The prodigal son in today’s gospel certainly did not think that his father would react that way to him. He had deeply insulted and rejected his father by asking for his inheritance, which was like telling the old man that he should drop dead so the son could have his money. The young man traveled far away, quickly spent all his money with partying and immorality, ended up as a servant taking care of pigs, and was so hungry that he wished he could eat the pigs’ slop.
Then he came to himself, realized how terrible his life was, and decided to return home in hopes of becoming merely a servant to his father, for he realized that he was not worthy to be called his son anymore. No self-respecting father in that time and place would have done more for such a disrespectful son. Even to receive him back as a servant was probably a stretch.
But in a way that must have shocked everyone, the father ran to greet his son, hugged and kissed him, gave him fine clothes, slaughtered a calf, and threw a big party. Instead of condemning or trying to get even with his son, the father rejoiced that his lost son had returned home, that one who had been dead to him was restored to life.
The story of the prodigal son should inform all the repentance that we do throughout our lives. It shows us that there are no limits to our Lord’s mercy, no restrains on His compassion or forgiveness in response to truly repentant sinners. Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ was born, was baptized, taught, worked miracles, was crucified and resurrected, and ascended into heaven for our salvation. He came as the Second Adam to restore us as the children of the Father, to put us in our proper place in the family of heaven as those created in the divine image and likeness.
Despite some bad theology that remains all too popular, the Father is not a harsh, stern, hateful judge who is out to get us. Neither is He somehow a projection of our experiences of our own fathers, no matter what they are like. Likewise, the Son did not come to condemn and punish, but to save. We should have no fears about Him rejecting our genuine repentance, no matter what we have done. He accepted and blessed everyone who came to Him in humility during his earthly ministry, including tax-collectors, a woman caught in adultery, Gentiles, the demon-possessed, and His own apostles who denied and abandoned Him. Even as He died on the cross, our Savior prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him. His abundant mercy and compassion extend to all who call upon Him from the depths of our hearts.
If we have any spiritual vision at all, we will see ourselves in the parable of the prodigal son, for like him we have foolishly rejected our true identity and dignity as the beloved children of the Father. We have chosen our own pride, our own self-centered desires, and our addiction to pleasure over a healthy relationship with the One Who has given us life itself. And we have born the consequences of our foolish decisions and actions by making ourselves and others miserable in ways that often cannot be easily remedied.
St. Paul wrote sternly to the Corinthians because they had done the same thing as that lost young man. The men there were having immoral relationships with prostitutes and apparently believed that what they did with their bodies was not of importance to God, as though Christ came only to save their souls.
St. Paul set them right by reminding them that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, members of Christ, and destined for the life of the heaven. The intimate union of man and woman is for growth in holiness and love through the blessed covenant called marriage, which is an image of the relationship between Christ and the Church in which husband and wife wear the crowns of the Kingdom. When people join their bodies in other ways, they choose their passions over holiness and the glory of their identity as God’s children. Though it is unpopular to say in our culture and a real challenge to live out, we must proclaim what the Church has always taught: Sexual union in any other context falls short of God’s purposes for man and woman, who were created together in His image and likeness, and places major obstacles in their journey to the life of the Kingdom. These are grave sins that call for repentance.
The prodigal son was like those Corinthian men. He had treated his father shamefully in order to lead a shameful life of pleasure; and when the money for women and wine had run out, he ended up in a pig sty so wild with hunger that he envied the food of the swine. And since the Jews considered pigs to be unclean, the Lord makes clear that this fellow had truly hit rock bottom.
No matter what particular kind of wandering from the path to the Kingdom we have done, no matter what our particular set of temptations may be, each and every one of us is in the place of the prodigal son in one way or another. That is because we have chosen our own will over our Father’s. We have asked for our inheritance—namely, all of God’s blessings that we take for granted--and then used them however we pleased. In thought, word, and deed, we have often done our best to live as though God were dead and out of the picture, as though He were no longer our Father and we were no longer His children.
Lent is the time set aside in the church calendar to come to our senses, to recognize how we have diminished and degraded ourselves, and begin the journey back to the Lord. If you need inspiration to take the journey this year, remember that we have an advantage over the prodigal son because we already know that our Heavenly Father wants nothing more than to restore us to His family. He wants nothing more than to forgive, heal, and bless us; to return us to our proper dignity as sons and daughters of the Most High. That is why the Father gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.
Lent is not about getting God to change His mind about us; no, it is about us changing our minds and lives in order to return to Him. No amount of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will alter anything about the Lord; but these tools are useful in helping us see the truth about our sinfulness and in opening our lives to the mercy that Jesus Christ always extends to repentant sinners.
No matter what others say or what our own thoughts may tell us, our Heavenly Father is not a harsh, unforgiving God out to punish us. We do not deny ourselves and take up our crosses because He is somehow appeased by our suffering or wants us to become miserable. Instead, He simply wants us to do what we must in order to return home and become participants in the great celebration of the Kingdom of Heaven. He wants His departed children to leave the pig sty and return to the life for which He created us. He wants those who are spiritually dead to return to life.At the end of the day, that is the blessed opportunity provided by Great Lent: to come to our senses and begin the journey back to a Father Who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. He runs out to welcome us, but we must decide to start walking toward Him. Let this sink in: He is not the one who needs to change.