Surely the parable of the Prodigal Son is the best loved of all Jesus’ parables, and the one that most perfectly summarises the whole Gospel message. It's a very good story, very well told. We find it has power to move us, even to the depths, no matter how often we hear it. In spite of so many readings, and so much commentary, it seems never to grow stale. We read it in lent because it’s about sin and conversion and repentance and forgiveness and death and resurrection and divine love and human response and grace and goodness and evil. In this parable, Jesus the Son of God reveals to us the secret of His Father's heart, and the meaning of his own mission. Here also he shows us the truth about ourselves: both the depths of our unworthiness, and the sublime dignity to which the Father's love raises us.
About 40 years ago I heard a sermon on this parable which I didn’t much like. I hadn’t the slightest idea then of ever becoming a Priest myself, but I remember thinking that I’d love to get up into a pulpit some time and refute that sermon. Now at last, here I am! The priest said that obviously good Church-going Christians would not find it possible to identify with the prodigal son. They never commit abominable sins like him. So they will feel much more like the older brother of the story: proud, self-righteous, censorious, hard hearted, bitter. Well: I couldn’t disagree more. Here then is the opposite point I’d like to make:
The elder brother is the one who puts himself outside the range of God's mercy. He is the type of the Pharisee. He stands on his own righteousness. Looking at his sinful brother, he feels only disdain, resentment, self-pity. His Father’s attitude of unconditional love and readiness to forgive simply baffles him, and he wants no part in it. No: let this brother of his, whom he refuses to name, suffer the full consequences of his own deeds, without mercy. He says he has faithfully served his Father all these years, but actually his service has been without intimacy, without any real communication, certainly without love. So he actually knows nothing of his Father, nothing of his Father’s generosity and goodness and love. Someone standing before God with this attitude is in a very bad place. He’s on the high road towards hell. So he has to change, and soften that stony heart of his, or he will find himself unable to receive the mercy and love of God, made manifest above all in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We are here in Church now precisely because we don’t think like that. On the contrary, we’re here because we know we are sinners, and that God loves us anyway. By definition, all Christians have a great deal in common with the younger son. We don't need to be great criminals to be convinced that we are sinners. For one thing, we all share in the original rejection of God's friendship made by Adam. That choice all of us have ratified by our own sins. But more deeply still: the slightest offense against God is an insult to infinite goodness and love. The more we come to understand that love, the more we see the vileness of sin: any sin whatever. This is why it was precisely the Saints who most clearly recognised and confessed their sinfulness. The closer they grew to God, and the more they rejoiced in his love, the deeper became their humility. So, with all the Saints, we readily acknowledge our sinfulness. With them and with the prodigal, we approach God in humility, not demanding our rights, but confessing our unworthiness. And we can do that with complete confidence, because we know what his reaction will be.
The picture of the father in the parable is not just a nice story. Its truth has been proved in Jesus Christ. In Christ the Father has come running to meet us while we were still far off. In Christ he has embraced us, kissed us, raised us to the dignity of Sons, and invited us to the banquet. And he has done this because he loved us first, irrespective of the quality of our conversion to him. As St. Paul says, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. In him, then, God has demonstrated that his love for us is unconditional, that no sin of ours can ever destroy it, that he lavishes it on us not as a reward for our goodness, but out of the abundance of his mercy.
Lent is a special time for us to examine our conscience, to change our ways and come back to God, from whom we so easily stray by negligence. In lent we hear with particular force St. Paul's cry, be reconciled to God! (2 Cor 5:20 - second reading). The Church mediates this reconciliation above all in the sacrament of baptism. But she also does so, as often as we like, through the sacrament of penance. As with baptism, every time we celebrate this, we re-enact the story of the prodigal son. Although that awful person's repentance was at first very imperfect, he teaches us a wonderful formula for our act of contrition. Father, we can say with him, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. The sacramental absolution that follows is not less, but actually more dramatic than the scene of forgiveness in the parable. As Paul says, the result is a new creation. The old has gone. Look, all is made new! It is all God's work: we have become the goodness of God (2 Cor 5:17,21).
Lent also, of course, is a preparation for Good Friday and Easter. In only 3 weeks time we will be celebrating the supreme instance of one who was dead and is come to life; who was lost, and is found. The death of Christ was not a metaphor, but real. The possibility of our conversion from sin, and return to God depends upon it. And Christ's resurrection from the dead is the source of our own resurrection, from sin to holiness, from exclusion to belonging, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy.