Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Prodigal Son: He Made a Good Confession

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 12, 2010, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 15: 1-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2010]

He made a good confession.

I’m talking here about the prodigal son.

The boy made a good confession—a very good confession.

Now I know that he never entered a reconciliation room like the ones we have here at St. Pius; nor did he use the traditional opening statement, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”; nor did he receive a formal penance from a validly ordained priest or say an act of contrition.

But he made a good confession nonetheless—because all the elements that the Church says are necessary for a good, valid confession were present in his story, either explicitly or implicitly.

Let me begin by asking you the question: What 4 elements are necessary for a good confession? Do you know? In other words, what 4 things are required for a person to be absolved of his sins in the sacrament of reconciliation?

Every Catholic should know these, for lots of reasons—not the least of which is that his eternal salvation might hang in the balance! Think about it. If a person has committed a mortal sin and he needs God’s forgiveness, he won’t know if he’s actually received that forgiveness, unless he knows what God requires of him, and what God requires of the priest!

If he’s ignorant of those things, then all he can do is hope that he’s been forgiven.

Well, if you paid attention when you were in Catholic school or in Catechism class, you know the answer. The four elements of a good confession are: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction. Contrition, confession and satisfaction are acts of the penitent; absolution is, of course, the action of the priest.

Applying this, now, to the story of the prodigal son . . .

First of all, let me say that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this boy was in the state of mortal sin. Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters say, “There is no such thing as mortal sin. It’s not in the Bible.”

Oh yes it is! St. John, in chapter 5 of his first letter speaks of it as “deadly sin” or “the sin unto death”—which he explicitly distinguishes from lesser sins (what we would call “venial sins”).

And mortal sin is present by implication in this story of the prodigal son—because what does the father say to his older son at the very end—after this boy gets all upset that his dad has thrown a big party for his wayward brother?

The father says, “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother WAS DEAD and has come to life again.”

The older brother could have said at that point, “Now wait a minute, dad, bad-boy baby brother isn’t dead. He’s very much alive and having a grand old time with his friends—which is precisely why I’m so upset!”

But the older brother understood: His father was speaking in spiritual terms, not in physical terms. And from that perspective, the younger son had been dead! He had cut himself off TOTALLY from his father and family through his materialism and fornication (and probably a lot of other things!).

So how did the reconciliation happen?

Well, first there was CONTRITION. The younger son experienced true sorrow for his sins. But it’s very clear from the details of the story that his contrition was not what we would call perfect.

It was what we would call imperfect.

Perfect contrition is being sorry for your sins because you love God deeply and are sorry that you’ve offended the Lord whom you love so much. Imperfect contrition is being sorry because you’re afraid of going to hell!—you’re afraid of being punished for what you’ve done.

Now obviously it’s much better to have perfect contrition—but the really good news is that you only need to have imperfect contrition to receive God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation.

Notice why the prodigal son finally made the decision to return to his dad. It was NOT primarily because of love; it was first and foremost because of fear! He was afraid that he was going to die!

And he was right! If he had kept hanging around with Porky Pig and Company, he probably would have died. So he said to himself, in effect, “You know, I had it pretty good back home. Even my father’s servants ate better than this! Maybe if I go back my dad will take me in and make me one of his servants. It’s worth a shot. At least I’ll get a roof over my head and three square meals a day!”

Which brings us to CONFESSION—the second step in the reconciliation process. When the prodigal son finally met his dad face to face, the first thing he did was to confess his guilt—clearly and honestly. To his credit, he didn’t try to minimize what he had done. He didn’t make any lame excuses for his behavior. He called his sin “sin”—“Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

One of the things I can relate to in this part of the story (perhaps you can, too) is “the rehearsal”. He rehearses his confession before he makes it.

Have you ever done that? I have—lots of times!

The father, of course, forgives immediately and welcomes his son back into the family. And in the process, he doesn’t throw the boy’s sin back in his face. That’s significant. He reads his son’s heart; he hears the words of sorrow and repentance—and that’s enough.

Which is precisely the way it is with us after we go to confession. God forgives and he also “forgets”—which means that the sin he’s forgiven never comes between us and him again. He knows we did it (of course—God knows everything!), but he treats us as if we had never done it.

The ABSOLUTION in the sacrament of reconciliation comes when the priest says, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The absolution in this story is not as explicit. But it’s there! It’s implicit in the words and in the actions of the father. It’s implicit in his joy, in his embrace, in his kiss—as well as in his gift of a new set of clothes, which are definitely the clothes of a son—a ROYAL son! They’re not the clothes of a servant.

This brings us, finally, to SATISFACTION (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the old rock song by the Rolling Stones!). If we’re truly sorry for our sins, we will try to make amends for them—to make “satisfaction” for them. In other words, we will try to undo whatever negative consequences our sins have caused in the lives of others. This is, not surprisingly, the purpose of the “penance” the priest gives during a confession.

Now we can do this—we can make satisfaction for our sins—through words, through actions—and even through prayers. If you’ve ever been to me for confession you know that when I give a penance of prayers I will almost always tell you to pray those prayers specifically for one or more of the people you’ve hurt by your sins.

Praying for those we sin against is one way of undoing some of the consequences of our negative actions toward them.

This idea of satisfaction, like absolution, is not explicit in the story of the prodigal son. But it can be reasonably presumed. If this boy was truly sorry for how he had hurt his dad, then you can be certain that after he returned home he tried to be the best son he could possibly be from that moment onward. And you can also be sure that he tried to reach out to his brother and smooth things over with him—because that relationship was also in need of some big-time repair.

If the prodigal son was not willing to do those things, I would question whether he was really sorry for his sins in the first place! I would question his contrition.

Personally, I think he was so grateful to his dad—and so thankful to be home—that he happily spent the rest of his life making amends for the things he had done in his past.

So there you have it: the story of the prodigal son’s good confession.

It’s my prayer today that this story will provide some added incentive for us to make good confessions ourselves in the future, because the real reason that Jesus told this parable in the first place was to move us all to repentance—sincere, heartfelt, genuine repentance.