4th Sunday of Lent
Preached March 31, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
We have just heard the well-known and much beloved Parable of the Prodigal Son. We could look at this parable from the perspective of the merciful father, who is already on the look out for his son’s return, who espies him when he is still far off, who rushes out to embrace him and kiss him, who restores him to the dignity of sonship, and celebrates his return with the fatted calf.
If, however, we overemphasize the father’s mercy we run the danger of missing something important about the son’s return. After all, in this parable, unlike the parable about the shepherd who goes out in search of the lost sheep, the father does not go out looking for the son, but only hopes for and awaits his return. Further, we could well imagine that the son’s reception might have been a bit different had he simply waltzed in and said, “Hi, Dad, I’m home,” as though nothing had changed.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son speaks about a change that takes place within the son himself, a change that sets him on his path of return to the father’s house, a change that is key to the father rushing out to embrace him.
The key to the parable is found in these words: 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.’
The parable is about the son’s repentance and conversion and the welcome the repentant son receives from his father, giving him a gift of mercy beyond that he had a right to hope, restoration to the dignity of sonship. The son recognizes that through his own fault he had lost a great good, the good of being a son in his father’s house – which means also that he recognizes his father’s goodness – that he no longer deserved to possess that good, that he could only appeal to his father for mercy and even then he did not dare ask to be restored to his former condition.
The parable helps us understand what takes place when a person sincerely repents of mortal sin and then goes to confession and is forgiven. It is not a matter of failure to the line with respect to an arbitrary set of do’s and don’t; it is all about our relation with God.
In the son’s interior reflection we see an example of examination of conscience and contrition for sin; his journey to the father’s house represents confession; the father’s welcome shows us the absolution; the only thing missing is the penance. That is because the penance is not a condition for the forgiveness, but belongs to fulfilling the purpose of amendment and living out the gift of received in the pardon.
What takes place in the heart of the prodigal son, which is already the work of God’s grace, teaches us about how a Catholic should prepare for confession, especially confession of mortal sins. The older brother shows the need of confession for venial sins: though he is a son in the father’s house, he has the attitude of a hired worker, and needs to leave off his anger and resentment with the father, so as to live truly as a son. In any case, the experience of the prodigal son should teach us to appeal to God’s mercy, without presuming on God’s mercy.
So let us consider the interior steps taken by the prodigal son that led him to get up and seek the father’s house once more. Examination of conscience and contrition need to recognize what sin is and the gravity of the evil and foolishness involved.
Sin, especially mortal sin, is foolish, a kind of madness almost, like the son insulting the father by asking for his inheritance while the father is still alive, then running off and squandering the inheritance.
We are children of God by baptism and our inheritance is eternal life, which we already share in a hidden way through sanctifying grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
A mortal sin is a knowing deliberate violation of God’s law in a serious matter.
Running briefly through the commandments: there are mortals sins against God, against the teaching of the faith, against right worship, against parents and other legitimate authority (including Church authority, expressed in a special way through the precepts of the Church), but also against children and those for whom be bear responsibility, against life, against marriage, against the property of others and the right use of the created world, and against truth.
There are sinful actions, but there are also sinful words, and even sinful thoughts. It is possible to commit a mortal sin by forming a deliberate intention that is never put into action, or even by a willful delight in something sinful, without the intention to do the deed.
We are obliged to confess by kind and number all mortal sins committed since baptism. We cannot just repent of some mortal sins, while remaining content with others. Effectively that means all unconfessed mortal sins since our last confession. If we forget a sin after making a diligent examination of conscience we will still be forgiven, but we if later we remember the sin, we must confess it in order to be fully healed.
By one single, deliberate mortal sin the soul departs from the Father’s house, loses sanctifying grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, squanders the inheritance of eternal life, travels into a region that is far from communion with God, deprives herself of the spiritual nourishment that comes from the word of God and the Body of Christ, and places herself at the service of demons. If only we understood what we were doing we would realize that it is senseless folly.
That means that true repentance means “coming to our senses” and recognizing the folly of our actions.
When we sin, we turn away from the Creator and turn towards the creature; we choose created things over the Creator himself. Turning back to God then means that first we must withdraw from the created things outside ourselves, enter into ourselves and there recognize the misery of a heart that has separated itself from God. We are far from God because we have turned our mind and heart away from him; be he is never truly far from us, because we are never hidden from him and he is always calling us back to himself, as when in the beginning he called to Adam, saying, Where are you? (Gen 3:9)
Next the prodigal son compares his situation with that of his father’s hired workers – recognizing his father’s goodness in the way he treats his hired workers. We can compare three types of life: the life of sin; the life of duty; and the life of a child of God. The sinner does well to reflect that his life would be better off if he simply dedicated himself to obeying God’s law, as a servant or hired worker.
God’s law is meant for our good. Consequently, if we reflect seriously on our sins, we will often see how they have made our life rather complicated (to say the least), messed things up for ourselves, and caused all sorts of problems that we never anticipated. When we fail to pray and worship God, we find that he is not there for us the way we would like and we find that we do not have the dominion over our bad impulses that we would like; anger and hatred lands us in a tangle of conflicts; sins against marriage fill us with shame and really do complicate life; when we fail to respect other people’s property we make enemies for ourselves; when we start lying we end up getting ourselves caught in the network of our own lies.
The ‘hired worker’ who obeys God not so much out of love, but out of duty, often finds that his life moves smoothly because he stays in due measure. He doesn’t bring upon himself anything beyond the ordinary afflictions and sufferings of his life. He sleeps well at night because he has an easy conscience.
So one step in repentance is to recognize: “I will actually be better off in life obeying God, obeying his commandments, even if I do so like a hired worker. I certainly don’t deserve anything better.” Sin complicates life; obedience simplifies it.
An old act of contrition starts off: “I am heartily sorry for having offended you, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell…” Those are the motives not of a son, but of a hired worker. These motives recognize, at least, that it is better to serve God than to commit sin. That is the minimum needed, we could say, in terms of sorrow for sin and purpose of amendment. The spirit of the son adds, “But most of all because I have offended you my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love.”
All that the prodigal son goes through interiorly when he “comes to his senses” should take place through the first two steps towards making a good confession: the examination of conscience and the sorrow (or contrition) for sin, together with the firm purpose of amendment, the desire to live at least “as a hired worker” obeying God’s law. If we experience the father’s loving embrace, well and good, but at least let us be faithful to our duty.
The next step, the actual return to the Father’s house, takes place in going to the priest for confession. It is not enough just to believe in our heart we must also confess with our lips. (cf. Rm 10:9-10) The interior conversion requires an outward expression.
In the matter of confession it is important here to distinguish between insincerity and weakness.
In turning away from sin the sinner can very much be afraid of his weakness; he wants to change, he intends to do what he can to change, but he is afraid that he will easily fall back into sin. Such a person is ready to return to the Father’s house by way of confession; he should not be afraid then to confess his sins; his sorrow is sincere, even if he soon falls back into sin. Even if he falls every week and confesses every week, so long as he keeps trying, so long as he keeps fighting against his weakness, he must not grow discouraged, but keep putting his trust in the Lord’s mercy.
The insincere confession takes place when the person wants the ‘good feeling’ that comes from confessing his sins, or the good appearance of going to Mass and receiving communion, but does nothing to fight against his sins and is quite content to continue committing them.
The insincere confession also takes place when a person confesses his sins in order to receive communion at some event like a wedding, but has no real intention of changing his way of life.
When someone makes an insincere confession they make an outward show of returning to the Father’s house, but in their heart they remain far from God.
Next comes the absolution, which is worthless if the confession was insincere. It is possible to deceive the priest, but it is not possible to deceive God.
The gift received in the absolution is revealed by the embrace of the father, the kiss, and the restoration to the dignity of sonship, represented by the robe and the ring. This opens the way to full participation in the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass and the reception of holy communion, which is represented in the slaughter of the fatted calf.
The path to a good confession, the way home for the prodigal son, is one of the most difficult things in the world, but the joy that comes at the end of the path is amazing. I have often witnessed the indescribable joy people experience after making a confession, sometimes a seemingly simple one, sometimes a particularly difficult, but in either case there is the joy that comes from being forgiven by God, not just believing that it is so, but hearing the powerful and effective words, pronounced in the name of Jesus Christ, “I absolve you of your sins.”
We hear so much these days about “changing the world,” confession is something that truly changes the world because it changes the human heart. This is the joy of the son who has returned home, this is the joy of the father who welcomes him with the embrace and kiss, this is the joy of the angels in heaven, this is a joy that truly merits a celebration, this is the joy that makes the Mass to becomes for us a true act of thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist.