The second preparatory Sunday for the great fast is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. With the Publican and the Pharisee we learned of our need for humility, as it is the core of every virtue, the foundation of the spiritual life. We also learned about the danger of pride, as it is the core of every sin, the foundation of the passions, and, while a proud man may appear righteous, he cannot please God.
The Prodigal Son, like most parables, has a wonderful breadth and depth of teaching. The more mature we are spiritually the more we are able to discern and profit. Let us, therefore, focus on, what seems to me, to be the fundamental lesson: What sin is; what repentance is and how to relate to those who repent.
A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.And they began to be merry.
Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. (Lk 17:11-24)
First we are told what sin is. The young son asked of his Father the “portion of goods that falleth to me”. In other words, he asked for his inheritance. Now it is clear that one receives one’s inheritance upon the death of his benefactor(s), usually his parent(s). This is what sin is: taking all that our Father gives to us and using as we please. What has He given us? Among other things: time, intelligence, whatever talents or abilities we may have: life itself. To sin is to live as if our Father is dead, or at the very least irrelevant, distant. To sin is to distance ourselves from God, going our own way and doing whatsoever we may desire.
This may not sound so awful to our modern ear, but let us look and consider what the young son did. He took all that he was given and wasted it on riotous live. What is riotous living? Unbridled self-indulgence. He spent what he had satisfying his every desire, giving no thought about preserving much less multiplying his inheritance. He spent everything that he had he received from his Father. He neither earned nor produced anything. And worst of all, he had forsaken and left for dead the only one who had ever been good to him.
Famine devastated the land. He had nothing and there was nothing to be had. He hit rock bottom. He found himself feeding swine, an unclean animal according to the Law, and would have eaten their food if offered to him.
This is how sin devastates us. It leaves us utterly destitute, and humiliated, devoid of what we had and were to be.
Fortunately, the young man did not despair. He came to his senses in his dire condition and humbled himself. He recalled how even the servants in his Father’s house had more than enough to eat, so he resolved to return to his Father, not as a son, but as a servant, due to the despicable way in which he forsook his Father.
Now many father’s would not readily receive such a son back. Some might tolerate such a one but regularly ridicule and deride him, making his life miserable as payback. But not his Father; his Father is good. God is good. He gives abundantly to the good and wicked alike: to the good for they imitate Him, and to the wicked in hope that they will recognize that He loves them and repent (return). The Father gave to his son despite the way He was being treated by him. In fact, every day He would go out hoping to see His son returning home. One day He did, and He was not filled with wrath, disgust nor disdain, rather, overflowing in love for him, He ran out and embraced him. When his son confessed his sin asked Him to receive him as a servant, the Father ignored his petition. He covered his indignity with a robe and returned him to his place of honor by giving him a ring and shoes. He even celebrated by slaughtering the fattened calf.
Our heavenly Father so desires that we repent. He is not the wrathful God as often depicted in the West. He is the good God, the Lover of Mankind, full of compassion and mercy. He wants us to return to Him. He bears no grudges. He loves us and desires us, regardless of how much we have sinned, how much we have squandered His gifts, or how far we have strayed away from Him.
Now the elder brother was not happy about this at all. He had been faithful and true to his Father and had not been rewarded with such merriment. He refused to enter and participate. So again the Father goes out to enlighten His elder son telling him that he is wrong in being angry. Yes, his brother sinned. Yes, he squandered his inheritance. You are no worse off for his return. But he has returned home and thus it is right to rejoice. As our Lord Jesus Christ says: “that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Lk 15:7).
What this means to you or me is that, if someone has strayed from the Church, or someone comes to the Church with a sinful background, we dare not reject them, treat them with contempt or disdain. We are to receive, accept and love them. After all, we far more resemble the young son than the elder son.
As we prepare for the great fast, a time of repentance and renewal, let us examine ourselves and see how we have strayed afar from our Father - even, or perhaps especially, those of us who come to Church regularly - and let us humble ourselves so that we can return to Him (repent). It is not easy. It’s a lifelong process of falling and getting back up. It may even require hitting rock bottom. But let us entreat, implore and beseech our loving Father for these wonderful and needy gifts: humility and repentance. The saints treasure them as the greatest of treasures.