|Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son|
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Our readings this weekend are all about mercy and the great love that the Lord has for us, a crazy love, a love that more often than not surprises us with it's generosity and self-gift. This is modeled beautifully in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Merciful Father. This somewhat lengthy Gospel reading is so profound in its teachings that we could spend hours upon hours contemplating the reality of what is held here. Tonight, though, I would like to look for a moment at its connection with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in a sense preparing the hearts of the Apostles for what was to come later in Christ's ministry.
Those who know their catechism questions well can likely speak of the four essential parts to the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession, these being contrition, confession, absolution and penance. Contrition is the sorrow we experience for our sins, confession is the verbal expression we say to the priest, absolution is the forgiveness that God gives through the priest and penance is the good work or prayer that we offer up in reparation - for healing - for the sins committed. These coming together we are assured of our freedom from sin and the joy that comes with being cleansed once more by the Precious Blood of Jesus. Interestingly enough, if you look at the parable today, you see each of these aspects contained therein, illustrating that Confession isn't something we just made up but rather is shaped by the teaching of Jesus Himself.
To begin with, to have need of reconciliation, there must first be a sin that causes separation. We see that sin in the younger son who receives his portion of the inheritance and then spends it all on (the Gospel is always so kind in it's wording) 'a life of dissipation.' The wording the Lord uses is intentional - the son goes away, separates himself from the father, and immerses himself in a sinful lifestyle. That's what sin does, it separates us from our Heavenly Father. Mortal sin cuts us off completely, but even venial sin adds a little block between us in our relationship. And so we begin with the sin. The son, after running out of money, finds himself in a bad spot. He is faced with starvation, longing for the pods on which the pigs fed. We can see this as a sort of penance, because he is suffering on account of his sins and making up for the wounds in the process. We normally do penance after, but as a priest I've taken people's previous sufferings to be penance enough for them in their conversion. And so he does his penance to make right the relationship. In the midst of that he recognizes the need to return home. He experiences sorrow for his sins, contrition, and the need to be reconciled. And so great is the desire to be reconciled with his father that he is willing to accept a lower place in his household, that of a worker instead of a son, in order to be there. We see it in his words he intends to speak to his father upon return: "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." What a humble admission of fault! This is what we say when we make our act of contrition in the Sacrament - I'm not worthy, Lord; I'm content simply being a worker if it means being in your house. And with this contrition of heart he returns home. He arrives and begins his verbal confession of sins, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you..." but before he can finish his sentence the father cuts in and tells them to get the party ready, slaughter the fattened calf, and call the neighbors over because his son had come home. God does this so often in the Scriptures, cutting people off mid-sentence. We expect God to do so many things, but more often than not He surprises us with the extent of His love, His self-gift to us, and His desire to bring us joy. September 14th is the liturgical feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, honoring the Cross of Christ's victory over sin. What greater sign is there of the absurd love He has for us than that?! And that is the love that embraces the son in this parable. Before he can finish his sentence, the father's love and mercy wraps him up and forgives him of everything. The story even illustrates this further in the description of the father who sees the son far off and running to him, embraces him. The fact that the father was looking out for the son's return says so much, and that he broke what would have been normal protocol of walking calmly as a dignified man, he runs to his son and holds him close to his heart. Absolution.
The truth is that in our sin God is always waiting for us, always looking off into the horizon in a sense, for the day when we experience contrition for our sins and return home. He longs to forgive us. To celebrate with us the gift of true life. How beautiful that the encounter concludes with the powerful words "Then the celebration began." It would have been enough for Jesus to leave the story there and continue with some other teaching. After all, He had already covered the lost sheep brought home, the lost coin being found, and now the lost son returning home. He had made His point sufficiently, it would seem. And yet He continues, picking up the story of the other son, the older brother who comes home to find his younger brother alive and party in full swing. You can sense the anger in his words as upon hearing of the party for his brother he lashes out at his father, "All this time I was with you and never disobeyed you once. And for what!? I never even had the smallest celebration! And yet for my brother who wasted everything you throw a party?!" The words are tangible, you can feel the son separating himself from the father just as the younger one had done before. And there the father steps up and invites him to comes inside and rejoice with them. There it ends, with no resolution, no ending to know what the son chose. This open ended conclusion is there that we might put ourselves into the story. We are that older brother in our own sins, and we are presented with the option: come inside or stay outside.
The simple fact is that all of us are sinners. We shouldn't be surprised at this because we are the direct spiritual descendants of that 'stiff-necked people' spoken of in Exodus today. We, like them, struggle in our sinful flesh. But the Good News - the Gospel of Jesus - is exactly what St. Paul reminds us of in 1 Timothy: Christ came to save sinners. We are not doomed yet, but have opened before us a path with two choice. It's a matter of contrition; are we really sorry for our sins?
If you wanted to simplify things a bit, you could say there are two kinds of sinners: those who know they are sinning and those who don't. St. Paul gives himself as an example of one who didn't realize he was sinning. In persecuting the Church and killing Christians he thought he was doing God's will. He cannot be fully responsible for those actions. But when the day came that he was able to see the error of his ways and the sinful actions he had committed, he was faced with a choice: repent or remain. All of us are faced with that choice when we become aware of a sin that we had not noticed or known was sinful in our lives before. We can either repent of the sin and turn to our merciful Father to receive forgiveness and reconciliation. Or we can remain in our sins and separate ourselves even more from His love. We can go inside the house to the party, or we can remain outside alone. The choice is for us. God is a loving God, a merciful God. There is no sin that He won't forgive. But there are some that He can't forgive. It seems a contradiction but it's not. He is willing to forgive anything we confess. But He cannot forgive our sins if we won't let Him. If we continue to live in our sins, clinging to them rather than Him, then we refuse God's mercy and love.
And so we each must pause and look at our lives to ask the question: am I clinging to any sins? Is there something I am not sorry for doing that God can't forgive? The invitation is there for each of us and remains there throughout our earthly life. He is always waiting for us, looking for us in the horizon to see if we are contrite of heart and longing to be joined with Him more deeply. The invitation has been issued. Are we willing to set aside our sins and experience His love? Are we willing to go home and rejoice with the Father that while we were once lost, we have been found?