1 Corinthians 6: 12-20
St. Luke 15: 11-32
Today is known in the church as the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Now just two weeks from the beginning of Great Lent, we are reminded today of who we are: beloved children of God who need to come to our senses and return to our loving, forgiving Father. No matter what we have done, no matter how we have diminished ourselves, no matter how broken we have made our relationship with God, He patiently awaits our return, runs to greet us, and welcomes us back into His family with joy and celebration.
We can be sure that the prodigal son in today’s gospel didn’t think that his father would react that way to him. After all, he had asked his father for his inheritance, which was like telling the old man that he should drop dead so the son could have his money. The son traveled far away, quickly wasted 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 the young man came to himself, realized how miserable his life was, and decided to return home in hopes of becoming a servant to his father. He realized that he had sinned against his father, that he wasn’t worthy to be called his son anymore, and wanted only to be a hired hand. No self-respecting father in that time and place could be expected to do more for such a rebellious and disrespectful son. The young man would have been fortunate to have been taken back into the household even as the lowliest servant.
But the father won’t hear of it. In a way that must have shocked everyone, he runs to greet his son, embraces and kisses him, gives him fine clothes, slaughters a calf, and throws a big party. The father did not judge, condemn, or reject his son; instead, he rejoices that a beloved child who was lost has returned home, that one who was dead to him has been restored to life.
This story of the prodigal son should shape all the repentance that we do in our lives, whether in Lent or not. For it reminds us Who God is and who we are. As in this parable, there are no limits to our Lord’s mercy, no restrains on His compassion or forgiveness. Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ was born, 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 God, to put us in our proper place in the family of heaven as those created in the divine image and likeness.
Despite what some of us may be tempted to believe, the Father is not a harsh, stern, hateful judge who is out to get us. Likewise, the Son did not come to condemn and punish, but to save. We should have no fears about Him rejecting our repentance, no matter what we have done. He accepted and blessed everyone who came to Him in humble repentance 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. Christ even prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him. His abundant mercy and compassion extend to us and to all who call upon Him from the depths of our hearts.
This story also holds a mirror up to us. It reminds us that, like the prodigal son, we have foolishly rejected our true identity as the beloved children of God. We have chosen our own pride, our own self-centered desires, our habits and preferences, over a healthy relationship with our Heavenly Father. And we have born the consequences of our decisions and actions by making ourselves and others miserable.
St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. How horrible, then, for them or us to use our bodies in immoral ways for sexual intimacy outside of marriage. Our bodies are members of Christ and destined for the life of the heaven, and we harm and diminish ourselves when we view them simply as instruments for pleasure. The 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 man and woman join their bodies in other ways, they choose their passions over holiness and the glory of their identity as God’s children. The misery of disease, broken hearts and families, scarred childhoods, and the horror of abortion are often the results.
This was also the problem of the prodigal son. He abandoned his father in order to make his life one wild party, and 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 our particular set of temptations may be, we should all admit that we are in the place of the prodigal son. We have not lived faithfully as the sons and daughters of the Lord. We have chosen our own will over God’s, we have asked for our inheritance—namely, whatever good things we can get —and then used them however we pleased. In thought, word, and deed, we have often done our best to live as though God is dead, as though He is no longer our Father and we are no longer His children.
Lent is the time set aside in the church calendar to come to our senses, to recognize the truth of what we have done to ourselves, and begin the journey back to the Lord. But we have a major advantage over the prodigal son. We 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.
You see, Lent is not about getting God to change His mind about us; instead, it is about us changing our minds and lives in order to return to God. 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 which Jesus Christ always extends to repentant sinners.
But we have to be careful here. Some of us hear words like “sinfulness” and “repentance” and immediately think of God as harsh, unforgiving, and out to punish us. We may be terrified of God and think that He wants us to be miserable. So we obsess about our failings, judge ourselves as hopeless cases when we aren’t perfect, and end up taking the joy out of life.
The good news is that God did not create us for a joyless life of despair, but to share in the blessedness of His life. The eternal Son of God became one of us to heal our broken humanity and bring us into the joy of the Kingdom. We pray, fast, give alms, and forgive our enemies as ways of embracing His healing, of accepting His gracious transformation of our lives.
Like the man in the pig sty, we also need to come to our senses, see the truth about God and ourselves and act accordingly. It is only our own stubborn refusal which holds us back from entering into the joy of the Lord. Let’s use this coming Lent to get over that stubbornness, swallow our pride, and return home to a Father who loves us more than we can even imagine. He has sent His only begotten Son to restore us to the dignity of His beloved sons and daughters. This Lent, let us run home to Him.