What is the most important thing in the world to God? You are, and the salvation of your soul. This is the message that is given in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus had just finished saying that there is great joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents, and then He launched into the story of the repentant prodigal. This parable perhaps comes as close to a true reflection of the heart of our Heavenly Father as we can find in the Holy Scriptures. It does not minimize sin, but it maximizes mercy. As we approach Lent, the season of repentance, we need to hear the invitation to come home to the Father, for all is forgiven.
The prodigal son was not so different from many of today’s young people: selfish, disrespectful of elders, interested in money and in having a good time. So he rudely demanded his share of the inheritance—before his father was dead, which was a great insult, tantamount to telling his father that as far as he was concerned, his father was dead. His father, while not approving of the son’s request, granted it anyway, respecting his freedom of choice, as God respects ours—even if we use it to offend Him.
So the selfish son went off and had his good time—for a while. As soon as his money ran out, he lost all his fair-weather friends and found himself in great poverty and even hunger. This is what we can expect if we want to have our fun in rebellion against the Father’s will. We can’t have things our way without enduring the consequences. We’re free to sin, but we had better be ready to feel the damage that sin does to us, for sooner or later it will catch up to us. But this is not yet the end of the story.
Squandering riches and living a dissolute life do not provide one with much opportunity for reflection and self-examination, but one has plenty of time to think when these are taken away. So the son began to mull over his wretched condition, realizing that he was a fool to have left the place where he was cared for and loved—the pig farmer he ended up with didn’t love him or even care whether he was fed or not. The time soon came for him to see the light, to come to the painful awareness that he was guilty of sin, a series of bad choices that landed him in his current misery. So he made a decision to return to his Father, that is, he repented. He realized that he had broken both of the Great Commandments—love of God and love of neighbor—for he said: “I have sinned against Heaven and before you.” Ready to confess his sin and accept the loss of his status as a beloved son, he got up and began the journey back to his father.
This is the journey of repentance, of the humble acknowledgment that we thought we knew it all and suddenly discovered we were all wrong. It is the journey that we all have to make if we want to live in the good graces of God. The prodigal could have held on to his pride, refusing to admit that he should have stayed home, not telling his father what a mess he had made of his life. He could have remained far from his father, hungry and miserable, but allowing him to think that he was still living it up—for the proud seem to be willing even to suffer for the sake of their delusions, rather than to accept the humbling force of truth, which would bring them to their knees.
Humbled, but encouraged by leaving his foolish desires behind, the prodigal returned to his father. Here we begin to understand the heart of the father, for it says that he saw his son on his way home even while he was still a long way off—which means the father was looking for him, waiting for him, keeping watch daily in the hope of his return. As soon as he saw him, he had compassion on him and ran to him, embraced and kissed him. This must have thoroughly confused the son, who probably was expecting a well-deserved thrashing, and so he just barely was able to stammer his rehearsed confession.
But this was only the beginning. Not only did his father receive him warmly, he ordered a banquet to be prepared, and the son was to be clothed like a king’s son, with a fine robe and a ring and shoes. The irony is that everything the son had purchased with his ill-gotten money had turned to rags or was lost altogether, but when he finally accepted to live by his father’s rules, he received the best of everything.
We ourselves may have a difficult time, at least on the psychological or emotional level, to accept being accepted by God after we have sinned and returned to Him. It’s kind of a shock—we know the evil we have done and the punishment it deserves, but here God is rejoicing and embracing us because He has forgiven our sins, and they no longer stand against us. It is perhaps analogous to the “phantom pains” people experience after losing a limb or an extremity after an accident or amputation. One feels pain in the severed arm or leg, even though it is not there anymore. So we sometimes still feel an emotional shame or guilt even after our sins have been taken away and God is calling us to celebrate his mercy.
I remember once hearing confessions at a conference in Sacramento many years ago. A woman had confessed a particularly grievous sin, but her repentance was deep and her tears were sincere and heartfelt. She was a returning prodigal, so for a penance I told her to go forth and rejoice, for the Lord had accepted her repentance and was pleased to forgive her and receive her into his joy and love. She was completely overwhelmed by that and hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry some more, though I think her tears were now tears of joy. I saw her a little later and she was indeed rejoicing, for divine grace and mercy had transformed her, and the Father had prepared the banquet of the Holy Eucharist to celebrate her return.
You are created in the image of God; He loves you and desires more than anything else your eternal happiness in his heavenly kingdom. So when you return to Him He rejoices that the dead has come back to life, that the lost has been found. He doesn’t read you the riot act but embraces you with compassion. Our sins, our shame, and all their consequences in our bodies and souls are usually punishment enough (unless we refuse to repent, and then justice requires more severe punishment). But when we decide to return to the Father, taking all the humbling and painful yet necessary steps that constitute our way back home, we will find that He has been waiting for us, looking for us, desiring our return much more even than our starving souls desire the Bread of Life from the Father’s table.
Having been restored to God’s grace and favor, the only pitfall we must avoid is that of becoming like the self-righteous elder son, who despised the repentant sinner and refused to share his father’s joy over him. He, the faithful one, who never broke any rules—except the greatest of them all, the law of love—was indignant that his brother apparently “got away” with something and now was free to rejoice. This is the fault of many otherwise good and faithful Christians today, who labor to avoid breaking the commandments, but who in the process become cold, haughty, unforgiving, and hence break this most important commandment of Christ: “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). They don’t want their ranks to be sullied by latecomers to the kingdom, by those who have tasted the poisonous delights of the world and have lived to tell the tale, while giving thanks to God for their deliverance and salvation. No, the “elder brothers” of the world want everyone else’s lives to be as straight-laced and sterile as their own, not realizing that their own righteousness is so brittle as to be shattered by the sound of the angelic trumpet summoning all to the judgment seat of God, and this procession is led by the scraggly and scarred prodigals who humbly enjoy the Father’s good pleasure.
So let us have the sense and the courage both to repent of our sins and to immediately accept the mercy of God, allowing Him to embrace us in his love and to invite us to the heavenly banquet. We should fear to offend Him—for it should be intolerable for us to deliberately grieve his fatherly heart even for a moment—but we should never fear to return to Him in humility, repentance, and the unshakeable confidence that his everlasting love would preserve in our hearts. Let us arise and return to our Father, who is waiting for us, ready to forgive, ready to embrace, ready to make all things new, for nothing is more important to Him than our eternal salvation.