September 11, 2022 –
The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Jesus’ vocation in this world was to die on the Cross. Everything that Jesus taught was a means to that end. So it is with the three parables we hear this Sunday.
Although the long version of today’s Gospel passage is very long, it includes one of the more profound examples of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is just that kind of parable that tempts us to believe that Jesus’ vocation was to be a teacher. But we cannot finally unlock this parable until we recognize it as a means to reach the end of Calvary. The first two “mini-parables” help us see this. They whet our appetite, so to speak, for the “entrée” of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
These two appetizers are served up to the Pharisees and scribes, not to the tax collectors and sinners. This tells us something important about what Jesus is cooking up. The Pharisees and scribes were complaining about Jesus, “saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” So Jesus begins to serve the Pharisees and scribes by helping them see why He is where He is: on the one hand, why He’s hanging around with tax collectors and sinners; but on the other hand, why He is in this world at all.
These two appetizers are simple in their presentation. Each has just two key elements: the shepherd and his lost sheep; the woman and her lost coin. Within the brief drama of each parable, the focus of joy emerges: the joy of the shepherd and the joy of the woman.
In other words, the focus really isn’t on the found sheep or the found coin, but on those who find them. Jesus explains that the shepherd’s joy is like “the joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents”. The woman’s joy over finding her lost coin points our attention to the “rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents”.
These opening parables, then, call us out of ourselves. We are not the focus of these parables. Although we’re clearly meant to identify ourselves with the lost sheep, and then with the lost coin, the focus of the parable is the “joy in Heaven” “among the angels of God” that results from your being found: which is to say, being rescued from sin and death.
So with those two brief parables as appetizers, Jesus presents a lengthy parable for our spiritual feasting. As we dig in to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we should be mindful that here also, the focus is not upon the one who is lost, but upon the one who finds.
The parable’s second half shows why we ought to call it the Parable of the Prodigal Father. If the younger son is prodigal, so is the father, though in an extremely different way. The word “prodigal” means “lavish” or “extravagant”. The son is extravagant in giving away money that is not his own, but the father is extravagant in giving away mercy from the wellsprings of his heart.
The joy of this father is the focus of Jesus’ teaching. When you transpose this parable to your life, you need to recognize that God the Father’s joy is infinitely greater than your sins.
Many Christians get caught up on this. They stay away from God because they do not believe that He is just as loving as the prodigal father. This may be due to the example set by their earthly fathers. This may be due to having committed mortal sins of such depth that they don’t believe that it’s possible for God to forgive them. Regardless, they and we need to turn to the Father whom Jesus describes through this master parable.
We need first to have the honesty of the prodigal son. We need, both in our nightly examination of conscience, and before our monthly confession, to say from our hearts, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But even more than needing to make the honest admission of our sins, we need to know who God the Father is. We need to listen with faith in order to hear God our Father say from His heart, “let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again”.