The Prodigal Son – Catholic homily outline for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Gerard van Honthorst "Prodigal Son" (1623)

Gerard van Honthorst “Prodigal Son” (1623)

Central idea: The prodigal son. Doctrine: The prodigal son and conversion. Practical application: Continual conversion.

To view Lectionary 33, click here.

Central idea: The prodigal son

Reading 1 Jos 5:9a, 10-12

The LORD said to Joshua,
“Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”

While the Israelites were encamped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho,
they celebrated the Passover
on the evening of the fourteenth of the month.
On the day after the Passover,
they ate of the produce of the land
in the form of unleavened cakes and parched grain.
On that same day after the Passover,
on which they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased.
No longer was there manna for the Israelites,
who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.

• Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. This was not because they were lost or not because it took forty years to travel from Egypt to Canaan. Rather, they were being punished for their lack of fidelity to God. Despite the fact that God delivered them from Egyptian slavery with mighty signs, the Israelites wanted to return to slavery and to pagan immorality.
• Now this time of penance is over. They no longer needed to eat manna; now they could eat food produced from the land.
• They are returning to the land promised to their father Abraham and his descendants by God long before. Having ‘come to their senses’ over forty years, they are now returning to their father’s house.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7

R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.

Glorify the LORD with me,
let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.

• Privation is the lack of a good that ought to be in something. This is the classic definition of evil.
• This privation can be physical (as in bodily suffering), moral (when we sin), and psychological (any form of mental anguish).
• Any experience of privation makes us one of the “lowly” or a “poor one,” even though the sinner is not without blame for his wretched condition.
• Salvation is for the lowly. All we have to do is “cry out” for it to begin. Like the prodigal son, all we have to do is come to our senses.

Reading 2 2 Cor 5:17-21

Brothers and sisters:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
And all this is from God,
who has reconciled us to himself through Christ
and given us the ministry of reconciliation,
namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting their trespasses against them
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

• Why is it good to be a new creation? What is wrong with the old? The old “me” is at enmity with God due to sinning, trespassing, ‘going beyond’ the law of the good of human nature.
• God reconciles sinful man to himself through Christ who “for our sake made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
• All who draw men to Christ have “the ministry of reconciliation” and are “ambassadors for Christ” with the message, “be reconciled to God”! Every Christian has the power and the duty to evangelize—but in a special way this belongs to the Apostles, their successors the bishops, and those who share in the hierarchical priesthood.
• All the work that is necessary to reconcile sinful man to the righteous God is done. All that is necessary is for men to want it.

Verse before the Gospel Lk 15:18

I will get up and go to my Father and shall say to him:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

• This verse encapsulates a big part of the meaning of life: after coming to one’s senses after sinning, to be sorry and to return to the Father with contrition.

Gospel Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:

“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
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.’”

• St. Luke gives us a context for understanding why Jesus created this parable.
• It arose out of a complaint from seemingly faithful Jews (the Pharisees and scribes).
• Jesus was doing something that attracted the seemingly unfaithful Jews (tax collectors and sinners). If that were not bad enough, Jesus also welcomed them and ate with them.
• The gist of their complaint seems be that a man of God whould come for the good and faithful Jews. He should welcome them and eat with them.
• Moreover, his message should repel bad Jews by pointing out to them that their ways are evil (which no one likes to hear). And Jesus should shun those bad Jews until they repented and became like the good Jews.

Doctrine: The prodigal son and conversion

• In the parable of the prodigal son, Our Lord describes the process of sin, conversion, and repentance, at “the center of which is the merciful father”: “the fascination of illusory freedom, the abandonment of the father’s house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father’s generous welcome; the father’s joy—all these are characteristic of the process of conversion. The beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet are symbols of that new life—pure, worthy, and joyful—of anyone who returns to God and to the bosom of his family, which is the Church.” The Catechism then makes this astute observation: “Only the heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.” (CCC 1439)
• The Father awaits us and welcomes us back home in the person of the priest in the celebration of the sacrament of Penance (CCC 1465). The consequence of this celebration is the forgiveness of sin. As one of the formulas of absolution that the priest recites in the Byzantine Liturgy expresses it: May God, “through me, a sinner, forgive you both in this life and in the next and enable you to appear before his awe-inspiring tribunal without condemnation, he who is blessed for ever and ever. Amen.” (CCC 1481)
• In the process of conversion from sin and friendship with God, human freedom plays a real role. “It is essential to a human being freely to direct himself to [the] fulfillment” of “his vocation to divine beatitude” . . . “[b]y his deliberate actions.” Moreover, “[h]uman beings make their own contribution to their interior growth.” “With the help of grace they grow in virtue . . ., avoid sin, and if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son to the mercy of our Father in heaven” so as finally to “attain to the perfection of charity.” (CCC 1700)
• Every time we pray the Our Father, we boldly return to the Father, like the prodigal son, confessing “our wretchedness and his mercy” (CCC 2839), when we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Unlike the prodigal son who did not know for sure how his father would respond, we know the response of the Father because in the Son, “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14, Eph 1:7). (CCC 2839).

Practical application: Continual conversion

• There is probably today no better modern application of the parable of the prodigal son to our lives than that of St. Josemaria Escriva. (The following quotes are from Christ is Passing By, 64.)

• First is the truth that through Baptism, God really is our Father and we really are his children. This is a constantly under-appreciated reality of the Christian life.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and took pity on him; running up, he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. That’s what the sacred text says: he covered him with kisses. Can you put it more humanly than that? Can you describe more graphically the paternal love of God for men?

When God runs toward us, we cannot keep silent, but with Saint Paul we exclaim: Abba, Pater: Father, my Father!, for, though he is the creator of the universe, he doesn’t mind our not using high-sounding titles, nor worry about our not acknowledging his greatness. He wants us to call him Father; he wants us to savor that word, our souls filling with joy.

• Within this loving relationship, willed by God, is the reality of our human condition of sinfulness. To some extent, every day, even many times in a day, we run away from our Father God, squander our inheritance, come to our senses, and return to God.

Human life is in some way a constant returning to our Father’s house. We return through contrition, through the conversion of heart which means a desire to change, a firm decision to improve our life and which, therefore, is expressed in sacrifice and self-giving. We return to our Father’s house by means of that sacrament of pardon in which, by confessing our sins, we put on Jesus Christ again and become his brothers, members of God’s family.

God is waiting for us, like the father in the parable, with open arms, even though we don’t deserve it. It doesn’t matter how great our debt is. Just like the prodigal son, all we have to do is open our heart, to be homesick for our Father’s house, to wonder at and rejoice in the gift which God makes us of being able to call ourselves his children, of really being his children, even though our response to him has been so poor.

• This is what the forty days of Lent are for, although there is a little bit of Lent every day, at the very least in our examination of conscience and act of contrition at night, and every Friday, a day set aside for contrition and some penance.

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