Understanding the Prodigal Son
In order to get ready for something important, preparation is needed. We often need a warming up, a period of time getting ready for the main event. For example, two weeks of hype and preparation always precede the Super Bowl, both for the fans as well as the teams to get ready. If you go to a music concert, you will have minor groups singing and warming up the crowd, before the main event comes on stage. Look at any of our holidays, whether Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentines, or Easter, and watch how the stores prepare weeks in advance, as well as how we prepare ahead of time for our meals and celebrations.
Preparation helps prepare for a celebration. They go hand in hand. In fact, the more one prepares, the better we taste the celebration afterwards.
The Church has always understood this basic principle of preparation and celebration. That is why the liturgical year is an ongoing cycle of fasts and feasts, periods of preparation for periods of celebration. This is how we need to understand not only the 40 day period of Great Lent, which prepares us for Easter, but even the four Sundays leading up to Great Lent, which prepares us for the Lenten period itself which begins on March 18th. Each of the four Sundays preceding Great Lent reminds us of an important virtue, or mentality, we must cultivate during the Lenten period.
Last week we heard the Gospel of the Pharisee and the Publican – a vivid lesson which teaches us how pride and arrogance can destroy even the best of good works. Without authentic humility, seeing ourselves naked before Almighty God, even our good works will be worthless in the eyes of God. So we must begin Lent with a humble spirit.
Next week we will hear the Gospel of the Last Judgment, which reminds us that the way we act towards our neighbor is the way we act with God. “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers or sisters, you did to me.” We are reminded that God will judge us by the love we show to those in need. “I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick, imprisoned, and alone, and you visited me.” We cannot separate the one in need from God Himself!
The Sunday before Lent begins, we hear how forgiveness is another essential virtue without which we can begin our journey towards Easter. Only when we are ready to forgive others, even those who have greatly harmed us, can we enter the Lenten journey with a clean heart.
Well, today we hear the most beautiful story in the entire Bible, a story which summarizes, in a very brief manner, the most important elements of our faith – 1) God’s unconditional love for us, 2) the consequences of our rejection and departure from God, 3) our need to turn back, to repent, whenever we have sinned, and 4) a readiness to accept God’s mercy and enter into his joyous love with utter humility!
Let us recap the Gospel story: A father has two sons. The younger son greatly offends the father by asking for his inheritance. The younger son, in other words, is basically saying to his father, “I know I will receive an inheritance when you die. So I want to tell you that you are dead to me now. Give me my share of the inheritance. I’m not interested in a relationship with you anymore. Your money is more important to me than you are!”
Imagine how offensive such an action would be! Well, even though the Father knows the son is terribly wrong, and quite immature, he still gives his son his inheritance. The Father understands that true love can only come where freedom exists. He loves His son so much that he gives his son the freedom to make a terrible mistake.
The son takes the inheritance and runs away to a distant land. This separation from the Father vividly portrays a fruit of his sin. Anytime we choose evil over good, we are running away to a far and distant land, far from our beloved and divine homeland. While in this foreign land, the son foolishly spends all his money. Sure, he has an abundance of superficial friends for as long as his money lasts. But once it is all gone, he finds himself quite alone in a foreign land. He is without friends, without finances, and without life. He finds himself quite desperate, living in his self-imposed hell. In fact, the story emphasizes his condition by saying that a famine hits the land. The boy’s situation has reached such a catastrophe, that he finds himself living among pigs, longing to eat the swine’s food. Utter depravity and disgrace.
One can’t reach a lower point in life. Here is the ultimate portrayal of sin. Whenever we reject our loving Father, and foolishly choose our own path, the destination is always the same. Maybe for a period of time, we think we have discovered a pleasure-filled life. Yet it is temporary. Our vain pursuit of happiness, riches and prosperity will eventually reveal its emptiness. In that moment of truth, whether it comes at the end of our lives, as we face death, or earlier in life when we face various crises which challenge us to find ultimate meaning in life, we discover how meaningless, senseless, and egocentric our pursuit has been.
At this point in the story, something crucial occurs. The boy begins to remember. He remembers who he is. He remembers his father. He remembers his father’s house. He remembers the abundance of love and blessings that exist there. He remembers that even the servants of the household had food and drink in great quantity. He beings to see how meaningless his own life has become, and how blessed his life could have been. True repentance begins to form from within.
Yet authentic repentance only begins with remembrance. The boy remembers. He begins to see himself as he truly is. He does not try to hide his faults. He comes to his senses by realizing, “I have sinned before heaven and before my father. I am not worthy to be called his son. I will ask to only return as a slave.” In this essential state of humility, he finds the courage and the strength to get up and begin his journey home!
There is no self pity. No judging others. No justifying himself. Simple, yet clear, self-evaluation and deep repentance! Without these, we cannot begin our journey back to the Father, and back to our original homeland.
When the boy is still far from his home, we see the old, loving Father waiting for his son. As the Father sees his beloved in the distance, the Father forgets all dignity and runs towards his son. He does not wait for apologies. He does not demand an admission of guilt. He does not stand with his hands folded, waiting for the son to fall on his face and admit his mistakes.
Although the son attempts to do all this, the Father ignores the son’s pleas and with a radiant joy, shouts out, “Bring my son the best robe in the house. Bring him shoes to show that he is not a slave. Bring him a ring to give him his authority as my own. And kill the fatted calf. A feast! A most merry and joyous feast we must celebrate because this, my son, was lost, and is now found. He was dead, and is alive again!”
We see in this figure of God only love, unconditional, unlimited, radiant love! The father does not focus on the sins of the son. He sees only a broken heart, longing to be healed. And he offers his healing freely and generously!
Do we understand that we have a Heavenly Father whose love is far greater than any sin we can ever commit! Our sins, no matter how great, are as a drop of water compared with the entire
Well, the story didn’t end with the return of the lost son, and the love of the Father. As the Father welcomes the younger son, and begins to celebrate over his resurrection from death to life, the older son returns home from the fields. Now we need to remember that the older son has never left the side of the father. He has been the dutiful son, staying close to the father, obeying the father, trying to fulfill the father’s wishes. But there is one problem. Although he has been close to the Father, he has never adopted the Father’s spirit of unconditional love. He has obeyed the father out of duty, but not out of love. He has focused more on the rules and regulations of what an older son should do, instead of looking at the father and realizing that he needs to cultivate the same spirit of joy and love which the Father possessed. Although he never left the house of the father, his heart departed from the Father long ago, becoming hard, cold, and unloving.
So the older son returns, and when he hears the music and sees the household celebrating a feast, he’s annoyed. “Why is there a feast and I haven’t been informed? What??? A feast for my good-for-nothing brother who wasted all his money on prostitutes and prodigal living? Where is the justice my brother deserves? My father shouldn’t give him a feast, but a beating! He deserves it, and I’m not taking part in this unjust celebration until he gets it!!!”
The older son is right, you know! The father hasn’t been just! He hasn’t given the younger son what he deserves. Instead of justice, he has shown mercy. Instead of a beating, he has shown love and compassion. Instead of rejoicing in the pain of another, he rejoices that one who was dead is alive again! The older son can’t understand such unconditional love and mercy, and thus, stands outside the feast, angry, jealousy, and self-righteous.
This parable has it all - the unconditional love and mercy of our heavenly Father; the rebellious rejection and sin of the younger son; the deadly consequence of sin; the joyous fruit of repentance. And then the cold, self-righteous stance of the older son, who prefers to stay in his self-imposed hell, than enter into the joy of the feast.
As Jesus often emphasized, God does not desire the death of a sinner, but longs for his or her repentance and return home! The fruit of repentance is full and complete restoration. God’s forgiveness is immediate and absolute!
We are in a time of preparation for Great Lent. We begin this spiritual journey in two weeks on March 18th. Let each of us prepare by learning from the story today. We begin our journey of Great Lent by understanding 1) God’s unconditional love for us, 2) the consequences of our rejection and departure from God, 3) our need to turn back, to repent, whenever we have sinned, and 4) a readiness to accept God’s mercy and enter into his joyous love with utter humility!
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