Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We all no doubt know this parable of the prodigal son despite the fact that it is found only here in St. Luke’s Gospel. It is not only well known to us, but it is well known to the world as well that has frequently used its images and its message, albeit distorting it at times, for its own worldly purposes. The chief character in this parable is the one for whom it is named – the prodigal son, the wayward lad. But, it also has two other characters who are equally important – the elder brother and firstborn son who plays a supporting role, and the father of both boys. It is a parable containing all the elements worthy of a good movie. I shudder, however, to think just what HBO might do to “improve” this story to really get our attention! Sadly, however, Hollywood does not have a stellar track record in this ever since the days of Cecil B. DeMille came to an end!
Every year the Church has us pay heed to this parable as we draw nearer to the threshold of the Great Fast of Holy Lent. It presents for us key images and elements for our spiritual edification and meditation. It is given to us for the good of our souls. She asks us to ponder with the Blessed Virgin all that our Lord says here and presents as treasure for our souls, a veritable feast for our prayer in preparation for our fast.
The story is basic. A youth – the baby of the family – finds himself dissatisfied with his small town home life and yearns for the wider open spaces of the real world, that is, the world beyond his limited experience which he fantasizes as far superior and greener pastures. No doubt, he is one of those youths who can’t wait to leave home and spread his wings, unimpeded by parental rules and obligations. You know, where he can experience true and real freedom, be his own master, call his own shots, live as he wants to live and not under what he perceives to be daddy’s stifling watch. Driven so much so by this insatiable want (not need, mind you), he does the unthinkable. For all intents and purposes, he bids his father die so that he might receive his inheritance early. This is the thrust of his request. A will is not in force until the death of the testator. And so, he prays his father to fast forward the effect of the will by dividing unto the boys his estate.
The father complies with the prayer of his young, inexperienced son. And he does so in love for his son, not withholding anything from him, but knowing full well what every wise father and mother knows: there is only so much good family catechesis can do and that experience is an unforgettable catechist. The young man is given the opportunity to experiment in the laboratory of his own choosing. So, he quickly gathers up his belongings, inheritance in hand, and he leaves home. I sort of get the feeling he didn’t look back over his shoulder with a sense of nostalgia or second guessing his choice. He strikes out on the journey of a lifetime which he is convinced will go as planned. He goes “’into a far land’” which is code language for exile. He’s not in the next town over. He’s “in a galaxy far, far away,” so to speak! He is now clearly the master of his own destiny. He is on his own, subject to no one else but his own desires, his own values, his own truth. He will clearly demonstrate the rightness of his knowledge and wisdom and show his father a thing or two.
We all know that, on one level, such a change in scenery oftentimes offers a different perspective which is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, such a change in scenery is necessary, a part of growing up once the youngin’s have left the nest. St. Augustine once left Tagaste where his beloved friend had died and moved to Carthage in order to put distance between him and his grief and to find healing. Sometimes it is necessary for us to distance ourselves to gain insight so that we might grow up, mature, and become what we have been created by God to be.
In the case of this young man, not unlike many of us, he purposefully, intentionally, and willfully “’took his journey into a far country’” where no one would find him. His was an act of rebellion, not a pilgrimage for healing, fueled perhaps by the youthful illusion of omniscience. Like so many, the grass is greener outside the seeming confines of home, the promise of real living looms large away from family ties, rules, and traditions. With wisdom, the father of the prodigal boy doesn’t deter his dreamer son, knowing that the boy will have to experience for his own salvation what the father already knows awaits him. Whether or not his son will return home – ever – the father of the lad nevertheless does not fail to prepare for his return, whenever that may be, if ever! He waits. He watches. He waits…for his son who is never far from the heart of his love.
What the prodigal soul experiences there in that “’far country’” is not a punishment inflicted by his father. You recall his plight: based on his own youthful illusion of omniscience, the lad fritters away everything that was his. He was okay for a period of time, but eventually the well ran dry, as it must always do when we are so heedless to wisdom. He frittered away his means of living. He frittered away his self-respect. He exhausted his alleged friendships, proving the truth of the patristic wisdom that we always have friends so long as the money and the alcohol last! To top it off, that “’far country’” became an extreme place of isolation and desolation. “’[H]e began to be in want,’” meaning, he was broke, impoverished, without food and without shelter. Deprived and stripped bare of his dignity as the son of his father by his insatiable passion for the good life which he sought to obtain apart from his father, he is driven out of utter desperation, still seeking to do it his way. He indentures himself to a citizen of that “’far country.’” He makes himself by his choices an indentured servant – a slave – compelled to do that which he did not want to do (Rm. 7:1-25). Remarkably, he echoes the experience of the holy Apostle Paul who bemoaned his own sinful condition, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” To his chagrin, that which had promised him life now only brings him death.
To be sure, the prodigal could blame his father for his dire circumstances. Such blaming is the last gasp of a dying and recalcitrant soul, entrenched in its own foolishness. But, the truth of the matter is, he had, in fact, become the master of his own destiny, a slave tyrannized by his own disdain for his father and his father’s house. He suffers as divinely promised to our first parents in Paradise, that rebellion will only – can only – lead to one inevitable conclusion and experience: to death. For in the day that you rebel and eat of the tree which My wisdom had withheld until the proper time, you shall die (Gn. 3:1-24). “Death,” my beloved fellow prodigals, “is the wages of sin” (Rm. 6:23).
To be sure, I am convinced that this father, like so many other fathers and mothers, fretted over the decision his beloved son was making because he knew the consequences. Wisdom knows. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if this prodigal child had heard his father speak of these things when they sat in the house and when they walked about, when they went to bed and when they arose. Indeed, as commanded by God, they were probably even written on the doorposts of the house shared by the family (Dt. 6:4-9; 11:18-25). In fact, God had warned ancient Israel, that once they started down the path to false gods, pursuing their false promises and chasing after them, the consequences God had foretold would come upon them, not as a punishment from an angry God, but as the natural consequence when we separate ourselves from the only true and living God (Dt. 11:16-17).
But, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord Who, as our loving most elder Brother, delivers us from this body of death! “[T]he gift of God is Eternal Life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm. 6:23). The turning point for us sinners, as it was for the prodigal son, is when we come to ourselves, that is to say, when we finally come to our senses, repent, and believe the Gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus! The prodigal boy, held captive by sin and death, and enslaved miserably by his insatiable passions turns from despair to hope when he remembers the Paradise from which he was fallen and yearns to return to. There is etched into our spiritual DNA this divine recollection of communion with God. We may not call it such, so clouded is this memory from centuries of sin and death. But, there is a movement in the depths of our being towards God, a recognition that we were created for Him and cannot rest until we rest in Him (St. Augustine). This God promises not to break a bruised reed or to quench the smoking flax until He establishes justice and truth in the earth (Is. 42:3-4).
The prodigal – the sinner, if we dare even to use such language since that’s the pot calling the kettle black! – comes to himself and recalls how all those dwelling in his father’s house are satisfied and at peace. In his father’s house there is “’bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!’” Truly, God makes evil to abound to the good of those who love Him and come to their senses when they fall from His grace (Gn. 50:20; Ec. 7:18; Rm. 8:28)! God our Father is in the business, beloved, of redemption, of our redemption, restoration, reconciliation, and sanctification. He awaits the return of all prodigal souls “for His mercy endures forever” (Ps. 117 :1-29; 135 :1-26) and gladly rejoices at their repentance “for His mercy endures forever!” The prodigal comes to his senses, acknowledges his self-made, self-imposed condition, confesses the mess he has made of his life because of his self-willed rebellion, determines in his soul to return to his father to serve as a servant in his father’s house, and then actually sets out. This is repentance, beloved. And, no sooner do we sinners turn about to head back to the Father Who has created and redeemed us, than we find Him standing right there all the time ready to receive us, not as servants, but once more as His sons, fully restored to our dignity as His sons. In fact, as the Fathers would teach us, repentant sinners are received better than when we left!
This is the wonder, the miracle, the ineffable gift of our reclamation in Jesus Christ! Who comprehends such craziness – the craziness which is God’s wisdom? This is the craziness, the foolishness, that baffled the elder brother of the repentant prodigal. “I remain obedient and dutiful, and this son of yours – I refuse to name him as my brother! – as soon as he returns home you celebrate with a feast of feasts, lavish him with extravagant gifts, and then, to add insult to injury, restore him to the family! Father, I don’t get you!”
The goodness and the grace of the father is as outlandish and as incomprehensible to the elder brother and firstborn son as it was to the souls in another parable who were hired to work in a vineyard, who bore the heat of the hot Palestinian sun and the brunt of physical labor, and were recompensed the same as those hired just before quitting time (Mt. 20:1-16). “Father, have you lost your mind? Master, how can you treat us the same as these who did not toil as we did?” To those who are perishing in their sins, God’s wisdom will never make sense. “’It was meet [and right] that we should make merry and be glad,’” says the father in the parable, “’for this thy brother [and my son] was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’”
What is always at issue is the grace of God that does not desire the death of sinners, but that all should come to the knowledge of the Truth and be saved (Ek. 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tm. 2:4). This mercy infuriates those who have not the grace of gratitude dwelling in their souls and who despise to relish thanksgiving for such compassion. “’Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good? So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen’” (Mt. 20:13-16).
Beloved brethren, fellow prodigals, let us attend to the Wisdom of God. Let us return to our Father’s household. Let us humbly offer ourselves to be His servants while He makes us His new sons and daughters in Jesus Christ! Let us not fritter away Great and Holy Lent. On the contrary, beloved, let us use it’s God-ordained time for our salvation and sanctification. Let us repent, believe in the Gospel, return to the Lord our God, and produce fruits worthy and befitting of repentance, being “more diligent to make your call and election sure” (Mt. 3:8; Lk. 3:8; Ac. 26:20; 2 Pe. 1:10).
We are promised in Sacred Scripture, from the very lips of God to Solomon at the building of the Temple:
‘If My people, who are called by My Name, shall humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land’ (2 Ch. 7:14).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God,
have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Cr. 6:12-20