This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 15:1–3, 11–32:
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.’”
Today’s Gospel gives us one of the most expressive and beautiful parables Jesus taught, with so many lessons that a month’s full of reflections could hardly cover it. At its core, the parable teaches us not just the nature of forgiveness, but also the nature of sin itself and the necessity of forgiveness in both directions.
The nature of the younger son’s sin seems obvious, but it goes deeper than reading in our own context might suggest. The younger man didn’t just want the father’s wealth; he wanted the father to be for all purposes dead, and for that matter the older brother as well. The prodigal son wanted control of the father’s estate, which would have rightly passed to the older brother with the responsibility to care for his younger sibling. The younger son wanted to cut himself off from his family entirely and be responsible to no one and for no one, making all his decisions for himself.
That was original sin, too. In the Garden, Adam and Eve chose rebellion and control over a divine relationship with the Creator. They wanted to control what they saw as their own birthright, and thought they could do it better than God. That decision sundered humanity from its intended unity with the Lord, who loved us enough to allow us to walk away and to take control of the world.
This plays out in the parable in an utterly predictable manner. What results from the son’s decision to cut himself off from the father? He falls into dissipation and vice, and winds up losing his inheritance in no time at all. And yet, even though he knows his father is still alive, the prodigal son refuses to return until he’s in the most dire of circumstances. Why?
It’s because sin is a trap, not just in our physical lives but more importantly in our minds and souls. It becomes even more so when we begin to comprehend the costs and pain of sin, not just to us but to those around us. It might have been that the prodigal son was too proud to admit he’d sinned until the very end. It might also have been that, knowing the extent of his sin, the son felt unworthy to return at all. He expresses as much to his father when he says, “I no longer deserve to be called your son.”
This is how sin traps us and keeps us from repenting of it. In some cases, the glamour of sin makes us incomprehensible to its nature, but in others, the degradation of sin is so painful that it isolates us from everyone else. Our regrets shame us to the point where we cannot face them or try to seek healing from them. We hide and lament rather than connect and repair what has been broken, especially if we perceive it can never be fully healed. We cannot forgive ourselves — or perhaps better put, we see ourselves as so worthless as to make receiving forgiveness impossible.
Sin is designed to both play on our vanities and material impulses, and then to use those to degrade us to perceived worthlessness. When we finally take the first step of recognizing the pain and consequence of sin, it sets up another trap for us. We go from believing in our own false righteousness into a nearly inescapable prison of self-condemnation, an echo chamber of despair. Both of these are related to the same kind of self-centeredness that rests at the heart of sin itself, even though they are in many ways directly opposite in their manifestations. The result in all cases is the same — to isolate us from those who love us and to press upon us a suffocating hopelessness.
That isolation applies even to God and His endless mercy, for which sin is specifically designed. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks at length about sinfulness and punishment for those who will not repent, and teaches that it’s impossible for man to enter heaven under his own steam. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. However, in this parable especially, Jesus teaches us that love overcomes sin, and true repentance remains open for everyone. The Father waits for us with open arms to return to His family, not with condemnation and slavery. All we need to do is repent of those sins and embrace His word.
To do that, though, we have to awaken to our sins, recognize them and the pain they create, while still grasping that God’s mercy is greater than our own imaginations. We do not need to trap ourselves in echo chambers of worthlessness, not when the Lord seeks us out and calls us to return to Him. That is the true Good News of the Gospels — hope over despair, and a welcome seat at the table of our Father when we choose to return.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69. Currently on display at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.