1. We have three characters in this parable, and the most important of them is the father. It is the love of this father that remains the most important lesson. He is genuinely shown in such a way as to give us the true picture of God’s impassibility, because his love is constant, never destroyed, never diminished, always present. Because we think of love in strictly emotional terms, that is emotion instead of feeling, we think of changes and reactions as part of what it must be. Not so the love of God. The father in the parable is patient, quick to forgive and completely gracious because nothing changes him.
When the prodigal returns to his father’s house, he finds that the return itself is sufficient for him to receive forgiveness, because the father does not base his love on reaction, or on whims. If we believe that the love of God is based upon how He feels at the present moment, then we do not understand the cross. The forgiveness of sins can be anticipated with hopeful expectation because Jesus Christ died for all of our sins, and He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. If we understand that mercy or judgment depends on where we stand, because both were present on the cross, God’s impassibility becomes a great comfort, and His love becomes our certain hope and expectation.
2. Another character is the elder brother, the one who does not know that he too is a sinner. Neither does he care that his bitterness grieves his father, because, after all, he is right. Right, that is, in that he is correct. If ever we forget that everything we do in Church is all about the Father’s love for sinners, we become the elder brother. In every Mass I quote Saint Paul in the Comfortable Words: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The elder brother takes many forms, and that includes the forms he takes among Anglican Catholics like ourselves. I have been present in services where people were more concerned with a performance than with anything else; more concerned with observing all the little fussy details of the choreography found in Ritual Notes from the Alcuin Club (never mind how effeminate an attitude all that fussiness creates), than with worshiping God in spirit and in truth. Far more important than getting all the details right about when to step to the right or left, how any times to swing the thurible, or which candles to light first, is remembering why we are here to begin with.
Everything we hear from God’s Word, and every sacrament we receive, is all because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. The elder brother is not capable of obeying the words of Saint Paul, “Do the work of an evangelist.” He cannot do this work, because he is so very correct about how unworthy the younger brother is. And, because of this his heart is far from that of his father. He cannot make merry because joy depends upon love. And, to understand his father he would have to be filled with the love that forgives and restores.
3. Finally we must consider the prodigal son himself. Anyone who cannot identify with this repentant sinner (including his elder brother) wallows in self-deception because, as the Beloved Disciple wrote: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (I John 1:8-10).” In order to learn about sin, I did not depend upon a textbook in Seminary. All I ever needed was to look in the mirror. Like Dracula, some people have no mirrors in their houses, and could not see their reflections even if they did. What is the mirror but the word of God, the perfect Law of liberty that James tells us we must look into? The laver in which the priests cleansed themselves before entering the Holy Place was made of mirrors, all of which helped them to wash. Look into God’s word, and let the truth convict you of your own sins.
When I teach people about Confession and Absolution I tell them that they must remember that Christ is the Advocate for us; but we appear before the priest to make confession as witnesses for the prosecution. Without excuses, without sugar coating, we must testify against ourselves, and let the love of the Father come through to us by way of this sacrament of the priesthood. We must learn to identify with the prodigal son, to be able to say, “I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” “ ‘Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to be merry.” In other words, spoken through the priest, “I absolve thee of thy sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
Saint Paul tells us that we are all called to become saints, both in the opening chapter of I Corinthians, and in the opening chapter of Romans. My Roman Catholic mother in law once gave me a dose of “nun theology.” Her bad understanding of her Catholic Faith became quite clear as I was told that we should never think that any of us could be like the saints: They are special people who were able to be holy. This makes them sound like superheroes, bitten by just the right spider so they can shoot webs out of themselves, or that they can fly because they come from Krypton. On the other hand, I have had Fundamentalist friends who preach that once you “come to Jesus” you are no longer a sinner, but rather you are already a saint. However, what Saint Paul told the Corinthians and the Romans was that they were called to become saints, because holiness of life is a vocation for every Christian.
But, unless we first identify with the prodigal son, we haven’t a snowflake’s chance in “the other place” of becoming saints. Knowing we are called to become saints, but seeing the terrible truth in the mirror of God’s word, we must be willing to appear for the prosecution in order to receive the grace of the sacrament of Absolution. The sweetness of sin forgiven creates charity; and this, in turn, creates the ability to do the work of an evangelist.