The story of the Prodigal Son, which we have in today’s Gospel Passage was once read to some 2nd graders. The teacher then asked, “The story we just read ended with a party. In the story, who did not enjoy the party?” The answer seemed obvious, most of the children chorused, “The older son.” But one of the children raised her hand up and had a different answer, she said, “The one that did not enjoy the party was the fattened calf that was slaughtered for the party.”
A few years ago, I had the privilege of speaking to the campus ministry class of one of our Catholic High Schools here in San Diego. I asked the students to reflect on today’s Gospel passage after which I asked some questions. For example, I asked the students to tell me which of the seven Sacraments connects well with the parable in today’s gospel passage. The answer was obvious. We all agreed that it was the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But one of the students had something had something to say. She said, the story reminded her of the Sacrament of Confirmation. She explained further saying, “At Baptism, I was baptized as an infant without being consulted, but at confirmation, I made the choice myself.” Relating this to the story of the prodigal son, she explained that the younger son was born into the family without being consulted. But when he later returned home after testing some other grounds, he was convinced that there was no place like home, it was his decision to come home and confirm his membership in his family.
All the readings in today’s Liturgy celebrate God’s abundant mercy. In the first reading, God was meant to punish the Israelites for committing idolatry, but after Moses pleaded on their behalf, God forgave them. In the Second reading, Paul was writing from Macedonia to Timothy; he regretted the years he spent persecuting Christians, and he was surprised by the mercy and graces that God showered on him. Based on his own personal experience, he came to the conclusion that there is no sinner that is so wicked that cannot be forgiven, as long as the sinner listens and responds to the call of Christ.
Jesus explains more about God’s mercy using three beautiful stories in the Gospel passage. He told the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. We are all sinners in one way or the other; we have all gone astray in one way or the other, and we are all capable of going astray. If all that we have is divine justice, then we are all hell-bound, but thank God for divine mercy. In the Sacrament of reconciliation, the priest is there for us as the minister of God’s Mercy and not the minister of God’s Justice.
As we enjoy the beauty of God’s Mercy, which is very prominent in the stories of today’s passages, it is very easy to overlook the reaction of the older son. Let us note that it was in response to such reactions among the Pharisees that Jesus took his time to tell the three beautiful stories.
The passage begins with Tax Collectors and Sinners coming close to Jesus, and the Scribes and Pharisees began to complain as they could not understand why the “Holy Jesus” should have anything to do with sinners. The Pharisees failed to realize that it was for this purpose that Jesus came, that is to draw sinners back to God. They failed to realize that the power of Jesus is capable of bringing the best even out of the most sinful.
From the stories, Jesus makes it clear that sinners primarily are lost and as such, the first thing they need from those who have not gone astray is to lead them home and not to condemn them. Unfortunately, even to this day, some Christians would prefer to conceal the sign post of the Church from those who have gone astray than to make such signs more visible. Unfortunately, some Christians would derive more joy from the condemnation of the sinner rather than their repentance.
In the parables, Jesus brings out something good about sin. As long as the sinner is still alive, when the sinner embraces the mercy of God and repents, it brings about more celebration among the Angels and Saints than over the “ninety nine others.” Our sins stink before God, but when we confess them, they sound like sweet melodies before God. Sometimes, being lost, gives us a better appreciation of what we enjoy in God. In the old English translation of the Easter Proclamation, we have, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer.” This does not mean that we should deliberately get lost, for we don’t know how much time we have for repentance.
Jesus intended this parable for the Scribes and the Pharisees to see themselves in the older son. The older son refused to approach his brother who was lost and found. While people gathered to rejoice and celebrate, the older son felt he was too good to rejoice. Yet, the Father was too rich in mercy to be discouraged by the older son’s attitude. The punchline of Jesus’ message today is, “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” For those of us who count ourselves as free from sins and perfect, let us watch it so that we do not miss out from the final and eternal celebration as a result of our self-righteousness; and for those of us who like the younger son have realized where we have gone wrong, let us like him, continue to sing:
God of Mercy and Compassion, Look with pity upon me,
Father, let me call thee Father, ‘Tis Thy child returns to Thee.
Jesus, Lord, I ask for Mercy; Let me not implore in vain;All my sins, I now detest them, Never will I sin again.