Sunday of the Prodigal Son
The Gospel reading appointed for this day is an illustration of repentance - the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In this parable, our Lord tells us of a man who had two sons. These sons lived with their father where all that was necessary and good for their wellbeing was provided and available. In addition, the father had seen to it that each son would receive a generous inheritance of his wealth to take care of their future needs.
The younger son, demonstrating impatience, lack of contentment, and succumbing to the seduction of the world, asked for his inheritance in advance and left his home to go to a far country where he wasted his money and himself on the lusts of this world. After he had already squandered his fortune and reached his lowest point, The Gospel tells us that he ‘came to himself’ and reasoned that he might return home and, even if he could only be hired on as a servant within his father’s estate, he would be better off than continuing in his current misery. And so, he took action and in humility he returned to his home. The Gospel tells us that while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, I am no longer worthy to be called thy son.’ But the father was overjoyed to recover this lost sheep that was his son and commanded that a great feast be prepared in celebration of the return of he who was lost and is now found.
But the parable does not end here… it goes on to tell us about the other son; the faithful son, who had stayed behind all those years and diligently carried out his father’s work, doing everything right and remaining home at his father’s side. This son, we are told became upset when he saw all the fuss being lavished upon his brother… the fatted calf had been killed and a huge celebration was being held to welcome his wayward and prodigal brother back home. We read in the Gospel that he was angry and would not go in to the feast. His father came out to him to invite and encourage him to come into the feast, but the brother replied: ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this young son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ The father replied: ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’
I remember when I first heard this parable, I was a bit mystified why the parable does not end with the very fulfilling moment when the prodigal son, who was still a long way off, was met by the overjoyed father, who runs to meet him and then proceeds to celebrate the return of his prodigal son. It would be so satisfying to leave it at that… The story would be all about repentance – of ‘coming to oneself’ and recognizing the pitiable state we are in and making the firm commitment to return to the embrace of the father. This would surely be an edifying and happy ending to the story.
Yet, we have this additional account of the older brother… and his dissatisfaction and jealousy of the great rewards being heaped upon his younger brother who had so terribly disrespected their father, taking his inheritance and wasting it away on sinful living.
Why does Christ go on to tell this story of the older brother?
I think that it is extremely important to the essence of what is being communicated in this parable. For, while there is much to learn from the behavior of the two brothers, the parable of the prodigal son may in fact be less about the deeds and misdeeds of the sons than it is about the character of the father.
Throughout various times in our life, we may find ourselves often relating to the younger, prodigal son. When we recognize our sins and realize how they have led us far away from our Heavenly Father, it makes us despondent. How could we have betrayed His love like this? And in those moments, we may come to ourselves and declare ‘I will arise and go to Him and beg His forgiveness and mercy!’
And there are also times when we can very much relate to the older, dutiful son. We work hard to do our best for God… we pray, we fast, we love Him and long to fulfill His will and His commandments. We may be painfully aware that we fall short, but we stay by His side and continue working toward our salvation - hoping to gain His favor.
The fact of the matter, and the point of today’s parable, is this: neither the prodigality and repentance of the one son, nor the faithful dutifulness of the older son will earn the love of the father. Both sons misunderstood the love of their father. One thought that he could lose it by straying so far away… the other thought that he could earn it by remaining by his side. The reality is that the father’s love neither decreased toward the prodigal son, nor did it increase toward the obedient son. The father’s love remained constant in its outpouring toward his children.
So what then?... If the father is going to pour out this love no matter what I do, why bother knocking myself out with prayer and fasting and depriving myself of earthly delights? If all of my labors in the faith will not move God toward loving me more, then should I bother?
In questions like these, we demonstrate how little we understand of God and the spiritual life.
Christ said: ‘If you love me, you will keep My commandments.’ Our striving, our obedience, our dutifulness before God must be born out of an expression of our love for Him and our desire to grow in His love.
We will indeed not earn His love… His love is already given. But in making our efforts in prayer, fasting, obedience, etc. – we are clearing the way for a greater and greater capacity to bear the love which God pours out upon us. And in clearing out all those obstacles that stand between us and the love of God, we therefore do indeed experience a greater and greater degree of God’s love.
It is like having a bucket with stones and gravel and sand in it. Only so much water can fit in the bucket if the bucket is full. As we remove first the big stones, then more water can be taken in. Later we begin to remove the gravel, and more water can pour in. We keep going and work to remove even the finest grains of sand which stand between us and completely filling our bucket with the living water of the love of God.
We might also liken this to the light of the sun, which shines down upon the earth… upon the just and the unjust alike. We, in our fallenness are like cave-dwellers… drawn to the darkness and shadows of our sins. But as we venture out from our cave into the light of day, the sun shines down upon us. The further we come out of our cave the more we can enjoy the light which shines down. It is not the light that changes, but our perception and participation within that light changes depending on how far we’re willing to venture from the mouth of our cave.
So it is with God’s love, which shines upon His people.
As we approach this season of Lent, we enter into a period of repentance, of prayer, and of spiritual struggle and renewal. The struggle is real, and it is intense, and it is important. Not because in doing so we will earn His love, but because in doing so we will more fully enter into His love.
And that makes all the difference!