Lessons for Lent from the conversion of the Prodigal Son

There is no joy of conversion apart from its necessary precedent, the affliction and anguish of a remorseful conscience, the just punishment for sin, assumed by God Himself, in Jesus Christ.

Detail from "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (1773) by Pompeo Batoni (WikiArt.org)

It is vital to grasp the twofold context in which St. Luke situates his account of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The first is the immediate context, which shows that the parable, preceded by the parables of the lost sheep and of the lost coin, are Jesus’s response to those who disapprove of the way He welcomes sinners. The second is the broad context of biblical revelation, attention to which shows that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a recapitulation of the theme of God’s mercy turning mourning into dancing, sorrow into joy. Attention to these two contexts bring to light the christological, trinitarian, and ecclesiological dimensions of Jesus’s teaching on God’s mercy and conversion in this parable.

The immediate context: On grumbling

Chapter fifteen of St. Luke’s Gospel begins with an observation about how the Pharisees and scribes react to Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners. “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable” (Lk 15:2–3). St. Luke is attentive to this theme of grumbling throughout his gospel. When Jesus attends a feast at St. Matthew’s home, the Pharisees “grumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Lk 5:30). Again, when Jesus stays with Zacchaeus, another tax collector, “when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner’” (Lk 19:7). Jesus’s behavior towards sinners results in division: either draw close to Him in response to His initiative and welcome, or remain apart and grumble.

The theme of grumbling appears in the accounts of Israel’s forty-year journey in the desert. God free His people from slavery by leading them into the desert in order to liberate them from another form of slavery of which they were not aware, the slavery to sin, by testing their faith to humble them: “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Dt 8:2). One such test came at Marah, where, after three days they finally found some water, but it was undrinkable. “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Ex 15:24).

Moses makes it clear to the people that by grumbling against him they are in fact grumbling against God Himself. For, Moses is nothing more than God’s messenger, His mediator, an “associate in His compassion” (CCC, 2575). God takes it personally when people grumble against those to whom He entrusts a mission in behalf of His people. “The Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him…. Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Ex 16:8). “And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me’” (Num 14:26–27).

Grumbling is rooted in a lack of faith. To grumble is to disapprove of the way that God is conducting His affairs; it is to judge God’s ways as unreasonable, not worthy of His divine wisdom and power. One who grumbles puts God to the test, stands in judgment of God, and accuses Him of being impractical—especially when it comes to the place purification-through-suffering in His plan. It is as if clay should second guess a potter: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” (Is 29:16).

Though the word is not used, the reality of grumbling appears again at the end of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when the older son refuses to go in to join his father in celebrating the younger son’s return. He expresses his disapproval of his father’s celebration, first by remaining outside—a grumbling act. Then he makes an argument, objecting that his father’s mercy devalues the justice that is the foundation of his relationship with the father—grumbling words. His attitude toward his father’s mercy and joy in welcoming his brother is no different than that of the Pharisees who remain outside and grumble at the way Jesus welcomes sinners.

Theological grumbling of this type is all too common. In our day, it appears that many German Catholics, including a number of bishops, are choosing to remain outside the joy of walking in the truth (3 Jn 1:4), grumbling incoherently about sexuality, relationships, and God’s mercy. They seem to be scandalized by the notion that the Gospel of God’s merciful love is demanding, that it entails a death-to-self conversion and renunciation of the hierarchy of values of a secular culture in order to be faithful to the redemptive truth and love of Christ, Who brings about a renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:32). In relation to at least some parts of the Catechism, they have chosen to remain outside and to grumble. Do they not realize that to grumble against Christ’s apostolic Church in this way is to grumble against Christ Himself?

The way that Jesus describes this father’s movement is significant: “His father came out and pleaded with him” (Lk 15:28). With this, the father shows his love for his older son. For this father, the celebration is not complete when his older son is absent. He must break away and go outside to explain why it is necessary to celebrate, and to invite him to come in.

How vulnerable one becomes in becoming a parent! Because of the love that parents have for them, children have great power—either to reject that love and thereby to afflict with anguish, or to accept that love and thereby to cause joy. Both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI convey this by saying that with His decision to create man in His own image, and thereby to endow him with the dignity of freedom and responsibility, God also decided to set a boundary to His omnipotence.

In reality, God, by creating free creatures, giving them freedom, has renounced a part of his power, empowering our freedom. In this way He loves and respects our free response of love to his call.  Like a Father, God want us to be his children and to live as such in his Son, in communion, in full intimacy with Him. His omnipotence is not expressed in violence, it is not expressed in the destruction of every adverse power as we would like, but is expressed in love, in mercy, in forgiveness, in accepting our freedom and in the untiring call to conversion of heart, in an attitude that is only apparently weak—God seems weak, if we think of Jesus Christ who prays, who lets himself be killed. An apparently weak attitude, consisting of patience, gentleness and love, shows that this is the true way of being powerful! This is the power of God! And this power will win!1

Yes, in a certain sense one could say that confronted with our freedom, God decided to make Himself “impotent.” And one could say that God is paying for the great gift bestowed upon a being He created “in his own image, after his likeness” (cf. Gen 1:26). Before this gift, He remains consistent, and places Himself before the judgment of man2

To be faithful to Himself, that is, to His own wisdom, in His interactions with man God constrains Himself to making arguments. All He can do is to make His case by presenting all of the evidence of His love. In the end, man must weigh it for himself, and decide accordingly. In relation to man, then, to be divine is to be an apologist, an advocate, as God gives to man an account of His love and hopes for man. Divine revelation is the name we give to His argument, His apologia. All of this is present in the father’s going out to reason with his older son.

Grumbling can only be overcome by faith that accepts God’s apologia. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the argument is entirely about love and mercy and what is like to live with them and what it is like to live without them, beginning with the description of the prodigal’s search for an illusory freedom, proceeding with his suffering and penitential return, and culminating in joyous celebration of conversion and reconciliation, complemented by words of explanation.

Christ’s Church, a household of joy in the conversion of sinners

The father’s going out toward this older son reveals something about the Church’s mission in this age of the New Evangelization. “The joy of every Jubilee,” wrote St. John Paul II, “is the joy of conversion.” The Church is an ark of joy over redemption in Christ and the repentance and return of sinners to the Lord. This joy should be a conspicuous element of the Church as the sacrament-sign of salvation in Christ. In fact, it cannot be otherwise, since joy is a trademark of the Holy Spirit. This joy should be the occasion for people who are outside to wonder what it means, as happened with the older son: “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound’” (Lk 15:25–27). This father is a model of participation in the divine apologia as he shows himself “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope [and the joy] that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15)!

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the explanation for the joy and celebration of the return of the younger brother is given three times: “… because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Lk 15:24); “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound” (Lk 15:27); “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Lk 15:32). Repetition is an effective device for the itinerant preacher, who is concerned to make sure that His audience knows what His primary focus is!

There is an unmistakable parallel between the father’s explanation for his joy in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the long sermon of St. Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2). In both, the Holy Spirit overshadows a household with joy, while others take notice and draw near, asking what it all means. In both, an explanation links the manifestation of the Spirit to the mission and paschal mystery of Christ. For, the Holy Spirit comes to us as the fruit of Christ’s mission and sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.

Where is this explanation, this linking of the Spirit-filled celebration and the paschal mystery of Christ, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? It is in father’s anguished heart while his son was lost. Only the one who loves “to the end” (Jn 13:1)—that is, to the outermost boundary of the perfection of love—and in effect dies with his son can credibly speak about the necessity of rejoicing upon his return. Peter, head of the household of the Church, who had denied his Lord three times and experienced the joy of conversion, is the credible witness to the unity and joy and proclamation that accompany the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost precisely because this unity and joy and proclamation are the fruits of Christ having died for his repentance and reconciliation with God. The Church’s entire ministry of the word, her prophetic office, hinges on the pattern of God’s mercy turning the sorrow, desolation, grief, and remorse over sin into joy, consolation, thanksgiving, and celebration. For, only God can “restore us to his friendship” by “looking upon our contrite heart and afflicted spirit and heal our troubled conscience, so that in the joy and strength of the Holy Spirit we may proclaim his praise and glory before all nations” (Liturgy of the Hours, Psalm-Prayer following Psalm 51).

In light of the fulness of revelation of the Holy Spirit, we can say that on the return of his son, the father’s household becomes a symbol of Christ’s Church. This joy over the reconciliation of sinners with God, which is proper to Christ’s Church—for there is no reconciliation apart from Christ—is a participation in the joy of heaven. This connects the Parable of the Prodigal Son with lesson of the parables of the shepherd who found his lost sheep and the woman who found her lost coin. In both, Jesus accents the superabundant and communal dimensions of this joy. The joy of the shepherd and of the woman cannot be contained, it must be shared. Both invite their neighbors to rejoice with them. And Jesus teaches that this is how we must understand the joy of heaven: “‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost … the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents …” (Lk 15:6–10). This is Jesus’s way of saying that God Himself rejoices over sinners who repent, and that He greatly desires to share this Eternal Joy of Love, that is, the Holy Spirit.

But, we must keep in mind that just as the father’s joy was preceded by a season of anguish, so Pentecost was preceded by the paschal mystery. Heaven did not simply open up on Pentecost, as if some arbitrarily established temporal marker had finally been reached. One cannot dissociate Pentecost and the joy of the Holy Spirit from the agony and affliction of Christ in His passion and death on the Cross. That would be to overturn the divinely established pattern of affliction and desolation being followed by consolation and rejoicing (see below). There is no joy of conversion apart from its necessary precedent, the affliction and anguish of a remorseful conscience, the just punishment for sin, assumed by God Himself, in Jesus Christ, whom “For our sake God made to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). There is no entry into the joy of God’s household apart from Baptism, which is a participation in the suffering and death of Christ in order to participate in the joy of His resurrection to new life. There is no painless, bloodless redemption! This is, essentially, what Jeremiah takes as the criterion that distinguishes true prophets from pseudo-prophets. And, we know that Jesus definitively fulfills by perfecting the prophetic mission. He is the true Prophet!

It is no accident that the Catechism straightforwardly asserts, “There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (CCC, 309). Evil, suffering, and death, these give rise to the great questions about the meaning of life. Apart from faith, they can only provoke a pervasive cultural grumbling, whether expressed philosophically (scientism, nihilism, relativism), escapism, pleasure seeking, persecution of the Church, etc. Above all, it is the place of suffering and death in God’s plan of salvation that occasions grumbling, even among Christ’s chosen disciples. People are looking for a painless way forward, for a hope that has no price attached. Until they receive the grace of faith, they can only grumble. As with Israel in the desert, this is part of God’s wise pedagogy, His plan to test faith in order to purify it. St. Peter is the prime example. When Jesus first predicts His passion and death, he responds by saying: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Then, Jesus rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mt 16:21–23). As we saw in a previous reflection on St. Peter’s conversion, this will only change when he passes through the suffering of remorse for having denied Jesus.

Lent is a season of cooperating with God in the purification of our faith regarding the place of suffering in Christ’s mission of salvation and thus in our own pilgrimage of faith. St. Paul calls this scandal and folly for those without faith, but for those with faith it is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23–24). Through Lenten practices of participating in His suffering, we embrace that mysterious necessity that “the Christ should suffer and enter into His glory” (Lk 24:26, 46). And this leads to a great evangelical paradox: in order to come to joy you must first embrace affliction. In this way, we participate in Christ’s transformation of the punishment for sin into atonement for sin, as we live the exhortation of the Catechism: “While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace” (CCC, 1473).

The general context: Jesus’s silence regarding the father’s sorrow and the divine pedagogy

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the three parables about the joy of conversion is the silence that Jesus holds regarding the state that so obviously precedes this joy, namely, the anguish, sorrow, grief, and desolation of the hearts of the shepherd, the woman, and the father, for so long as what they so deeply loved was lost. The fact is that both sorrow and joy are signs of love. The shepherd’s life just cannot go on so long as his sheep is lost and vulnerable to being attacked by a wolf or to injury. His love for his sheep has resulted in their destinies being so intertwined that it is possible to say that in going in search of his sheep he intends to alleviate his own anguish, that he is loving himself as much as the sheep! This is the foundation for understanding St. John Paul II’s insight that mercy is bidirectional in nature. The one who shows mercy also receives mercy. Similarly, the woman suspends all of her ordinary activities until she recovers her lost coin, unable to get on with life until the coin is found, at which point her distress ceases. The point is that distress of heart while something is lost precedes the jubilation of heart upon being reunited. In a world marked by sin and the loss of relationships, the intensity of the joy of restoration of a relationship is a function of the intensity of the sorrow over its loss. In the case of an intimate relationship like that of father and son, both suffer so long as it is not restored, and both experience joy when mercy brings reconciliation. The son rejoices in regaining is father, and the father rejoices in regaining his son.

By skipping over any mention of the father’s suffering so obviously that it cannot fail to raise the question, Jesus invites His audience to wonder why He has done so. Certainly, any parent would be attentive to this when listening to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If the father exhibits such exuberant joy when his son returns, surely this points to the exuberance of his love for him that had to be a crucifixion for his love when his son was away. Jesus, the Master story teller, wants to draw His audience deeper into the story so that they can discover something for themselves. He wants the thought about the father’s suffering to be the product of His deliberate rhetoric and their own thinking. He knows that in this way it will be more fully theirs, since it agrees with their own experience. By reflecting on their own experience of parental love, they realize that the very exuberance of this father’s love must mean that he was living in a state of utter desolation so long as his son was absent. And with this, they can finally realize that what Jesus revealed about God’s joy in heaven must, by logical necessity, entail a corresponding divine desolation over sin.

So, the key point of these parables turns out to be the movement from affliction, desolation, and anguish to consolation, comfort, and rejoicing. In this way, these three parables recapitulate a fundamental theme of the Old Testament, that in keeping with God’s most wise pedagogy, the joy of redemption is always preceded by the suffering of repentance through the experience of the just punishment for sin. Or, to put it another way, the evil of sin and its just punishment do not have the final word. They are ordered to mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration of friendship, which are the final word. It is one of the great constants of the Old Testament:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. (Psalm 30:11)

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10; see Is 51:11)

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. (Jeremiah 31:13)

How blessed are those who love you, Jerusalem! They will rejoice in your peace. Blessed are those who grieved over all your afflictions; for they will rejoice for you upon seeing all your glory, and they will be made glad for ever. (Tobit 13:14)

Jesus fulfills this passage from Tobit, not only when He weeps over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41–44), but especially by His passion, death, and resurrection, in which He personifies Jerusalem, at first chastised for its sins and then restored through repentance and conversion to become God’s delight (Is 62:4). In His suffering we see the suffering of God in response to sin. In His own words:

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:20–22)

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, both the younger son and the father suffer. The son’s suffering begins with the experience of the temporal punishment for sin, and this leads him to think again in terms of his relationships with God and with his father: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” The father’s suffering is entirely spiritual. It is the suffering of the loss of communion with his son. As we have seen, by observing his father’s exuberant joy, the son comes to realize how much his absence must have anguished him. And with this realization, his contrition becomes perfect because only now does it become a participation in the perfect sorrow of his father. This is the moral anguish, the remorse of conscience, the salvific contrition that constitutes the necessary prelude to God’s gifts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. There is no joy in the biblical understanding that is not preceded by affliction and grief. There is no conversion from sin worthy of the name without remorse of conscience. This is a way of saying that there is no salvation apart from participation in the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.

Now we are in a position to understand why Jesus passes over the affliction and anguish of the hearts of the key personages in the parables of Luke 15. When it comes to how our sins affect God, any parable or story or metaphor will prove to be woefully inadequate. To reveal the effect that our sins have on God, there is only the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, and His words: “My soul is very sorrowful, unto death” (Mt 26:38). As St. John Paul II once so incisively put it, expounding on the words of Pilate, “Behold the man”: “Look at what you have done in this man to your God.”

These reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son have disclosed a Christological and thus also a trinitarian dimension to what Jesus reveals about Christian conversion. It entails a transition from the abyss of remorse, which accompanies awareness of personal responsibility for the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, to participation in the Father’s joy over the return of sinners—a joy so great that it overflows from heaven to earth as the gift of the Holy Spirit. With this Gift of heavenly Joy, God’s will in heaven becomes reality on earth. This is the Church of Christ, which bears witness to God’s mercy in her incessant celebration of the return of sinners and in the words of apologia that explain this joy, which we may take from St. Paul:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom 8:16–17)

• Related at CWR: “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of King David” (March 12, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
• Related at CWR: “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of St. Paul” (March 19, 2022) by Douglas Bushman
• Related at CWR: “Lessons for Lent from the conversion of St. Peter” (March 27, 2022) by Douglas Bushman

Endnotes:

1 Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 30, 2013.

2 John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 64–65.


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About Douglas Bushman 17 Articles
Douglas Bushman is Director of Parish Formation and Mission at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, MN. He is well-known as past director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas and for his courses on Ecclesiology, Catholic Spirituality, John Paul II, Vatican II, Pastoral Theology, and the New Evangelization. He is the author of The Theology of Renewal for His Church: The Logic of Vatican II’s Renewal In Paul VI’s Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, and Its Reception In John Paul II and Benedict XVI(Wipf and Stock, forthcoming).

3 Comments

  1. A truly repentant sinner has instant access to the Creator God. He trusts in the saving work of Christ on the cross, becomes a Christian because he fallows Christ alone. In Catholic teaching, they must turn to a created being hoping she puts in a good word for them.

    • You’ve been reading too much Jack Chick. Here are just a couple of quotes from Catholic documents:

      In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation. (Dei Verbum, 2)

      And: “Jesus Christ is true God and true man, in the unity of his divine person; for this reason he is the one and only mediator between God and men.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 480)

      As far as Mary is concerned, surely you admit that without Mary’s “Yes” to God, the Incarnation would not have transpired? Regardless, the Catechism states: “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.”

      If you’re going to try to dismiss Catholic teaching, you might want to actually know and quote Catholic teaching.

    • Barb, Catholics do believe that we have access to our Creator God. In fact, all people have access to God. Catholics pray the Lord’s prayer very often.
      I have heard non-Catholic Christians praying for their sick brothers and sisters and those in need of prayer.
      The Bible provides us with instances where people prayed for others. Abraham interceded for the people of Sodom. Peter prayed for Dorcas, and God raised her from the dead.
      Catholics believe that the faithful dead, though alive in another realm, are still members of our Lord’s Church and, since they pray often, we ask them to pray for us as well.
      Yes, if any Catholic (or anybody else) has more faith in Mary or in the saints in heaven, or in a pastor, than in God, then that would be idolatry.

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