Luke 15:1-32, Fourth Sunday of Lent
To Jews, a pig is the dirtiest, most impure animal on the face of the earth; no animal disgusts them more. Many Jews don’t even say chazir, their word for pig. They replace it with davar acher—which literally means, “the other thing.” They don’t want to defile their mouths by even saying the word. (But I say, Jews don’t know what they’re missing, right? Baboy is delicious. But I digress.)
My favorite part in the parable is when the prodigal son so reaches rock-bottom that he hires himself out to feed pigs and he even longed to eat his fill that the swine fed on.” But, see, it was when he fell penniless and hungry that he finally resolved to turn around. He even practices a little speech. “I shall go to my father and say, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired workers.”’ In that speech, he covers past, “I have sinned against heaven and you;” present, “No longer worthy to be called your son;” future, “Treat me as a slave.” Today, we call that “perfect contrition.” So the guy goes home, his father meets him halfway, and he recites his confession. And in his little speech, he gets far enough to past and present. But before he gets to future, where he’s about to impose grave penance on himself, to be treated as a slave—which I bet he was sincerely willing to do if he came from feeding pigs—before he gets to his penance, the father interrupts him and says, “Put the finest robe on him…put a ring on his finger…kill the fattened calf. Let’s party! Because my son is back to life!”
Two reflections for today, sisters and brothers. First, the moment we sincerely feel regretful for our offenses, please believe that the grace of God’s forgiveness has started working. All the more when with face-warming shame, we accept to ourselves and before God that we’re the last ones who deserve all this goodness because of our sins—even then, the grace of God’s forgiveness has started working. And all the more so, when we begin making it up in some way, shape, or form—to people we’ve offended or hurt—then the grace of God’s forgiveness has actually worked. Now, I do strongly encourage people to go confession. But what I am trying to say now, though, is that God’s grace begins way before we even think of going to confession. When we begin to regret, then admit, then most of all, make it up to people we’ve offended, that kind of perfect contrition already channels God’s grace of forgiveness. Now, as for sins that are mortal, the reason why we Catholics require confession when we’re in the state of mortal sin—meaning, violating the 10 commandments knowingly and willfully—is because mortal sin offends not just another individual, but the community. So, we need the priest stand as the elder of the community, to accept the mortal sinner back into the fold, and on behalf of the community, prays for the person. But…the forgiveness of God is by no means available only and exclusively during sacramental confession. Again, I’m not saying that we should not go to confession. It is a beautiful sacrament where actual words and gestures make God’s pardon visibly present. Now, that there are priests who do not know how to handle confession is another matter. Admittedly, some of us priests don’t behave like Jesus in confession, but like Pharisees. Some of us scold penitents, for instance, or give a ridiculously severe penance. Then we say, “Go in peace,” but the poor penitents actually “go in pieces,” feeling unforgiven, unconsoled, even guiltier than before! But on the other hand, devout Catholics could be quite mechanical about confession, too, can’t we? Especially when we treat confession like a vending machine for absolution. We walk up and back, but really without perfect contrition. We recite our penance but barely amend our ways. But back to my point, we have faith in a God whose forgiveness is broad and high and deep and wide, to use St. Paul’s words. God is prodigal, God’s mercy is always there—especially when we are so contrite that we put ourselves through that extra struggle, that nail-biting challenge to make it up to people we’ve offended; “to be willing to march into hell,” as the song goes, “for a heavenly cause.” Even then, sisters and brothers, God already forgives us. This is not a Jesuit invention. This is sacramental theology and the theology of grace.
My second and last point. Like we see in the parable today, do you notice, sisters and brothers, that our more serious sins, whether individually or as a group, our more serious sins very often arise from our state of abundance? While we are enjoying the largesse of blessings, of ease and freedom, material and financial comfort, a good reputation, and trust from people—notice that that’s usually the Eden, the Paradise where we begin toying with the serpent, and eventually free-fall into sin. Then, eventually, the serpent bites back. Our offenses catch up on us. We suffer the consequences of our arrogance, our greed, our self-righteousness. The blessings slowly slip through our clenched fists…and we reach rock-bottom—like the prodigal son did, feeding pigs.
I’ve once reached rock-bottom in my life. And rock-bottom is a dark place, indeed. But I can say it’s nowhere that God is not present. Because even at rock-bottom, sisters and brothers, God is there. In fact, God is the very rock that we reach when we are at our lowest and darkest. I myself felt that God was the one who lit the match and said, “Well, hello again. I know you feel lost right now…but I’ve found you. I got you. This time, we will do this together.”