The Gospel of St. Luke is renowned for the manifestation of mercy. However, the pearl of all chapters on mercy is LUKE 15. In this masterpiece of spiritual literature, Jesus offers to the world three parables, all related, and indeed can be called, “The Lost and Found chapter”. (Fr. Al Hall, OMV) Why? For the simple reason that the three parables deal with both “losing” and finding. The lost sheep, sought out and found by the loving and concerned Shepherd; the lost coin, swept after, found and retrieved by the diligent woman; and finally, the lost son, found and embraced by the Father— the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Therefore, with the grace of God’s assistance, let us undo, unpack, unravel, the precious gems that await for us in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son/ The Parable of the merciful Father”.
1. YOUNGER SON’S REQUEST. “Give me the inheritance”. A blunt offence, even insult to the Father. Why? The inheritance normally would come after the father actually died. The selfish son cared more about money, fun, pleasure, and sin than the person of his “Father” who gave him life, food, clothing, shelter and basically all that he had! The essence of sin is “ingratitude”. Shakespeare poignantly noted: “More painful than a serpent’s tooth is that of an ungrateful child.”
2. LIBERTY. The Father respects the liberty and freedom of his son, who he indeed loves so much but will not coerce his freedom and force love. The essence of sin also is the “abuse” of our freedom. Instead of “using” our freedom to glorify God, we abuse our freedom to slake our own selfish desires!
3. SIN. Two other Biblical definitions of sin, related to this Parable are: “Turning our back on the love of our Father….” also… “Distancing ourselves from the Father’s home.” Sin also is going to a “Foreign land” a land of sin. T. S. Elliot poetically describes it as “Wasteland”.
4. FALSE HAPPINESS. This son deceives himself into believing that in drinking, eating, abandoning himself to licentiousness, he will find happiness! False! All in this world long for happiness! Why so many sad and discouraged faces? The reason! They are looking for happiness where true happiness is not to be found! Sin is a mirage, “a spiritual optical illusion”. The clown masks happiness, but is really sad. Remember the song: “Like the tears of the clown when nobody is around.”
5. ABSOLUTE POVERTY AND MISERY. The poor son— poor spiritually, morally, socially, and now even economically– is reduced to abject misery. Jesus portrays this masterfully, by immersing the son amidst a pack of pigs, who enjoyed life more than he did! At least they had enough to eat, but he scarcely had enough pods to pop in his dry mouth! Also, for the Jews, the pig was considered an impure, uncouth, untouchable animal; not only that but pig/pork meat was against the Jewish/kosher dietary law! The message! Sin denigrates, depreciates, lowers, debases the human person to a level that descends beyond the animal level. Animals simply follow instinct! Man, created in the image and likeness of God and Son of God through grace, must follow faith guided by reason!
6. MOMENT OF CONVERSION: EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE. Finally, entering into himself, the miserable son, starts to examine his conscience, to examine his life. Comparison! His life at home with his Father and family, contrasts this with his dissolute and unhappy life in the foreign land, loose women and now with the pigs! In the former, happiness and peace; in the latter, sadness, pain and misery! The reason! The former, the life of grace; the latter, the life of sin!
7. DECISION AND CONVERSION. True contrition comes upon him and he formulates his own act of contrition: “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; take me back as one of your hired slaves… In the depths of his heart, he is ready to change and leave his sinful past!
8. RETURN. Imagine the return! Possibly every day the loving and merciful and patient father would climb the hill, cup his eyes, and peer out into the distance with hope upon seeing his lost son. The day finally arrives! However, the father peers into the distance and sees a figure who slightly resembles his son, but even more differs from his son. Approaching the father is a young man ( but appears much older), emaciated, disheveled hair, a long and matted beard, tattered clothes falling from the body, and his gait— not springy– but slow and halting and stumbling! Could this be his son? As the distance closes, the father is convinced that this indeed is his son, transformed, rather deformed due to an unhealthy life.
9. CERTAINTY! The Father is certain; this indeed is his wayward son! Upon meeting, the Prodigal son, who had been practicing his act of contrition the whole time, starts to recite his act of sorrow. The father, however, totally oblivious to the words of the wayward son, has already forgiven him a thousand times in the depths of his heart!
10. FATHER’S FORGIVENESS: GOD’S FORGIVENESS. As soon as true sorrow is expressed in the heart, God’s forgiveness is instantaneous; His forgiveness is less than a heartbeat! “Indeed God is slow to anger and quick to forgive!” Not only does the father forgive, but the father will abound in bestowing the most choice gifts upon the repentant son! Below follow the gifts and the symbolic interpretation.
A.) KISS. The Father kisses the son. The “Kiss’ is the universal symbol of love! Although the son doubted the love of the father; still the love of the father never changes. A trick of the devil is to make us believe that after we have sinned, then God’s love for us either diminishes or simply stops!
B.) HUG. This warm hug/embrace symbolizes the forgiveness of the father and God the Father. God is always ready and willing to forgive us always, all sins, at all times and in all places— irrespective of the greatness of the sin— God’s mercy is infinite. As Paul states in Romans, “Where sin abounds, the mercy of God abounds all the more.”
C.) RING. Signifies “dignity”. Despite the level of degradation he had descended in, still the innate dignity of the human person always exists! However, “ring” also is a promise and firm decision to remain faithful in the future. Remember the promises made on the wedding day: “I promise to be faithful to you in good times and in bad, in health and in sickness, in riches and in poverty, until death do we part.” Repentance demands a willingness and decision to be faithful and avoid all dangerous occasions.
D.) NEW CLOAK/ROBE. Symbolic of sanctifying grace. Adam and Eve sinned and they recognized they were naked. Mortal sin to the soul, defrocks the soul of the beautiful garment of sanctifying grace. Repentance restores that pristine beauty. The “Garment and beauty of sanctifying grace” should be treasured even above human life itself. For that reason the saints are unanimous in saying: “Death rather than sin!” (St. Dominic Savio, St Maria Goretti, St., Ignatius of Loyola).
E.) THE SANDALS. Given so that the son could walk on the straight and the narrow path that leads safely home. Once we know the “Way” who is Jesus Christ, who said clearly: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then there is no turning back. The song illustrates that: “I have decided to follow Jesus (3 times), no turning back, no turning back, no turning back!!!”
The path that leads to destruction is wide and spacious, but the path that leads to eternal life is narrow and few find it and traverse it. The “Sandals” are given freely to choose that narrow path that leads to eternal glory. It is the way of Calvary that leads to Good Friday, but culminates in the glory of the Resurrection! The last word is “Alleluia, Victory!”
F.) THE FIESTA/PARTY/BANQUET. Has a double symbolic interpretation. The Banquet is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass— this indeed is our most sumptuous spiritual banquet. However, if we nourish ourselves frequently from this banquet, then another eternal banquet awaits us and that is heaven! “Whoever eats of me will live forever…” (Jn.6 Bread of Life discourse).
G.) FATTED CALF/LAMB. Symbolism is clearly— “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of thew world…” (John the Baptist’s words/ words incorporated in the Mass) If we nourish ourselves on this Lamb: which is Jesus who immolated Himself on the cross on Calvary on Good Friday, we will have life and life in abundance! SACRAMENTAL CONNECTION! St. Ignatius points out that a good confession serves to purify the window of the soul so that one can receive the Eucharist with better disposition!
11. ELDER SON! The real loser in the whole parable is the elder son– very symbolic of the smug, righteous, proud, arrogant Pharisees that Jesus frequently rebuked for their lack of kindness and mercy. Not only would he refuse to enter to celebrate the return of his younger brother— due to envy and anger and pride, three of the capital sins (spiritual of nature); but worse yet– like Cain, the elder son kills the younger brother in his heart! He does not call him “brother” any longer, but calls him, to the face of his father, “your son”! How dangerous the sin of pride! Pride blinds us to the goodness in others; it hardens our hearts; it shuts God out; it causes our heart to shrivel, shrink, and die!
12. THE PRODIGAL SON! Pope John Paul II in his masterpiece, his encyclical on the Prodigal Son, “Dives Misericordia”— God is rich in mercy, gives us the most simple but most true interpretation! Every one of us, all of us sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, are truly the “Prodigal son!” Why? For the simple and clear reason that we entered the world as sinners, we are sinners, commit many sins and fail all too often. Even the just man falls seven times a day! However, God is merciful and always ready and willing to forgive us!
13. THE FATHER. The Parable could be called the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” or “The Parable of the Merciful Father”. John Paul the Great expressed the fact that the “Father” in the parable is none other than our “Heavenly Father”. Indeed the greatest virtue or attribute of God the Father is His MERCY!!!! The greatest sinners can be the greatest saints under one condition: believe firmly in God’s infinite, unfathomable, eternal, loving mercy! Indeed what is “Mercy’? Nothing less than GOD’S LOVE FORGIVING THE REPENTANT SINNER!
14. OUR ATTITUDE! At all times and in all places, we should trust in Jesus, with a BOLD CONFIDENCE! The Magdalene, Zacheus, Simon Peter, St. Matthew, the woman at the well(Jn4) woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8) and finally the “Good Thief”— what did all of these have in common? Two things: their great sins, but there even greater TRUST in Jesus’ Infinite mercy!
15. MARY AND MERCY. St. Augustine makes an astute observation on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, related to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “The Doctor of grace” commented: “If the Prodigal son had a mother in the home like the “Blessed Virgin Mary” then he would have never left the house.” If we have wandered from our true home— the church, God’s grace, the sacramental life— the Blessed Virgin Mary is praying for you, loving you, and inviting you home. “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope…”