I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Prodigal Son models for us the entire process of repentance that culminates in this dramatic event of confession. Here, there is no saving face. No excuses. There is only total honesty and humility.
Preachers will often ask the congregation whether they identify more with the prodigal son or with the older brother. Whichever character you relate to the most, I want us to think about this parable as though the prodigal son is every one of us. His story is the story of every Christian because the story of every Christian is the story of repentance.
…and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.
Compare the younger son’s journey into a far country to Christ’s journey into the wilderness. Notice the analogies, but also the differences. The younger son’s journey is like the opposite of Christ’s – like an inversion. Both the younger son and Christ begin their journeys with a gift from their fathers, a “share of property” that their fathers give them.
Christ receives his “gift” at his baptism, when the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends as a dove while the voice of the Father proclaims Jesus to be his beloved son. The baptism of Christ reveals that he has received the fullness of God’s pleasure – he is the Son “with whom I am well-pleased.” And it’s immediately after his baptism that he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. Christ “gathers all that he has” – all that he has received from his Father – and departs into the “far country” of the wilderness where his gift will be put to the test.
Likewise, the younger son also receives a gift from his father, which is literally a share of the property that was due to him as an inheritance. He too “gathers all that he has” and departs into a far country where his gift will also be put to the test.
If Christ paves the way that all Christians follow, then the story of his earthly life is our story too. So, if it’s at his baptism that Christ is declared to be the beloved Son – where the Holy Spirit descends upon him with the pleasure of the Father – then that is what happens at our baptisms too. And if Christ is immediately driven from his baptism into the wilderness to withstand temptation, then we should also expect that our own baptisms drive us out into the wilderness of the world and of our lives. Baptism makes us pilgrims who have no abiding city here.
But if our struggles and failures with temptation make Christ’s victory over temptation difficult to relate to, we have the parable of the prodigal son to show us something a bit more familiar. Like the prodigal son, we all have “squandered our property in loose living” like the prodigal son. We all have “sold our birthright” like Esau. We all have taken “share of property” we have received from God our Father – which is a share of his very life – and exchanged it for lesser things. And like the prodigal son, we find ourselves in the midst of a “great famine” because nothing that is available to us can satisfy our cravings like the grace we had once received from our Father. This is what sin is.
But the memory of the abundance we once enjoyed in the presence of our Father at the beginning of our journey remains.
“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!”
This is the beginning of repentance. It’s the first step that contrition takes. It starts with the realization of what we have lost and what we stand to regain if we were to return to fellowship with God. Think of the benefits that come with being in communion with God and each other. There’s much to be gained by repentance.
But this is only the first step of contrition. Once the son “comes to himself,” he decides that “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
This is what true repentance looks like. It’s not just that we want to return to the abundance that God freely gives to his children, it’s that we feel real sorrow for abandoning him and squandering his gifts in the first place. It’s the recognition that our sins render us “no longer worthy to be called your son.” At that point, we’ve descended to true humility: our hearts have become thoroughly broken and contrite. We have accepted the fact that we have no claim, no entitlement, to a share of the riches of God, having squandered it already.
But a broken and contrite heart is the very thing that God will not despise.
“But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’
The prodigal son’s father doesn’t even wait for him to complete his return, for he runs towards him before he can make it all the way and embraces him. He then clothes him again with the robes that are due to a son, with a ring that signifies that he is a beloved son, with whom he is well-pleased.
This is what our heavenly Father has in store for us if we “come to ourselves” and repent. That we were adopted as his beloved children at our baptisms is something that can never be lost.
“If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation….”
The Sacrament of Reconciliation – Confession – is the means by which we imitate the repentance of the prodigal son. It’s the opportunity given by God to make his words our own: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But thanks to the infinite mercy of God our heavenly Father, we have no reason to fear that we will be turned away. Though our sins have rendered us unworthy of His gifts and we barely deserve to be treated as “hired servants,” we have reconciled to the God who calls us servants no longer, but friends (John 15:15).
Despite the differences, what we find is that Christ’s journey in the wilderness and the son’s journey in a far country become united. Christ’s victory over temptation is in the “far country” of his wilderness is our victory. As St. Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Christ’s share in the property of his Father was never squandered, and that is why God’s pleasure remains in infinite supply for us. That is why St. John says that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That is why we can trust that if we come to ourselves and repent of our sins, God will come to us and embrace us and kiss us. He will clothe us again with the robes of righteousness; fill us again with the virtues of the Holy Spirit; restore to us again the share of His own life, the inheritance that is due to his beloved children.
And then, our Father will invite us to “eat and make merry” – to come to the table of the altar and feast on the abundance of his grace. The abundance that is the bread that has come down from heaven for the life of the world. The very Body and Blood of our Lord.
So come to yourselves, repent, and eat and make merry. Amen.