Reconciliation & The Prodigal Son

Photography © by Andy Coan

Photography © by Andy Coan

“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 Cor 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.

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.

Let’s unravel this wrongheaded idea.  Last week we discussed the true significance of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  This week 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.

The Passover Lamb had to be perfect, without blemish, and his bones could not be broken (that’s why Jesus legs were not broken like 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 human beings owed to God but had unjustly withheld from him for centuries upon centuries.

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.

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.

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 truly 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.

So Jesus is the conquering hero, not the scapegoat.  His free gift of unconquerable love is what atones for our sins.  And the Fathers 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.

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Sunday of the Fourth Week of Lent (Year C) – Joshua 5:9, 10-12; Psalms 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; Second Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. This series for reflections on the coming Sunday Readings usually appears each Wednesday.


Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.


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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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