But if we are not careful, we will forget what kind of a Father He is. We may think of Him as an old man with a white beard in heaven, or as our own biological father somehow made divine, or as a stern, unforgiving authority figure. When we do, we should remember that God the Father has never had a human body, that He is not a male human being, and that we know Him only through the Son, through the Incarnation, teaching and example of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
Today’s gospel text shows us important truths about God the Father, for it is a shocking and surprising story about how a human father responded to the shameful rebellion of his son. The man had two sons. The youngest insulted his father by asking for his inheritance, which was the same as telling the old man that he wished he were dead. The father did not beat him or cast him out of the family or refuse his request. Instead, he gave him the money and let him go. That may have been the hardest thing that man ever did: accepting his son’s insult with humility and giving him the freedom to leave home and grow up the hard way, in what is sometimes called the school of hard knocks. At the risk of never seeing the young man again, the father complied with his son’s request.
The son then did what many young men would do with a great amount of money. He left town and spent all his money on wine, women, and song. That is, he wasted the hard-earned savings of his father on the kind of immoral behavior St. Paul condemned in today’s epistle reading. He soon ran out of money and became desperately poor. In a foreign country, he took a job feeding pigs and was so hungry that he envied their slop. Eventually, the young man came to himself and realized that he would be better off as a servant in his father’s house than in his current state. So he resolved to go home, to take responsibility for his terrible behavior, and acknowledge that he was not worthy to be called a son anymore. He wanted only to be one of the father’s hired servants, and he knew that he did not deserve even that.
But when the young man was still a great way off from home, he saw an old man running toward him. It was his father, who must have kept watch every day, scanning the horizons in hope that his son would one day return. On that day, he rushed out to meet his son, had compassion on him, and hugged and kissed him. The son began his rehearsed speech to confess his sins, but the father was so overjoyed at his return that he apparently did not even pay attention. Instead, he gave him a new set of clothes and began a party, for his son—who was dead—was alive again; he who had been lost was now found, was now restored to his family.
We now stand two weeks before the beginning of Great Lent, the most intense time of spiritual discipline in the church year. Time and again, the services, readings, and prayers of the Church will call us to be like the prodigal son, to come to ourselves and return to the Father. I know that some of us find all this talk about repentance to be scary and frustrating. We are afraid that God will not forgive us, that He will not take us back, because of what we have done, thought, and said. We may be tempted not to observe Lent at all, not to take any steps of repentance, because we think that there would be no point. We may have already given up on ourselves and on God.
Probably some of our own biological fathers would not have taken us back had we behaved like the prodigal son. Perhaps we would have a hard time accepting our own children, spouse, family members, or friends back into our lives if they acted like he did. But in God the Father we do not deal with a human authority figure or with a creature weakened by passions and sins as we are. Instead, we deal with a Divine Father Who gave His only begotten Son that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Like the father in the parable, God the Father is not out to punish sinners or to collect a debt. Instead, He is eager to forgive, eternally waiting for us to return so that He can restore us to the dignity and glory for which we were created as his sons and daughters. But we have to do our part by coming to our senses, returning home, and accepting His forgiveness with humility.
We often forget that God’s compassion, love, and forgiveness are not passing emotions like we experience. In ways that we cannot understand, they are abiding characteristics of God. Unlike human beings, we do not have to catch Him in a good mood to receive His mercy. We do not have to give Him time to cool down after getting angry at us, for He is not angry. Like the prodigal son, we bear the consequences of our actions; we suffer, not because God has decided to do us harm, but because we have chosen to harm ourselves by preferring our own will to His, by turning away from our true identity, dignity, and calling as those created in His image and likeness. What we experience as God’s anger is simply the consequence of refusing to accept His love, of refusing to live as His blessed sons and daughters.
Nonetheless, with mercy and humility beyond what we can imagine, God the Father waits for us this Lent to come to our senses, to recognize what we have done to ourselves with our sins and passions. Like the father in the parable, He gives us the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. He never forces us to do anything. And no matter how far we fall, no matter how low we go in life, He is eternally watching for us, ready to run and embrace us, to restore us as His beloved daughters and sons, and to celebrate our return.
Nothing that we do or do not do this Lent will change God the Father in any way. He has already given His only-begotten Son to conquer sin and death and bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and has been sent to us by the Son. Our bodies are already temples of the Holy Spirit. Through the life of the Church, we have every possible means of sharing fully in the eternal life of God.
So we have nothing at all to fear from repentance, even if we have fallen into behavior of which we are ashamed and embarrassed, like the sexual sins of the Corinthians which St. Paul addressed in today’s epistle reading. Contrary to popular opinion today, there is nothing new under the sun. Marriage between one man and one woman is the only context in which sexual intimacy may occur with God’s blessing and in accordance with His will. Anything else is sinful, a corruption of what it means for us to live as temples of the Holy Spirit who are created male and female in God’s image and likeness. No matter our age or life circumstances, we should all avoid any entertainment, relationships, or habits that tempt us toward any other patterns of behavior. We must control our thoughts in this and other areas of weakness in our lives, using the Jesus Prayer to redirect our energies toward God and away from indulging in self-centered desire.
Regardless of what particular sins we have committed, our Father is not out to punish or embarrass us; neither does He need a payment in order to earn His forgiveness. All that He wants us to do is to come to ourselves, to see the truth about the mess we have made of our lives, and begin the journey home. That is why we fast, pray, give alms, reconcile with enemies, confess our sins, and devote extra time and energy to the spiritual life in Great Lent. These practices help us to see how we have weakened and distorted ourselves with sin. They help us to gain insight on how far we have fallen from the glory intended for the children of God. We do these practices, not to change God, but to change us: to bring us to the point where we know in our hearts that we have rejected our Father, chosen the pig pen of our passions over holiness, and are not worthy to be called the sons and daughters of the Most High.And the instant that we do, we open ourselves to receive the eternal mercy of God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the good news of the gospel that we proclaim in preparation for Lent, for it is time to come to our senses and return to the Father Whose love, mercy, and forgiveness are beyond anything that we can imagine. No matter what we have done, He runs out with open arms to welcome us home.