When Jesus started His teaching with “a man had two sons” everyone knew how it was going to end. It was a common teaching tool of His day to reiterate the stories told by great rabbis. This story was not His own. They may have even zoned out as He repeated, verbatim, what some of them had heard many times before as He went over the tragic story of the wayward son who squandered his entire inheritance. Living it up caused him to lose everything. The son hit rock bottom. On the verge of starving, he came to his senses as he caught himself longing for the food he was feeding to pigs.
He remembered who he had been and who his father was. He prepared a little speech begging for his father to take him back. He must have repeated it to himself a thousand times on his way home. “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.”
But Jesus shocked the crowd as He neared the story’s end. You see, the story they were used to played out with the son giving his father his speech, hoping at least to be saved from starvation. The father’s response in the original was swift and severe. He reached for the slop being fed to his animals, dumped it at his repentant son’s feet and said, “This is what you are to me.” The father disowned him. That wretch was no longer worthy to be called “son.”
But Jesus recounted how when the broken, impoverished young man was still a long way off, his father saw him, dropped everything, and ran to meet him. The son had his speech prepared, just as in the original version, “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you…” But before he could even get all his words out, the father in Jesus’ story cut him off. “Quickly!” he said, “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,” Jesus said, “The celebration began.”
Jesus changed the story of the son who got exactly what he deserved to the story of the merciful father who helped his son come back to life. That’s the Father we have in God.
God loves it when we read scripture. He loves it when we praise Him. He loves it when we serve others. But He didn’t have to die so we could do all that. He died so He could unburden us of sin. That’s why, more than all those other wonderful things we can offer Him, God loves it even more when give him our deepest, darkest sin. We can do that in prayer and especially in the Sacrament of Confession.
We all find ourselves in sin at one time or another. Sometimes we find ourselves in a huge sin, like the prodigal son. Sometimes we find ourselves in the same sins time and again. It’s important not to freak out and to be patient with ourselves. For most of us, that experience of our weakness is where we learn what it means to have a Savior, how to be humble, and why we should be merciful toward others when they’re weak. It’s the testing ground where we learn what it means to fight the long battle for true freedom. God is on our side as we fight that good fight. Thankfully, whenever we run to God with our sin, we’ll always find a Father running towards us twice as fast. I’m not sure why He loves us so much, but I’m sure glad He does!