Atonement and the Prodigal Son

This post is also available in: Spanish, Italian

The parable of the Prodigal or wasteful Son is more about the loving Father.  God is not a raging tyrant who must be appeased through the suffering of his Son.  Rather it’s the extravagant love of Jesus, son of the extravagant Father, that makes atonement for our sins – the sacrifice of a spotless Passover Lamb.  For the 4th Sunday of Lent, cycle C.

To LISTEN to this post read by Dr. Italy, click on the play arrow on the left, directly below this paragraph.

For our sakes, God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Some Christians reading these words over the last few centuries have gotten the wrong idea.  They’ve put this Scripture together with Jesus’ cry from the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  Plus they’ve added to the mix the Apostle’s Creed assertion that Jesus “descended into hell.”  The result is a huge misunderstanding.

Website Option 2 undated maroon

The Atonement Misunderstood

It goes something like this.  The sin of the human race called down the punishment not only of physical death and suffering but also spiritual death, total separation from God which is what hell is all about.  Jesus bore this punishment in our place.  This means that he took our sins upon himself to the point that he actually became sinful and abhorrent to the Father.  He was thus truly abandoned by God on the cross and spent three days in hell, with the rest of the damned.

Sin Offering & Reparation

Let’s unravel this wrongheaded idea.  Elsewhere I’ve discussed the true significance of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”   In this post, we need to clear up the other two misunderstandings.  First, there is 2 Cor 5:21.  In Hebrew, the same word means both “sin” and “sin offering,” What Paul is really saying is not that Jesus became sinful, but that he became a sin offering.

This kind of sacrifice was understood as compensation or restitution to God to make up for offending him through sin.  Honor and glory that God deserved had been withheld from Him; in the sin offering, perfect, costly animals, the most valuable possessions of the typical Israelite, were paid back to God in reparation and atonement.

Passover Lamb of God

The Passover Lamb had to be perfect, without blemish, and his bones could not be broken (that’s why Jesus legs were not broken on the cross like the legs of the two thieves, John 19: 32-37).  Jesus did not become sinful; he was the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world by canceling them out through a sacrifice of overwhelming value.  His self-offering was an extravagant gift.  It consisted of all the love, humility, and obedience that centuries of human beings owed to God but had unjustly withheld from him.

Prodigal Son, Loving Father

The Father is not a blood-thirsty tyrant whose wrath is appeased by the suffering of Jesus.  He is the loving Father in the story of the Prodigal Son who respects his son’s freedom too much to force him to stay, or to send a posse after him once his sins led him to the brink of despair.

Prodigal son passover lamb scape goat atonement jesus father

The Prodigal Son walked away in arrogance.  He would himself have to travel the road back in humility.

Adam, Eve and all of us walked away in pride.  We, their sons and daughters, would have to walk back in humility.  Trouble was, we couldn’t, so deeply had we been wounded by sin.  So God became man and walked the road for us, though it turned out to be the way of the cross.

Perfect humility.  Perfect love.  Perfect suffering.  Relentless and undeterred by every conceivable stumbling block and snare that hell could put in its way.  That is what redeemed us and paid the debt of our sins.

He Descended Into Hell

But what about the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed “he descended into hell?”  The word used for hell means not the inferno of the damned (Gehenna), but the abode of the dead known as Sheol, Hades, or Limbo.  The meaning of this is simple– he really experienced the separation of his soul from his body.  It was no drill.  He really died.  For us.  For me.  It was love to the bitter end.

The early Church had a further insight into this mystery that is still preserved and extolled by the Eastern Christian Churches to this day.  The Lord arrives at Hades’ door to tear it down and to liberate its occupants.  He here fulfills his own saying in Mark 3:27 — he comes to break into the strong man’s house and plunder it, trampling down death by death and leading those held captive by death to eternal life.

Conquerer, not Scapegoat

So Jesus is the conquering hero, not a passive scapegoat.  His free gift of unconquerable love is what makes atonement for our sins.  In him, broken humanity that had walked away from God walks back to Him in perfect humility.  And the Father rushes out to meet him in love, clothing him (and us) with the resurrection.

The passion, then, is all about love.  For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son who would lay down his life for not only his friends, but even for his enemies (John 3:16).

This article on the atonement, the prodigal son, the loving Father, and the Passover lamb is a reflection on the readings for the fourth (4th) Sunday of Lent, cycle C (Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15: 11-32)

For more Lenten resources, visit the LENT LIBRARY of the Crossroads Initiative.

Banner/featured image The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni. Public domain.

  • prolifemama
    Posted at 16:43h, 02 March

    Thank you, dear Dr. D’Ambrosio! Yours is the clearest explanation of this conundrum. It is puzzling to me that any Christian, of any denomination, could possibly believe and justify their belief that Christ was ever, even for a second, “sin,” or that God the Father could ever be angry with His Beloved Son for anything. Jesus is God’s beloved son, in Whom He is well pleased. And since God is Now, there is never a moment He is NOT pleased with His precious Son.

    Many thanks again, and a Blessed and Happy Lent to you and all of yours!

  • Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 17:46h, 02 March

    So glad that this explanation helped you! Thanks for the encouraging words!

  • Fr. Phil Krill
    Posted at 15:47h, 03 March

    I believe Dr. D’Ambrosio’s interpretation of Jesus’ Sacrifice could be enhanced, and perhaps re-constructed, by contemplating the work of the great Catholic anthropologist and literary critic, René Girard, especially Girard’s book, The Scapegoat, in which he recasts the sacrificial atonement theories that have so beclouded western Catholic thinking for the past 1000 years.

  • Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 23:57h, 03 March

    Thanks for the input, Fr. Phil. I look forward to learning more of Rene Girard’s work.

  • Fr. Phil Krill
    Posted at 14:51h, 06 March

    Fr. Cantalamessa often quotes Girard in his Good Friday homilies. Balthasar and Benedict XVI were also admirers of his work. Something to consider when looking for his bona fides…Girard’s BEFORE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD is perhaps the best entré into his vision.

  • prolifemama
    Posted at 12:13h, 10 March

    You are quite welcome. God bless you!

  • Jose Vargas
    Posted at 07:43h, 06 July

    Raised as and used to be a catholic…Neither Jesus nor His disciples would ever have thought of living so lavishly as the Pope and his cardinals and bishops…in addition the pope was called “holy father” by obama…the only “Holy Father is in heaven…but i love catholics as i love everybody else…and read only the good things about catholicim…Jesus is Lord!!!

  • Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 13:11h, 06 July

    Jose, there certainly have been Popes, Cardinals, and bishops who have lived lavishly. But then again, we find the same thing today with some pastors of evangelical megachurches like Joel Osteen. But as for Pope Francis, are you aware that, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that he rode public transporation and cooked his own meals? And that as Pope, that he abandoned the spacious Papal Residence that goes back to the Renaissance and now lives in a small apartment? There are few Christians who take evangelical simplicity as seriously as he does.

  • Joseph Visci
    Posted at 22:06h, 29 March

    i can’t tell you how much i appreciate how well you explained both the misconception and the proper conception of the gift our Lord has given us. No one likes to appear ignorant. i think this one, often unspoken of, misconception has done more to turn people from than faith than most any other because it cannot be reconciled with either a loving or just God. i thing it contributes to people feeling God is removed from us and/or that He is a “gotcha” God. Your explanation goes well with the answer sometimes given to the question “was it necessary for Jesus to die for our salvation” (it wasn’t necessary but its fitting) Thank you. Your great explanations are one of the reasons my wife and I were looking forward to the pilgrimage with you next month. Hopefully next year.

  • Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 11:49h, 30 March

    Thanks for the encouraging words, Joseph! Yes . . . next year . . . in Jerusalem! God bless!

Post A Comment