Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Does the Story of the Prodigal Son End with a Meal?

Guercino's Return of the Prodigal Son (1619)

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 15, 2013 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 2013]


Why does the story of the prodigal son end with a meal?

First and foremost, the parable is about God’s forgiveness.  But if that had been the only message Jesus intended to give us here, wouldn’t it have made more sense to conclude the story with the father kissing and embracing his repentant son?  That’s probably how a Hollywood producer would have ended it: the two men would have tearfully embraced, with some syrupy music playing in the background; then the credits would have rolled and the scene would have faded out.

So why the meal?

I’m convinced it’s because Jesus was also trying to teach us something here about the Eucharist: specifically, the importance and necessity of receiving the Eucharist worthily!

I say that because the meal the prodigal son shared with his dad when he came back home was more than just an occasion for some nice conversation and some good food: it was also a joyous celebration of UNITY (or, more accurately, it was a joyous celebration of the reunification of a merciful father and his repentant son).  To coin a theological expression, the son had just been restored to “the state of grace,” and so it was his privilege to eat at his father’s table once again.

And isn’t this precisely what the Church teaches about receiving the Eucharist?  Remember what St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11: “A man should examine himself first [i.e., to determine if he’s in the state of grace]; only then should he eat of the [Eucharistic] bread and drink of the cup.” 

Based on these words of St. Paul, the Church teaches that if we have committed a mortal sin (such as missing Mass on a Sunday or holy day without good reason, or harboring intense hatred for another human being, or sexual activity outside of marriage—either heterosexual or homosexual; with another person or with oneself), we should not come to the Lord’s table until we’ve been reconciled with the heavenly Father.  And the ordinary way for this reconciliation to take place after Baptism is through the sacrament of Confession.

This important teaching is reflected in the parable itself.  As the story begins, the younger son is clearly a member of the family in good standing.  What his father said to his older brother later on could have been said to him at the beginning: “Son, you are with me always and everything I have is yours.”  That’s the way it is spiritually for all Catholics who are in the state of grace: they are members of God’s family in good standing, and all the sacramental graces which come through the Church are available to them.

But, unfortunately, this younger boy wasn’t content to remain where he was.

I remember asking the teenagers at youth group one night to share with me their thoughts on this parable—and some of them had very perceptive insights!  When I read to them the line about the younger son’s departure, I said, “What’s the significance of the word ‘all’ in that text?  It says there that the boy took all his belongings and went to a distant country.”  One of the teens raised his hand and answered, “Obviously, Fr. Ray, he wasn’t planning to come back—ever.”  I said, “That’s right.  This young man was cutting himself off completely from his family.”

Spiritually, that’s exactly what mortal sin is: it’s a sin whereby we sever our bond of friendship with God, and cut ourselves off from all the sacramental graces which come through our spiritual family, the Church. 

We are spiritually “dead,” as this prodigal son was “dead.”

But the interesting thing is that we still remain a member of “the Family”; we still remain a member of the Church, albeit an estranged member. 

This is something that people in mortal sin often forget, and it sometimes keeps them from coming back to the Lord: they think they’re “too far gone.”  And wasn’t that precisely the thought that almost kept the prodigal son from coming back to his father in the parable?  He was convinced he had been disowned by his dad.  He thought he was so disconnected from his family that the only way he could possibly return was as a servant.  But when his father greeted him with love and mercy, the boy realized that he was still his father’s son (and that he always had been his father’s son). 

And so it is with every serious sinner who returns to the heavenly Father in the sacrament of Confession: that person is immediately welcomed back, and his status in the Family of God (i.e., the Church) is immediately restored.

Then—and only then—is the “prodigal Catholic” able to come to the Lord’s table and receive the Holy Eucharist worthily once again, just as the prodigal son was able to sit down and eat with his father only after he had been forgiven.

Which brings us, finally, to the situation of the older brother at the end of the story.  Instead of rejoicing and joining in the festivities, he appears to have committed a mortal sin himself, because suddenly he’s the one who’s not able to share the meal with his dad and family!  We are told that when he heard about his brother’s return and about the banquet his father had prepared, “he became angry and . . . refused to enter the house.”  It seems that his anger against his younger brother was so intense that it made him incapable of partaking in the family meal.  The words of St. John in his first letter come to mind here: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”  From all external indications, that seems to be where the older boy was at.  

And what does the father do?  Does he say to him (as he could have), “You spoiled brat!  You ungrateful kid!  Get out of my sight!”? 

No!  Amazingly, the father humbles himself by coming out to his stubborn son and PLEADING with him!  He pleads with him to let go of his anger and be reunited with his brother and family.

If we ever commit a mortal sin (which I pray we never do; but if it ever happens) and we’re hesitant about our repentance, I think it would be good for us to imagine a similar scene in our mind.  We should imagine Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior physically walking up to us and pleading with us to repent and go to Confession.  I don’t know about you, but I would find it very hard to refuse the pleading—the begging—of God himself. 

When President Abraham Lincoln was asked how he intended to treat the rebellious southerners who had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, he answered by saying, “I will treat them as if they had never been away."

When repentant Catholics receive absolution in the confessional, that’s precisely how God our heavenly Father pledges to treat them.  That’s the good news—and that’s why they can come to his table once again and receive his Son’s Body and Blood worthily, as if they had never been away.