Today, the Church offers for our reflection one of the most beautiful and moving readings not only of the Bible but of all world literature. So many universal themes are treated in the Parable of the Prodigal Son such as sibling rivalry, loss and redemption that anyone reading it should find a message in it.
However, because this passage from the gospel of Saint Luke is so well known, we can be tempted to think that we have already heard its powerful message of redemption. There is a danger in our believing that there is nothing new for us to learn from it. But that could not be further from the truth. The reason this parable has changed so many hearts and inspired so many lives is the depth and richness of the narrative. No matter how many times we read it or hear it proclaimed, there is a facet of it that can still move us. We need to approach this beautiful parable of Jesus with fresh eyes to draw out the message that God has for us today.
Of all the themes we could dive into today, let us meditate on what this parable tells us about what sin is and the damaging effect it has on us.
Sin, first of all, is an utter rejection of God. When we break the commandments, we are telling God that we no longer want Him to be our Father. We want to live on our own terms and set our own rules. Like the son in the parable, we are happy to collect our inheritance but will no longer live on the farm. We act like ungrateful, spoiled children when we take advantage of all that God has given us, but fail to show Him any gratitude, respect or love. Ultimately, like the father in the parable, we break God’s heart when we sin.
This is an important truth that we should meditate on daily. Through baptism, we are daughters and sons of God. We are known and loved by our Heavenly Father as His dear children. All that we have and all that we are are His free gift to us. There is nothing He is not able to provide us if we ask. The more this truth becomes a reality in our lives, the deeper it sinks into our soul, the less likely we will be to reject our Heavenly Father by choosing sin over grace. We will be motivated to do good and avoid evil not out of fear or guilt but out of love.
Secondly, this parable teaches us that sin is the desire for an illusion. It is a cheap substitute for God’s gifts. The son in the parable did not all of a sudden one day decide to leave his father’s house. There were probably many mornings while working in the fields that he looked out over the fence surrounding his father’s property and thought about how much better life would be in the big city. He may have heard stories about what was going on outside the walls of the farm and wished he could experience the excitement for himself. Over the years, he had built up in his mind a fantasy of what that city must be like until he got to the point that the reality of life on his father’s farm was no longer bearable. He could no longer appreciate all that his father had given him. He had to have more. Unfortunately, it does not take long for him to find out that, once his money was all gone, there was nothing more the big city could give him.
All temptation is nothing more than the devil offering us a counterfeit for what God has already given us. Satan promises us freedom, pleasure and excitement but only delivers shame and heartache. We become vulnerable to temptation when, like the son in the parable, we think that there must be something better in life than we can find in the Church or in our families. When we sin, we tell God that what He has given us is not good enough, that He is holding out on us. Ultimately, we exchange our Heavenly Father’s gifts for a fantasy that never comes true.
Thirdly, when we sin, we lose our dignity. We see this happen in dramatic fashion in today’s parable. In a short amount of time, the son goes from being heir to an estate to working on a pig farm. In fact, he is so hungry that he is ready to jump into the trough alongside the swine. Though he suffered no want in his father’s house, he was utterly penniless once he left. Though he was looked up to as a son in his father’s estate, he was now looked down upon as an unskilled worker in someone else’s farm. He left his father’s house to find adventure, but lost everything in the process including his sense of self-worth.
Sin strips us of our dignity. We become so addicted to the pleasure that it promises us that we are willing to squander anything for one more fix. As we fall deeper and deeper into its clutches, we lose ourselves. It depletes our resources, weakens us physically and weighs us down with shame. In the end, sin has nothing to give us. It is like a parasite that can only take and take and take until we have nothing left to give.
If this parable has much to teach us about sin, it also has much to teach us about God’s forgiving love. When the son returns to the father’s house, he is not greeted by condemnation but by joy. The father runs out to meet the son and, before he can even say how sorry he is, he is given new clothes and treated to a party. All that he lost - his home, his inheritance, his dignity and his relationship with his father - are now restored to him. Sin had impoverished him, but his father was able to enrich him again.
Thanks be to God, it is the same for us. No matter what we have done, no matter how we have offended God, He is always ready to welcome us home. The past is wiped away and replaced with a future filled with hope. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” It is never too late for us to go home. We never need to fear that there is only condemnation waiting for us there. We never need to shy away from God thinking that there is no way He would be able to accept and forgive us. The words of Jesus tell us otherwise. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Let us turn to Him now and experience for ourselves the love, dignity and true freedom that we already have as His sons and daughters.