Sunday of the Prodigal Son
The Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday is 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.’
The more I hear this story and reflect upon it, the more I feel that the central character of the parable is neither the prodigal son, nor the dutiful son, but the focus and the primary lesson for us may be about the father and the nature of his love.
For when we examine this parable, we come to see that neither of the sons really understand their father.
The prodigal son, who so arrogantly and selfishly took his inheritance and squandered it on decadence and immorality, finally reaches his lowest point. And from that point of desperation, he ‘comes to himself’ and realizes that it would be better for him to return to his father’s house as a mere servant than to remain in his present misery. He resolves to return home and beg forgiveness of his father. And yet, as the Gospel tells us, while he was still a far way off, the father saw him and ran to greet him and embrace him. The prodigal son thought that his father would no longer love him because of his betrayal and sins. But the father, in his outpouring of love for his lost son, had been waiting and watching each day in hope that he might catch a glimpse of his son returning…
The dutiful son, who so faithfully stayed by his father’s side and remained steady in his service to his father, also misunderstands his father’s love. He assumes that he earns his father’s love by his dutifulness. Of course, the father is appreciative and proud of his dutiful son, but the outpouring of his love is generously given from the abundance of his heart, it is not dependent upon the dutifulness of his son. There is a lesson for us in the resentment of the dutiful son toward the prodigal son… Faithfulness to the father, if it is to be genuine, must be given from the generosity and sincerity of the heart. That fidelity and dutifulness must stem from an outpouring of love toward the father, just as the father’s love is an outpouring of love for his sons.
It is this unchanging, unshakable, generosity of love which defines the father that is so remarkable in this Gospel parable. Both sons - one in his fear of rejection for his prodigality, and the other in his expectation of reward for his dutifulness - both sons do not fully understand the loving generosity of their father.
And isn’t it the case with you and with me as well?
Perhaps we imitate both the prodigal son at times and the dutiful son at times. On the one hand, we find ourselves in an endless cycle of betrayal, failure, guilt, repentance, and promises… cycling back again into betrayal, failure, guilt, repentance, and promises.
On the other hand, we may be entangled in pharisaical pride regarding our diligence and dutifulness in keeping the fasts, saying our prayers, attending church, and being a good person. We become presumptuous of the favor and mercy of God… that He must certainly reward us and overlook our minor offenses, because we have been so dutiful.
Both of those approaches may not only be familiar, but preferable to us because they allow us the fantasy of being in control. The rollercoaster ride of our sinfulness and repentance, and the driving train of our righteousness… these are familiar territory and somehow seem safer and more understandable ways for us to live our spiritual life.
How infinitely harder and how vastly more challenging it is to dare to accept and to enter into the love of God. Here we have no footing, we surrender our control, we are cast into the mystery of God… and it requires complete trust in Him and in His goodness and love for us.
But if we are willing to dare to take this step. To make good on our baptismal vow to ‘unite ourselves to Christ’… then everything begins to change.
Entering into the love of God – we struggle even more mightily to refrain from sin, not for fear that He will turn away from us, but because we understand that our sin turns us away from Him! Our zeal to fast and to pray may very well increase, not because we expect to earn His approval, but because we love Him, and we wish to give something of ourselves to Him in gratitude and joy.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ… The blessed season of Great Lent is quickly approaching. This is our annual season of spiritual spring cleaning, given to us by the Holy Church as an offering to help us more fully unite ourselves to Christ.
May we approach this season of spiritual renewal with this understanding of the depth and the breadth of the Father’s love. Let us learn our lesson from both the prodigal son who doubts the father’s willingness to forgive, and from the dutiful son who presumes upon his father’s approval.
Let us enter into the season of Lent with our eyes open to the magnificence and the generosity of the love of God. A love into which we are invited and from which we may be inspired with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength to love God in return with gratitude and determination!