The Prodigal Son and the Kiss of Mercy and Truth

SCRIPTURES & ART: Our familiarity with the parable of the Prodigal Son can dull our perception of just how radical this Father’s love is.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” ca. 1667
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” ca. 1667 (photo: Public Domain)

As noted last week, priests have two choices for the readings on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent. They can always use the “Scrutiny Readings,” i.e., the readings for preparing catechumens for Baptism, or they can choose the readings associated with the particular Evangelist who has pride-of-place in a given year, in 2022 Luke. If your parish is using the Scrutiny Readings, this Sunday’s Gospel will be from John about the healing of the man born blind. If your parish is following the Readings for this “year of Luke,” read on.

The Gospel of Luke focuses, on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent, on sin and conversion. Last week, we heard of the barren fig tree which, despite all efforts, bore no fruit. About to be cut down, the field hand gets it a one-year reprieve so he can make a last ditch effort to coax a harvest from the showy but useless tree. I alluded to the suggestion of the Polish-Jewish Catholic writer, Roman Brandstaetter, who suggests in his life of Christ that perhaps the farm hand was a young Jesus and the owner of the field the father of the Prodigal Son, tired of waiting but convinced once more to bear up in hope.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15, a chapter containing three cases of lost-and-founds. It opens with the one lost sheep (vv. 3-7), for which the owner scales hills and valleys, ravines and outcrops, until he reconnects it to the other 99. The chapter continues with one lost coin (vv. 8-10) for which the woman of the house does a thorough cleaning to find. The chapter concludes with today’s Gospel (vv. 11-32).

Perhaps our familiarity with the Parable of the Prodigal Son dulls our perception of just how radical this Father’s love is. 

We have a family in first-century Israel, where the authority of a father and the filial obedience of sons would have been expected. The younger son, who in theory should have been the junior legatee anyway, clearly has no love lost for his father. Although his father is still alive, he demands (“give me”) his inheritance. He is basically saying, “I can’t wait until you’re dead to get what’s coming to me.” 

His father could have given him a slap in the face. Maybe could have even cut the little ingrate out of his will. Instead, “he divided his property.”

Having gotten what he wanted, the boy has no intention of tarrying with the old man. “After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings” and left, going to “a distant country” (as if “this country ain’t big enough for the two of us”). He probably cut off further communication with his father. The boy’s life on that foreign strand is one of wine, women, and song. I’m sure he was popular … till his money ran out.

Alas, just as his money is spent, a “severe famine” hits that “distant country.” Having lived through a pandemic, we have an inkling of what a major social disruption entails. In March 2020, there were places where — for love or money — one simply could not get toilet paper. And, in a world where roots meant everything this foreign kid, now poor as a churchmouse, had no social connections, nobody to care for him.

He’s still stubborn. He stays in that “distant country.” Obstinence is one thing, but a growling belly is another, so he “hired himself out” to be the boy in his pig sty.

His false pride even makes him swallow what should have been his true pride, i.e., his dignity. Consider the impression the lad’s new job would have made on an observant Jew in Jesus’ day. Pigs were unclean animals. Jews did not eat pork. Now, this erstwhile well-off Jew has been turned into the keeper (and probably co-lodger) of a pig sty in which the swine eat better than he does. 

But he’s still stubborn. He’s still waiting for these strangers to say, “oh, poor boy, here’s something for you.” But they didn’t even care if he ate. “I hired you to feed the pigs. What you feed yourself is your business.”

Finally, we reach the key line of the Gospel: “Coming to his senses.”

“Coming to his senses,” the boy thought that, apart from the sheer stupidity of his abject impoverishment that was his own fault and choice, his lot didn’t even make sense on utilitarian grounds. His father’s workers — field and farm hands just like him (albeit not tending pigs) — were objectively better off than he was. 

So he gets up, beginning to recognize that his own subjective situation just might have something to do not just with his blowing his inheritance but even more so with his abandoning his father. He decides to go home, hoping at least for a comparable position on his father’s farm with better benefits.

“While he was still a long way off” the dynamic changes. Although this ne’er-do-well is slogging along, working his way back to dad, it’s his father that now takes the initiative. His father “caught sight of him” and chooses to close the distance between himself and the boy. He does what would have been unheard of in the ancient Near East, especially for a victimized elder: he meets the boy more than halfway. 

It’s then that the boy realizes that it isn’t just about a full belly or saving one’s neck, but love. The father goes far beyond what the boy could have hoped for or even deserved. He is restored to everything he lost by the father he once basically told, “drop dead.”

Catholic theology teaches that, in order for our sins to be forgiven, we must have contrition, i.e., sorrow for those sins. That contrition must have a supernatural motive, i.e., it must have some relationship to our eternal welfare. It’s not just enough that we’re sorry for what we did because it’s “embarrassing.” 

Catholic theology has also recognized two kinds of supernaturally-motivated sorrows for sin: attrition and contrition. “Attrition” or imperfect contrition is sorrow for sin based, ultimately, on fear: by sinning, I risk my eternal salvation and risk eternal damnation. I am sorry because I don’t want to suffer, I don’t want to go to hell. “Contrition” (sometimes called “perfect contrition”) is sorrow for sin based, ultimately, on love: by sinning, I have offended God who wants only what is truly good for me. This behavior is not worthy of someone given the dignity of “children of God,” which is what we are (1 John 3:2).

Both kinds of sorrow for sin are legitimate, but attrition requires the sacrament of Penance to be effective, and while perfect contrition itself suffices to forgive sin, we should note two things:

  • it is difficult to elicit, since it is God’s grace, not our doing, and
  • since contrition involves wanting to do what God wants, it entails going to confession as soon as one can.

Sorrow for sin is “coming to our senses.” It means recognizing that judging by the world’s criteria, while perhaps providing fleeting enjoyment until the money (or the sex or the power) runs out, is ultimately empty and lonely. Nobody cares if you batten on pig pods. You are only useful, not loved.

“Coming to our senses” means recognizing our worth and dignity come from someplace else than worldly acclaim or even acknowledgement. Like the Prodigal Son, we have a dignity prior to the world’s noticing, much less applauding us. 

“Coming to our senses” means not just recognizing our situation and wallowing in it, but “getting up” and changing things. It means making a trip, sometimes even going backward. And while it might not have satiated the Prodigal Son’s hunger, it often means eating a lot of crow, crow one has often caught one’s self.

The Prodigal starts out with attrition. “It’s stupid that I am going through all this and risking dying here in this stinking barn. I can at least do better at home.”

Only when he encounters his father’s love does that attrition perhaps turn to contrition: “What did I do so stupid against love that was staring me right in the face?”

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by the Spanish master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). It’s held by, but not on view at, the National Gallery in Washington. It was originally painted for a hospital in Seville.

Murillo captures the moment of encounter between father and son. From both the father’s and his servants’ attire, we can see the degradation the Prodigal Son has undergone. He alone is thin, his clothes in rags, and barefoot. 

The father’s mercy is already on view. He tenderly embraces the boy in mercy, even as the boy confesses his wrongdoing in truth. On the left, a farm hand and farm boy are already leading the fattened calf to the slaughter, the laborer carrying an axe. Compare the happy and well-dressed little boy, leading the calf, with the unhappy son: in some sense, Murillo has a deliberate study in contrasts, especially as regards what perhaps once was. On the right, a servant is already carrying on a silver platter a fine coat and new leather sandals in which to dress the ragtag Prodigal. Another little boy, directly behind the father, looks up at the servant and the clothes, happy. Because Murillopainted this work together with five others for a charitable religious organization, it’s also intended to illustrate the works of mercy — in this case, clothing the naked. 

Baroque painter that Murillo was, the dominant figures (father, son) are largest and everybody is muscular. As the National Gallery commentator notes, however, the richest colors belong to the servant bringing the Prodigal his new clothes, in keeping with the purpose of this painting as part of the corporal acts of mercy. The usual classic Roman architure provides the background to this Baroque painting, while the cloud pushes us beyond the parameters of this world to the heavenly kingdom where “mercy and truth meet; justice and peace kiss” (Psalm 85:10).