" and realize this.
Because he recognizes his own dignity and what he has squandered, the prodigal resolves to return to his father. Notice how healthy his shame and repentance are. He does not have the self-hatred that often leads people into graver sins. Rather, he has both an honest awareness of his lost dignity and a lively confidence in the father's love. These prompt his beautiful contrition: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers" (Lk 15:18-19).
Finally, his repentance moves the father to bestow swiftly and generously the forgiveness he has been waiting to give. "While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him" (Lk 15:20). The father's love makes up the distance the son still has to travel. And it is the son's repentance that provokes the father's action. This corresponds to the sacrament of confession. In a sense we can never attain perfect contrition, because we can neither see all our sins nor fully appreciate the horror of them. It is too far a distance for us to travel. Yet when he humbly and sincerely bring Him what repentance and sorrow we can, He makes up the distance.
"Then the celebration began" (Lk 15:24). It seems irresponsible that the father should heap such gifts upon his son: the finest robe, sandals, a ring, a feast. Yet we can understand all these as the father's way of enhancing the son's dignity. By these gifts the father fortifies his son with a deeper sense of his own sonship - so that he will never stray from the father's love again.
So also in confession our heavenly Father shows Himself to be generous - indeed, even prodigal. That sacrament grants us not only forgiveness for past sins but also strength to avoid future sins. We should leave with a deeper sense of our divine sonship - so that we will always dwell secure and joyfully in the Father's house.
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