Earlier this year a man published a book detailing his sinful past and how he found salvation.* The public lapped it up and the book became a best seller. Everyone admired his humble confession and the story inspired millions of people. However, over the summer he was accused of a sin the public just could not stomach. It was truly repulsive. His star faded and since then book sales have plummeted.
I mention this not to judge whether the accusation was credible, but to point out a difficulty we often do not recognize. We tend to speak very casually about the forgiveness of sins. Every Sunday we profess that we believe “in the forgiveness of sins.” Most folks probably think: Well, of course God forgives ours sins. Why shouldn't he? And similarly we picture ourselves as tolerant people, ready to live and let live, give the guy a second chance, etc., etc.
Nevertheless, all this changes when we run up against something which genuinely repulses us. And when someone betrays us, insults, offends us – well, that is a whole other matter.
The people in Jesus’ day were not that different from us. They practiced a veneer of forgiveness. They recited the penitential psalms, proclaiming their own sinfulness before God and neighbor. And they knew that they should show mercy to others just as they hoped God would show mercy to them. But there was a limit. They were not about to embrace a man who betrayed his own people by gouging taxes for the army of occupation. And they felt quite right in shunning those who degraded their society and threatened the wellbeing their families.
Jesus did not accept that status quo. It would have been one thing if he quietly met with tax collectors or even if he initiated a ministry to prostitutes. He went much further. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In doing this, he challenged the common assumption about who deserves forgiveness and who has not yet earned it. For that reason Jesus told them a story: “A man had two sons…”
We know how the parable ends, so we immediately identify with the younger brother. It could not have been so with Jesus’ hearers. To dishonor ones father (even if he has done something dishonorable) brings a curse. (cf. Gen. 9:24-25) In the parable we have a father whose only fault is excessive tenderness. To abuse such goodness would have revolted a first century Jew. That the ungrateful son would fall into dissipation and degradation seems inevitable. It would evoke no sympathy. He deserves far worse that just the natural consequences of sin. After all, he has sunk lower than the swine he feeds.
Like the prodigal son, we need to face the misery of sin before can we experience true forgiveness. I mentioned to you that I have been reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. He had strayed from the right path and because of that had to travel through Hell to see sin for what it is. However, it is not at the end of Inferno that Dante repents of his sin. Only when he has passed through the seven levels of purification (Purgatory) does Beatrice confront him with the full significance of his behavior. Dante is filled with “terror and shame.” He chokes out sighs and sobs until Beatrice finally stops him. But rather than comfort him, she rebukes him for pursuing “false phantoms of joy.” She goes on to point out to him what is clear now: her own “buried flesh” (Beatrice had died at a very young age) should have made him recognize how illusory were the temptations which attracted him. Seeing his sin for what it is, Dante can finally bathe in the River Lethe – and thus be ready for his vision of Paradise.**
So it is with the younger son. He could have no greater recognition of his fault than to say he does not deserve the title “son.”
Jesus tells this powerful parable because he wants to break through the veneer of forgiveness which separates the Pharisees (the “older son”) from God – and neighbor. Like them we must hear the invitation to celebrate and rejoice, “because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
*The book (Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul) is part of a literary genre first launched by St. Augustine with his Confessions: a work which explores the author's inner struggles. Modern attempts have not been so successful. Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions revealed embarrassing details about his life, giving it the appearance of total honesty. However, he carefully concealed the truly despicable things he had done. Only time will tell whether Tony Hendra is a Rousseau or an Augustine - or someone in between. Whatever the case, his rise and fall speaks volumes about the conditions of forgiveness in contemporary society.
**Dorothy Sayers explains it this way:
"It may seem strange that Dante's overwhelming conviction of sin and his abject confession, should be placed at this point after his (symbolical) purgation by the ascent of the Mountain. He has already 'seen himself as he is' without any such violent psychological disturbance. What is meant, I think, is that not until the state of innocence has been recovered can sin be apprehended in its full horror. So long as any taint of sin remains, there is always something in the soul that still assents to sin; only when the last, lingering vestige of unconscious assent has been purged away can one see one's own sin as it appears to God - as something unspeakably vile and hideous. The sight is unbearable to human nature (thus in xxx.76-87, Dante cannot endure to look at his own refection in the stream); therefore as soon as the realization is complete and confession is made, the remembrance of sin is mercifully drowned in oblivion."
From Archives (24th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Homilies on Prodigal Son:
Confession of Sins and New Creation
The Reproach of Egypt
Return of the Prodigal Son
Who is The Prodigal Son?
Bulletin (Parish Council, Catholic Values in the Public Square, Death of Rita Thompson)
Letter to Planned Parenthood
Rapists Lose Facet of Power
Hopeful Sign in Islamic World (by Mark Shea)
Most Beautiful Pictures of Pope
Association of Students at Catholic Colleges announces Faith Essentials for the Catholic College Student!
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
About Stephen Hawkings' Grand Design. (Note: He has been wrong in the past.)
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