I think that we often assume that he prodigal son was truly remorseful and was looking forward to being home. That he had repented fully of his errors and was looking forward to walking the straight and narrow.
But it is interesting to note what the prodigal son did not say as he came to his senses in that pig sty: he didn’t say “I really miss my family.” He didn’t say “I am so sorry for what I’ve done.” In fact, his rehearsed statement is pretty self-interested and stiff and formal: no affection is expressed. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son, treat me as one of your hired hands.” Now, perhaps these words express some contrition or sorrow for his sins – but it is not clear that there was really a change of heart in the young man. In fact, we have good reason to think that he wasn’t too excited about going home – after all, it wasn’t until he was absolutely desperate – until he was starving to death – that he finally decided to return to his father’s house. It is clear that he recognized that he was in dire need and had a better shot at finding mercy with his father, but it is not clear that he had a deep love or concern for him.
Contrition is the term that we use to speak of remorse or sorrow for one’s sins. And in our tradition you may have heard of the distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition: and this is really what we are asking about this prodigal son: was his contrition perfect or imperfect?
Because Christians realized from the very beginning that many different things can make us sorry for our sins. Normally, when we have done something wrong we experience what is called imperfect contrition, or the natural effects of sin. It may be that we become remorseful for our sins because they have brought suffering upon us, as was the case of the prodigal son in today’s Gospel passage. It may be that we regret what we’ve done because we are worried that we will suffer punishment in the future, like when the whole city of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah because they were afraid of the destruction of their city. Or it may be that we repent because the revolting and ugly reality of our sins suddenly becomes apparent to us, as in the case of King David, when he repented after recognizing the evil he had inflicted on Uriah the Hittite.
These are all examples of what we call imperfect contrition: a sorrow for sin that is natural and is most common in this world.
But because of Christ and his grace at work in us, we are also given the ability to experience what we call perfect contrition when we recognize our sins. Perfect contrition is also a sorrow for sin, but it is a sorrow that is rooted in our love of God.
When we love God, when we want to do his will and follow his commands, our sins cause us sorrow because they separate us from the one who we love. And more than anything else, more than the fact that our sins cause us to suffer or that they are ugly and destructive - more than what our sins do to us, we are most concerned about what they do to our intimacy with Christ, an intimacy that we prize above all things.
I think that many parents experience this kind of contrition when they do something to injure their children: they are not worried about the consequences of their failure for themselves – they worry about the fact that they have injured the child who they love more than the world.
But I think if we are honest, the reality is that many of us, like the prodigal son, do not always or even often have perfect contrition for our sins. Many times we are contrite because we are ashamed or we are suffering or we are afraid of the repercussions for what we have done. Our love for God and desire to do his will is sometimes weak. Sometimes our desires are mixed.
And I think that is why Jesus teaches us with the parables that we hear in the Gospel today. He teaches us two important things:
The first is that our sorrow for sin does not have to be perfect for God to forgive us.
The father of the prodigal son was not a fool – he knew that his son had not returned because he missed him but because he was starving on his own. And yet the Father didn’t say “Oh, I can tell you are just saying all of these things so that you can get something to eat – you want me now that you need me. Well, I’m not going to be used by you, you’re on your own.” No, the father represents our Heavenly Father who is faithful and loving even when we are not capable of loving him in return. He knows that sometimes we turn to him for selfish reasons. Sometimes we repent because we are afraid. Sometimes we are sorry for our sins because our egos have been injured. Sometimes we turn to him because we are hurting and we have nowhere else to go.
But while imperfect contrition is not ideal, it is still good because it brings us back to him, which is what we really need and what God wants. That’s why in the sacrament of confession, perfect contrition is not required, even if it is what we pray for. We pray that we would always turn to God in repentance because of our love for him, but God doesn’t require our love in order to shower us with his love. He loves us first, he reaches out to us first, he seeks out the lost lamb who has wandered away from the 99, he searches for the coin amid the floorboards. More than anything he just wants us back.
And yet this is the secondthing that Christ’s parables teach us: that God’s mercy is always inviting us into a deeper communion of love. Into an intimacy with him that will make our sorrow for sin pure, that will make our contrition perfect. That is why Christ tells us these stories, these parables – to show us the goodness of God, to show us our Heavenly Father’s merciful love so that we will come to love him and praise him for his goodness and not be so worried about saving our own hides, so worried about our suffering or feeling ashamed. That in hearing of God’s mercy, in experiencing his love, love and gratitude will grow in us. And we will more and more each day be overtaken with love for our God who has reached out to us even when we were struggling on the horizon, lost in the dark, or stuck in the floorboards.
We don’t know the state of the prodigal son’s contrition as he journeyed home. But I have a sense that when he saw his father running out to meet him, something changed inside of him. The words that he had been rehearsing – well he got them out, more or less. But their meaning changed, because his heart changed when he saw his father’s love. He no regretted his sins merely because of the suffering and pain they had inflicted upon him, but now he experienced a new sorrow for how his actions had injured his father’s love. Experiencing his father’s loving mercy changed the prodigal son’s sorrow and perfected it.
Christ teaches us of our Heavenly Father’s merciful love in these parables and he allows us to experience this mercy and love in the sacrament of Penance. As we experience of our Heavenly Father’s mercy, may our contrition be perfected: may we regret our sins not merely because of how they harm us, but more importantly because of how they contradict our love for God.