Considering how well-known and significant today's gospel passage is, it's amazing that, before the new lectionary was issued in 1970, we never heard Jesus' story of the prodigal father proclaimed during a Sunday liturgy. And frequently when it did come up in religion classes or sermons, the last part - the older brother's reaction - was left out. I suspect part of the reason it wasn't as emphasized in our Catholic teaching as it was in Luke's gospel and early Christianity revolves around the development of sacramental confession.
In my grade school religion classes, sacramental confession was about the only way our sins could be forgiven. Though a door was always left open for Protestants and other "confessionless" people to be forgiven by making an act of perfect contrition, many of my teachers pointed out these unfortunate individuals couldn't ever be 100 percent certain their sins were actually forgiven by employing that iffy method. Besides, the priest who taught my confirmation classes even wiped out that option by mentioning that, in his opinion, no one was capable of ever making a perfect act of contrition. Thank God I was born a Catholic!
Of course, at that point, I knew nothing of how sacramental confession came into existence; that originally it, and the public penance which accompanied it, was reserved only for people who had committed apostasy, adultery or murder; sins which could destroy the Christian community. Nor did I know anything about Thomas Aquinas' disturbing Summa Theologica answer to the question, "At what point in the confessional process are one's sins actually forgiven?" Is it when the priest gives absolution, after we say our act of contrition, when we finish our penance? The greatest of theologians responded, "At the moment you're sorry for your sins." Our sins are forgiven before we ever start to confess.
The earliest Christians would not have been as distracted by sacramental confession as we later Christians are. They, like the son of the prodigal father, surprisingly receive God's forgiveness as something freely offered, no strings attached, even if we never can make restitution for the harm our sinful actions created.
The older brother is the problem element of the parable, the reason Luke narrates this story in the first place. He can't help but point out to his father that he's constantly played by the rules, never even pushed the envelope. Yet his profligate brother is now on a par with him. He's convinced that's not the way parents, or God should operate. Everyone is to get what they deserve. To the boy's dismay, Jesus simply points out that neither most parents, or God operate on that level.
Perhaps that's why we have this particular I Corinthians passage as a second reading. Paul reminds his community, "Whoever is in Christ is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come. And all this is from God who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation ...." Those who are other Christs are expected to act in ways different from everyone else. We, like Jesus, are to put no conditions on our forgiveness. Someone's desire to be forgiven is enough.
Just as the Israelites finally reach the Promised Land in today's Joshua narrative, celebrate their first Passover, and rejoice in the completion of their Exodus from Egypt, so we followers of Jesus are expected to be a rejoicing, forgiven people. But, according to the plan of God revealed through Jesus, we can only rejoice in God's forgiveness if people around us are rejoicing in our no-strings-attached forgiveness of them. If God's prodigal with us, what right do we have to be stingy with others?