The sacrament of reconciliation is best seen through eyes of Prodigal Father

By Archbishop Emeritus Gerald Wiesner, OMI

In the Oct. 8 issue of the Prairie Messenger there appeared a fine article on canon law as it relates to the sacrament of reconciliation. The article made excellent reference to the sacrament and encouraged people to make better use of it in their spiritual lives. Another way of looking at the sacrament is from the point of view of the theology and spirituality of the sacrament.

One of the more frequent ways of speaking of the sacrament of reconciliation is to see it as a personal meeting with the forgiving Christ. In trying to enflesh this reality and give it greater meaning in our personal lives we can look at the sacrament through the eyes of the Parable of the Forgiving Father.

This parable has been traditionally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is probably the most well-known of all the parables Jesus told. It was due to further reflection that scholars came to realize that both boys were prodigal; in fact, the elder son more of a prodigal than the younger son. The parable then earned the title of The Parable of the Prodigal Sons. Still further reflection led to the realization that the reason Jesus told this parable was to reveal the Father. The parable now has the title of the Parable of the Forgiving Father.

In the book Manifesting God, Rev. Thomas Keating says, “The parables of the Gospel are stories that reveal the nature of God as Jesus knew him.” Let us take a look at the story of the Forgiving Father with that in mind.

It begins with the conversation between the son and the father. The son asks for a share of the property that will belong to him. We need to try to imagine the pain that this request causes the father. Property is shared after the death of the parent. For the son, the share of his property is worth more to him than his father. In fact, he is preferring the death of his father in order that he may have material goods.

In this frame of mind he leaves his home and his father, goes off to a foreign gentile country and ends up on a pig farm feeding pigs. Once again, we see the pain of the father. We see here the son of a good Jewish father rejecting his heritage, his values, all that has been given to him, and going to a gentile country where he ends up feeding pigs. The son of a good Jewish father. Ponder the pain of the father.

To insert a little humour into this scene it has been said that a youth group dramatized this parable. In describing the situation of the young man the narrator said, “He spent half of his money on wine, women and song and he wasted the other half.”

Be that as it may, the younger son came to his senses, realized his situation and concluded that he would be much better off back home as a servant. Note the motivating factor leading to his conversion is his physical hunger — hardly a very honourable motive.

Meanwhile, back home, it would appear that the father has been waiting, watching with anticipation and hope for his son’s return; and all of this in deep pain. On the father’s part, it is not a question of having accidentally looked down the road. Rather, the father is simply in this state of watching.

In all of this we see the patience of the father. So often we think of God as the eagle ready to pounce on us at every weakness, every mistake we make. Here we see the God who “a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Is 42.3). How often we find ourselves weighed down, life almost ebbing away. Jesus invites us: “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

As always in our dealings with God, it is God who takes the initiative. So here it is the father who goes out to meet his wayward son. And notice, he interrupts the boy’s confession. And how does he receive him back? As a servant? As his son? Not in the parable.

The father says to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

The robe, the ring, the sandals, the celebration — they are signs of royalty. The father welcomes the boy back in an entirely new way.

Moving now to the elder son, we see that he too has left home. While he remains physically at home, his anger, resentment, spirit of revenge and unforgiveness have taken him far from home. He is, in fact, more prodigal than the younger son.

What we need to note is that the father goes out to meet him. The father addresses him as “my child.” The father greets him with a form of intimacy. There’s no favouritism shown the younger son; nothing at all is taken away from the elder son.

In the first part of the conversation the son heavily criticizes and judges his father. He is severe with his father. The father accepts it; in fact he doesn’t even address it. Where the father draws the line is when the son criticizes, judges and condemns his brother. He can’t even call him “brother.” He says, “this son of yours.”

The conversation between the father and the elder son reflects for us the one great commandment, the only new commandment that Jesus left us: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

As the father had gone out to meet the younger son, so he has come out to plead with his elder son and welcome him in. The parable doesn’t tell us how the scene ends. It is up to us to end the scene.

The sacrament of reconciliation is our meeting with the Forgiving Father. We may wonder if we are more like the younger son or more like the elder son. In the sacrament of reconciliation we must focus on the Forgiving Father as he welcomes us just as he welcomed the two boys. And we need to give thanks.

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