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Father Cantalamessa on the Prodigal Son

3/17/2007 - 7:00 AM PST

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Pontifical Household Preacher Comments on Sunday's Readings

ROME, MARCH 17, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of a commentary by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raneiro Cantalamessa, on the readings for this Sunday's liturgy.

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Jesus and Sinners
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is one of the most celebrated pages of Luke's Gospel and of all four Gospels: the parable of the prodigal son. Everything in this parable is surprising; men had never portrayed God in this way. This parable has touched more hearts than all the sermons that have been preached put together. It has an incredible power to act on the mind, the heart, the imagination, and memory. It is able to touch the most diverse chords: repentance, shame, nostalgia.

The parable is introduced with these words: "All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to him to listen to him. The Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.' So he told them this parable ..." (Luke 15:1-2). Following this lead, we would like to reflect on Jesus' attitude toward sinners, going through the whole Gospel, guided also by our plan for these Lenten commentaries, that is, to know better who Jesus was, what can be historically known about him.

The welcome that Jesus reserves for sinners in the Gospel is well known, as is the opposition that this procures him on the part of the defenders of the law who accuse him of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34). Jesus declares in one of his better historically attested to sayings, "I have not come to call the just but sinners" (Mark 2:17). Feeling welcomed and not judged by him, sinners listened to him gladly.

But who were the sinners, what category of persons was designated by this term? Someone, trying to completely justify Jesus' adversaries, the Pharisees, has argued that by this term is understood "the deliberate and impenitent transgressors of the law," in other words, the criminals, those who are outside the law. If this were so, then Jesus' adversaries would have been entirely right to be scandalized and see him as an irresponsible and socially dangerous person. It would be as if a priest today were to regularly frequent members of the mafia and criminals and accept their invitations to dinner with the pretext of speaking to them of God.

In reality, this is not how things are. The Pharisees had their vision of the law and of what conformed to it or was contrary, and they considered reprobate all those who did not follow their rigid interpretation of the law. In their view, anyone who did not follow their traditions or dictates was a sinner. Following the same logic, the Essenes of Qumran considered the Pharisees themselves to be unjust and violators of the law! The same thing happens today. Certain ultraorthodox groups consider all those who do not think exactly as they do to be heretics.

An eminent scholar has written: "It is not true that Jesus opened the gates of the kingdom to hard-boiled and impenitent criminals, or that he denied the existence of 'sinners.' What Jesus opposed were the walls that were erected within Israel and those who treated other Israelites as if they were outside the covenant and excluded from God's grace" (James Dunn).

Jesus does not deny the existence of sin and sinners. This is obvious from the fact that he calls them "sick." On this point he is more rigorous than his adversaries. If they condemn actual adultery, Jesus condemns adultery already at the stage of desire; if the law says not to kill, Jesus says that we must not even hate or insult our brother. To the sinners who draw near to him, he says "Go and sin no more"; he does not say: "Go and live as you were living before."

What Jesus condemns is the Pharisees' relegating to themselves the determination of true justice and their denying to others the possibility of conversion. The way that Luke introduces the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is significant: "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others" (Luke 18:9). Jesus was more severe with those who condemned sinners with disdain than he was with sinners themselves.

But the novel and unheard of thing in the relationship between Jesus and sinners is not his goodness and mercy toward them. This can be explained in a human way. There is, in his attitude, something that cannot be humanly explained, that is, it cannot be explained so long as Jesus is taken to be a man like other men. What is novel and unheard of is Jesus' forgiveness of sins.

Jesus says to the paralytic: "My son, your sins are forgiven you."

"Who can forgive sins ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. joe
    4 years ago

    thanks for the explaination of this parable. in it a found a great tool for my sermon. Chao

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