As we draw nearer to Lent, the Church gives us an image of the basic truth and goal of Lent in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is perhaps the quintessential parable of repentance, yet the theme of repentance does not exhaust its meaning. As we will see, it is not enough to receive forgiveness as did the prodigal son; we have also to offer forgiveness as did his father. That is, once we have accepted that we are loved, we have to begin to love others in the same way.
This parable, which is one of the best-known and which perhaps comes closest to the heart of the Gospel of Jesus, is about sin and repentance, about love and forgiveness, and in a sense even about Heaven and Hell, which we anticipate by the way we live in this world.
Let us begin where we all begin in this fallen world: with sin. What was the sin of the prodigal son? It wasn’t merely that he went to a far country and lived a life of debauchery and self-indulgence, though that was a great part of his sin. The essence of his sin is what he did just before he left: he despised his father, and by demanding his inheritance before his father’s death, symbolically told his father that in his eyes he was as good as dead.
All this is a metaphor for our own sin. There are countless ways to sin, and perhaps we have, to our misfortune and shame, discovered many of them in our own experience. But they all can be reduced to a fundamental sin: the repudiation of our heavenly Father, the rejection of his will and hence of his love for us, in favor of our own satisfaction, pleasure, or self-will. So we are in effect treating God as the foolish son treated his father: give me what I want so I can have a good time, and have it without You. God might say to us what Jesus said to his two disciples who were seeking special status for themselves: “You do not know what you are asking.” But He knows that if we’ve already decided to do things our own way, nothing is going to change our minds.
So, like the father in the parable, He lets us go. This is not a sign of weakness or of indifference on God’s part. It is rather a dimension of his love, for love respects freedom in the other, even if the other chooses to use that freedom for self-destruction. Love cannot force another to love, nor can it compel another even to do what is for the other’s own good. Love will always seek the good of the other, but it will not impose the good against the other’s will.
Yet the Father never lets us out of his sight. He doesn’t simply dismiss us by saying: you made a selfish and stupid choice, now deal with the consequences. It may very well turn out that we have to do exactly that, but the Father’s love will accompany us wherever we go, and He will always give us opportunities to come back to the truth and to the embrace of his love.
Meanwhile, what is happening to us who leave the Father for the sake of our own pleasure or self-promotion? If we have any spiritual awareness at all, we will see that our choice to do things our own way is nothing more than following the prompting of the devil. The devil’s way is always to promise but not deliver, to bait and switch, to present an illusion as something real and then cheat us out of what we hoped to gain or enjoy. We see this in what happened to the prodigal son. Sure, he got his money at the beginning, but in a short time he spent it all, and then what? “A great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.” And the devil began to laugh. He showed him a good time for a while, and then took it away from him, which is what the devil will always do. He is a liar and the father of lies. We have a hard time getting that simple point clear in our minds, for we always seem to think that the illusions of pleasure, fortune, or even of self-centered complacency will somehow give us lasting contentment. But before long, a “famine” comes, the illusion falls apart and we discover we’ve been cheated again.
What happens next is what the Church calls us to do as we prepare to enter Lent. The miserable prodigal reflects upon his sins and also on the loving providence of his father, who would never have let him be reduced to his present disgraceful and wretched state, if only he would have stayed and remained obedient and faithful to his father. So we have to examine our lives as well. When we see the wretched, shameful, and unhappy state in which our sin leaves us, we should reflect on how things would have been if we had only remained faithful to God. Fidelity to God is not as easy as falling into sin, but it bears the fruit of peace and a clear conscience and the confident hope for eternal life. Sin only bears the rotten fruit of shame and corruption and ultimately of despair and damnation.
But the message of this parable is that even if we have sinned, and sinned grievously, all is not lost. We can come to our senses, as did the prodigal son, saying: “I shall arise and return to my Father.” The main work of Lent is arising and returning to our Father, acknowledging how far we have strayed from his holy commandments and begging to be restored to his fatherly love and blessing.
It may be a difficult process, on the psychological or emotional level, to turn away from sin and return to God, but it is not a difficult process to get God to forgive us when we repent. That is because the Father has been waiting for us all along. He doesn’t want to accuse us of sin but to forgive us. In the parable the father saw his son returning even though the son was “still a long way off”, which means he was looking for him, waiting for him, eagerly searching the horizon for a sign of his return.
Once the father saw his son returning, he didn’t even wait for him to arrive home. He ran out to meet him and embraced him and kissed him. His son confessed his sin and his unworthiness even to be called his son anymore. The father did not disagree that the son was unworthy and a sinner. He simply overrode it in the overflowing abundance of his love and compassion, for the most important thing was that he had his son home sound and safe.
It is similar in our own repentance and restoration to the grace of God. If I say to God, “I have sinned and am unworthy to be called your son,” He will not say, “No, you haven’t sinned and you are worthy,” because He can only speak the truth. But if he sees that my repentance is genuine and from the heart, He simply won’t mention the matter at all, because what is most important to Him is that I have returned home and am no longer wallowing in the pigsty of sin and hence of estrangement from Him. What He wants from us is that we come home and stay home; that is all. The lost must be found and the spiritually dead must come back to life. God is willing to forgive and forget all the rest. Our sincere repentance and commitment to do his will henceforth is enough for Him.
But there’s another character in this story: the elder son. In the original telling of the parable, he may have represented the Pharisees, who considered themselves the faithful ones and who were angry and indignant that Jesus welcomed repentant harlots and publicans and sinners of all sorts. They don’t want to be associated with that rabble and so they refuse to go in to the feast. Self-exclusion from the Kingdom of God is one way the Church defines Hell.
In our own spiritual lives, we have to be aware that the prodigal and the elder brother can be the same person. If we are forgiven our sins and welcomed by the Father, we cannot therefore think that we suddenly have a special privilege and that we can now look down on others whom we deem less favored or—God forbid!—less righteous than ourselves. How tragic it would be if we, having been rescued from our own sins, took pride in our restored sonship and favor with God, and then began to criticize or judge others whom we don’t think are as pious as we have become! We will end up by excluding ourselves from the eternal joy of the Father’s good pleasure, who welcomes all who would come to Him with humble and repentant hearts.
The parable leaves the question open as to whether or not the elder son actually went in to the feast welcoming his repentant brother. That means that the decision is laid before us. The matter of our eternal destiny is not settled yet; we have choices to make. And God, like the father in the parable, will grant us our freedom, even if we use it to flee from Him. But He will be watching and waiting for our return. Good parents cannot stop loving their children, even when they do evil, and even when severe measures have to be taken to help get them back on track. But they always anxiously await the day of their return, of restored communion, of the sharing of the love which brought them into being in the first place.
Finally, once we have changed the direction of our lives, turned homeward, and have been mercifully forgiven by the Father, we experience that we are loved and welcomed by Him. Now the call and challenge is to love and welcome others as we have been loved and welcomed by God. We cannot remain the prodigal son all our lives, only looking to receive love and mercy. As we mature in spiritual life, we have to put on Christ and begin to give love and mercy to others. The prodigal son has to become the merciful father. This is the full circle of the spiritual life. “Freely you have received,” said Jesus, “now freely give.”
So as we continue to prepare for the spiritual labors of Lent, let us resolve to arise and return to the Father. We shouldn’t think that if we have not done really horrible things, this doesn’t apply to us. Any sin we commit, however minor we may think it is, will lead us away from the Father’s house and his embrace, and we still have to return and be fully reconciled, so that we can share his joy. And having experienced his love and compassion, we can share it with others, for the Father wants us to be icons of his goodness and love.
Let us thank the Lord, who welcomes the likes of you and me, as we fall down before Him in repentance and are raised up by Him in joy. “I have to kneel before the Father,” writes Henri Nouwen, “put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God.” May this Lent be a grace-filled pilgrimage into the loving Heart of the Father.