Who is The Prodigal Son?

(Fourth Sunday Lent, Year C)

The most loved parable in the Gospel is beyond doubt the one just proclaimed: The Prodigal Son. (Lk 15) We readily identify with its characters: an ungrateful son who wants to go it alone, a sneering older brother quick to judge others but slow to recognize his failings and a forbearing father, eager for his son's return. The story is so simple, yet there is a problem in interpreting it. We all know the father is God, the elder brother the Pharisees, but who is the prodigal son?

On one level we can say the prodigal son is all mankind. As St. Paul says, "All men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are saved by pure grace." On a more personal level each of us can apply it to our own selves. I know that I have received a great inheritance, but I thought it was my own and I misspent it. I blew it on things that would make me happy, make other people like me, but it didn't work. Sad, lonely, cold, hungry I finally wake up. I realize the only place I will find warmth and food is back in my father's house. So I swallow my pride and decide to go back. The prodigal son is surely me. And you, my brother, are also the prodigal son. And you, my sister, you are the prodigal daughter.

That personal interpretation has great value, but it misses a deeper point. On the deepest level--and this is going to surprise many of you--the prodigal son is Jesus himself! Not that Jesus ever sinned and needed forgiveness, but St. Paul tells us today in the second reading: "For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God." This is an important point. I want to emphasize it because too often people use this parable to communicate a false notion of Christianity. They make it sound like we can go to God on our own, without Jesus. Sure, he teaches us about salvation, but when all is said and done, we save ourselves. That is false. It used to be called Pelagianism, but we may as well call it Americanism. We do not go to God on our own--but only joined to Jesus, and I might add, his Church.

The parable itself gives us some clues that the Prodigal Son is Jesus--not just the fact he was criticized by the elder brother, i.e. the Pharisees. Much more direct evidence is what the father says to the elder brother at the end of the parable. "We had to celebrate and rejoice. This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life." Those are the same words used to describe Jesus resurrection--the one who died has now come back to life. By his death--and by his resurrection--Jesus has won for us forgiveness, redemption, a place at the banquet.

In just fourteen days we begin the most solemn week of the year. We call it Holy Week because it commemorates the central event of history. Two weeks from today we will each receive the blessed palm and listen to the reading of Jesus' Passion. This Sunday's Gospel describes what his Passion and triumph means for each of us.

Don't stay outside like the elder brother--so filled with envy that he could only criticize and judge. You know, sometimes we can think what counts is being right. But going to heaven does not depend on that. Nor is it even a matter of doing right. The elder brother had convinced himself that he not only was right but that he had always done right. He reproached his father for not having butchered a calf for him. He deserved some consideration. He worked hard to earn it.

Ah, but he could have entered the banquet so easily. Just for a moment smile at his own ridiculous pride, his self-justification which was really so pathetic. Simply put your hand in the hand of the younger brother and walk thru the door. Jesus has his hand stretched out to you this very moment. Do not be fooled. You cannot save yourself. Instead join yourself to the one who humbled himself unto death. In him alone will you find the Father's forgiveness.

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From Archives (Year C homilies for Fourth Sunday of Lent):

First Things: Your Story & His Story (2016)
I Have Sinned (2013)
A New Creation (2010)
Confession of Sins and New Creation (2007)
The Reproach of Egypt (2004)
Return of the Prodigal Son (2001)
Who is The Prodigal Son? (1998)

Homilies for Year A Readings for RCIA Scrutinies:

Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 4 (2014)
Sight (2011)
Small Gesture with Enormous Promise (2008)
Seeing and Knowing (2005)
Men Who Went Blind (2002)
Fatal Blindness (1999)

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