One of the most beloved parts of the Bible is the parable of the prodigal son. In the context of Luke 15 it serves to explain why Jesus spent so much time and energy on ministering to such religiously marginal persons as tax collectors and sinners. While the parable can be approached from many angles, at this point in Lent the themes of repentance and forgiveness may be most appropriate.
The parable presents the younger son as a model of the need for repentance and conversion. He had spent his father’s money foolishly and prodigally, acted immorally and reached “bottom” as a feeder of pigs (unclean animals for Jews). Instead of wallowing in despair or giving up totally, the prodigal son takes positive action. He determines to return home, admit his guilt to his father, ask for forgiveness and accept whatever his father might decide. On arriving home he acknowledges his foolish behavior, confesses his sins and throws himself on the mercy of his father. He admits, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
In early 21st-century America it is unusual and refreshing to hear anyone taking responsibility. Everybody today has an excuse, it seems. Politicians, athletes and other public figures hire agents, lawyers and public relations experts to make excuses for them. In fact, it seems that accepting personal responsibility has become the last resort of scoundrels who have simply run out of excuses. By contrast, the prodigal son’s admission that he has sinned is a clear statement from someone who has taken responsibility for his own actions.
Repentance must precede forgiveness. And the prodigal son finds forgiveness from his loving father. While the son was prodigal (negatively) in wasting his father’s money, the father is also prodigal (positively) in the love that he displays toward his returning son. He runs out to meet the son. He listens to the son’s declaration of his sins and his desire to repent. He accepts the son back into his household not as a hired hand but as a beloved son. The father restores the son to his position and even throws a grand party to rejoice over his son’s repentance. The father clearly wanted to forgive his son, and he does so. Repentance precedes forgiveness, and forgiveness flows from repentance. That is a basic biblical dynamic.
At this point in Lent the parable of the prodigal son conveys a set of important biblical truths. We can turn our lives around. We can go home again. God wants our repentance and wants to forgive us. God never gives up on us, so we need never give up on God or on ourselves.
Good Christians who may not need the radical repentance and conversion displayed by the prodigal son can learn a valuable lesson from the negative example of the older son. The older son refuses to enter into the process of his brother’s repentance and forgiveness. He is jealous and bitter, instead of generous and joyful over his brother’s return. He fails to recognize that the repentance of any sinner is an occasion of joy for us all. He comes off as a sad, even tragic figure in the parable.
In the present phase of salvation history the process of repentance and forgiveness has been greatly facilitated through Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Paul notes in today’s selection from 2 Corinthians 5, God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and in turn has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. God wants not only that we not refuse to participate. He wants us to rejoice over the repentance of sinners and become active participants in the process. The statement that God made Christ to be “sin” in order for us to become righteous is best understood by assuming that Paul here alludes to the Old Testament sacrificial rite called the “sin offering” as a way to bring out the sacrificial dimension of Jesus’ death. In other words, by offering himself as a sin offering for us, Christ has made more possible than ever the process of reconciliation with God.
The reconciliation of the prodigal son with the prodigal father is celebrated in the form of a grand banquet. Today’s Old Testament reading from Joshua 5 describes the celebration of the first Passover in the land of Canaan. Having finally reached the goal of their journey, the people ate from the produce of the promised land and no longer needed the manna that had sustained them in the wilderness. Thus they transformed a Canaanite agricultural festival into a commemoration of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. There is continuity between the first Passover in the Holy Land, the banquet for the prodigal son and the Eucharist that we celebrate today.