Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Squandered Sonship Restored
by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." So to them Jesus addressed this parable: "A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, 'How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."'
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son. But his father ordered his servants, 'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field and on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, 'Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, 'Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.' He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"
In November 1980, Blessed John Paul II penned a document entitled, ďDives in Misericordia,Ē within which he provided some of the most eloquent prose ever written on the parable of the prodigal son. Blessed John Paul concentrated a significant part of his writing on the emerging realization of squandered sonship that the prodigal comes to as he sits in the squalor of a pigpen, contemplating his return to the fatherís house.
Literally speaking, the inheritance that the son has received from his father was a quantity of material goods, but it also was emblematic of the sonís dignity as a son within his fatherís house.
Even as he sits in that pigpen contemplating his fall from grace and his squandered inheritance, the son is not completely aware of this squandered dignity as son. He can only concentrate on his material loss, his hunger and the possibility of being hired as a servant in the fatherís house. The prodigal son measures himself by the standard of goods that he has lost Ė not the standard of his sonship, which is a relationship that can never be truly lost.
Blessed John Paul writes:
ďIt is at this point that he makes the decision: ĎI will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ďFather, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.Ēí These are words that reveal more deeply the essential problem. Through the complex material situation in which the prodigal son found himself because of his folly, because of sin, the sense of lost dignity has matured. When he decides to return to his fatherís house, to ask his father to be received Ė no longer by virtue of his right as a son, but as an employee Ė at first sight he seems to be acting by reason of the hunger and poverty that he had fallen into; this motive, however, is permeated by an awareness of a deeper loss: To be a hired servant in his own fatherís house is certainly a great humiliation and source of shame. Nevertheless, the prodigal son is ready to undergo that humiliation and shame. He realizes that he no longer has any right except to be an employee in his fatherís house. His decision is taken in full consciousness of what he has deserved and of what he can still have a right to in accordance with the norms of justice. Precisely this reasoning demonstrates that, at the center of the prodigal sonís consciousness, the sense of lost dignity is emerging, the sense of that dignity that springs from the relationship of the son with the father. And it is with this decision that he sets out.Ē
Even before his return and the dramatic reception the father gives him at the mere sight of him on the road, the prodigal son senses he has a chance for employment in the fatherís house because he knows that the father is merciful. It is precisely this subconscious knowledge that motives the sonís return. As the parable unfolds, we learn that the son is overwhelmed by his fatherís love: The father wants to restore him to full sonship; not merely provide him with a warm meal, a hot bath and employment. The father has greater plans for his son, precisely because he is his son. That relationship provides the requisite hope in the son that allows him to return home. The same can be said for us: Confidence in the Fatherís mercy inspires contrition and a return to the sacrament of penance to have our sonship restored.
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