Each year, as we prepare to embark upon the Great Fast, we hear the Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) read at the Divine Liturgy. Some commentators have said that the story might better be called the Parable of the Forgiving Father as he is the most important character in the story. Actually the parable speaks about the character of God, (the father) and the human condition (both his sons). It thus sets the stage for our Lenten journey of repentance.
The Prodigal Son and Our Human Condition
We are not told the exact age of the young man when he decides to set off on his own, but countless commentators have depicted him as an adolescent. His behavior certainly bears this out. He has the selfish impatience of youth: he wants his inheritance now, even though his father is still alive. He is more interested in what the man’s money can buy than in the man himself.
In that, the young man repeats the choice made by our first parents who preferred the appetizing but forbidden fruit to continued fellowship with the One who provided it. He also images the choices we all make when we focus our attention on the fruits of creation rather than on the Creator who offers us a relationship with Himself. In any such choice we become the petulant adolescent whose first stabs at maturity always seem to require resentment of the parent if not outright rebellion.
On his own the Prodigal’s newfound independence seems to lead him into slavery rather quickly. He begins living what various translations call a “wild,” “reckless,” “loose” “riotous” “foolish,” “notorious,” “dissolute,” “wasteful,” or “prodigal” way of life. We are left to imagine what that might have involved; we certainly know what the result was. He spent everything he had and ended up with nothing. He wanted to be independent but did not understand that being independent does not free a person from being responsible.
No well-balanced person in our world wants to be dependent on another. We often forget, however, that our desire for human self-determination cannot lead us away from God without disastrous results. We inevitably end up spiritually bankrupt and living on the pig’s fodder of a Godless world.
Unlike many people, however, the Prodigal does something about his condition: he returns to his father. He repents. Still thinking of himself and his own needs, he plans to plead for the lowest place in his father’s household. The young man does not know with whom he is dealing.
The Forgiving Father and the Mercy of God
The father does not wait for his son to apologize or beg for forgiveness. He welcomes him home with open arms and calls for a celebration. He is the image of our heavenly Father who knows when one of His children seeks forgiveness and grants it at once, without demanding any form of penance or satisfaction.
Note that the father does not go in search of his son when the lad is enjoying the wasteful life he has chosen or when he is miserable, but not yet resolved to return home. His mercy would bear fruit only when the son had come to truly desire it and so the father waits for his son to make the first move. But when the son does return, the father does not make him work for forgiveness; he gives it freely.
In this the father is unlike many of us who would want the ungrateful son to squirm before accepting him back home. We might feel justified in “teaching him a lesson,” but this is apparently not God’s way. When repentance truly touches the heart, the “lesson” has already been learned.
The Father’s extraordinary mercy is no excuse for taking advantage of Him: seeking the blessing of His house while not repenting in action as well as in words. As St Isaac the Syrian taught, “But the fact that repentance furnishes hope should not be taken by us as a means to rob ourselves of the feeling of fear, so that one might more freely and fearlessly commit sin” (Isaac the Syrian, First Collection: Homily Ten).
Proclaiming the Mercy of God
Our liturgy continually emphasizes the mercy of God. The beloved Polyeleos psalm sung so frequently in our churches at the most solemn occasions has as its refrain, “For His mercy endures forever, alleluia” The Typica psalms each proclaim the depths of God’s mercy to His People: “He forgives all your iniquity, he heals all your diseases, he redeems your life from the pit, he crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (Psalms 102:3, 4).
The second psalm is even more specific: “He brings about justice for the oppressed; he gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalms 146:7-9). Coincidentally it is precisely these psalms, so familiar to the faithful of our Church, which Pope Francis cited in the letter opening his “Year of Mercy.”
Is it unreasonable to think that we, who continually sing of God’s mercy in our services, should not be encouraging one another to return to the Father by attending the Church’s Lenten services, by approaching the Mystery of Confession and by embracing the ideas in “The Great Fast in the Home,” available on our eparchy’s web site?
As the Lord said in the parables which precede the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance… Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7, 10).
“What then is the object of the parable? Let us examine the occasion which led to it; for so we shall learn the truth. The blessed Luke therefore had himself said a little before of Christ the Savior of us all, ‘And all the publicans and sinners drew near unto Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ As therefore the Pharisees and Scribes made this outcry at His gentleness and love to man, and wickedly and impiously blamed Him for receiving and teaching men whose lives were impure, Christ very necessarily set before them the present parable, to show them clearly this very thing: that …when any are called to repentance, even if they be men highly blamable, he must rejoice, and not give way to an unloving vexation on their account….
“For sometimes people are indignant at this, and even say, ‘This man, who has been guilty of such and such actions… has been inscribed among the sons of God, and honored with the glory of the saints!’’ Such complaints come from an empty narrowness of mind, not conforming to the purpose of the universal Father. For He greatly rejoices when He sees those who were lost obtaining salvation, and raises them up again to that which they were in the beginning, giving them the garment of freedom…
“It is our duty, therefore, to conform ourselves to that which God wills: for He heals those who are sick… He seeks those who were lost; He raises as from the dead those who had suffered spiritual death. Let us also rejoice and, together with the holy angels, praise Him who is good, and the Lover of mankind.”