Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Prodigal Son

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today we continue our pre-lenten preparations with the story of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15:11-32]. In this story, a selfish young man grew weary of waiting for his father to die on order to gain his inheritance, and so demanded that the old man divide the family’s wealth with him at once. Despite the impudence of this request, the kind and patient father granted it to his son, who then took the money and fled his father’s house to occupy himself in a far country with what is graciously described as “loose living”. We can assume this means that he involved himself in activities that were both immoral and personally degrading; things that he had apparently lusted after for some time, but had been unable to satisfy in the godly environment of his father’s house.

Pursuing this new and wicked life, the young man soon squandered all the wealth that his father had given to him and found himself working for a foreign pig farmer, so destitute and hungry that his mouth watered for the disgusting slop he fed the hogs. The Hebrews regarded swine as unclean animals, and the fact that this once wealthy young man had been reduced to becoming a servant of pigs would have been recognized as a sign of his complete and utter degradation. The whole story up to this point portrays very well the spiritual reality that those who give themselves over to sin not only lose the wealth of God’s grace once entrusted to them, but become enslaved to the foul and unclean spirits behind those sins.

Such was the condition in which the Prodigal Son at last found himself. But though he had willfully rejected every good thing he had known from his youth, and had emptied himself of every visible trace of dignity and spiritual beauty as the result, the mercy of God had not yet abandoned him. There, in the midst of his abasement, God awakened him, and he came to his senses. Thinking back to the life he had once known in his father’s house, it occurred to him that even the servants there enjoyed a better situation than he was in at the moment. Perhaps if he could muster up enough contrition and the right words--with maybe a tear or two thrown in for good effect--he could convince his father to take him back and give him food.

Thus the Prodigal began his journey back to his father’s house, all the while rehearsing his “confession”. With pious-sounding words he would tell him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am not worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants”. Surely such a beautiful speech would tug his father’s heartstrings and move the old man to compassion.

Perhaps we can see that at this point in his life--even after all he had been through--the Prodigal Son was still terribly self-centered. It was all about him! He seemed oblivious to the pain he had caused his father, and scarcely concerned for the great inheritance he had so carelessly thrown away. He only cared about himself and about having the consequences of his sins taken away. He was hungry and miserable and wanted his father to make it all better.

This is not a story of a deep and mature repentance such as that shown by St. Mary of Egypt for example. But when you think about it, our repentance is often far from perfect as well, and not unlike that of the Prodigal Son. Are there not times when we come to confession with a rehearsed speech designed to cautiously reveal a few of our more excusable sins, without really opening up and exposing to God the deep and painful ugliness of our souls so in need of healing? Like the Prodigal, we may not be fully aware of our own inner darkness or the value of our lost inheritance, the spiritual beauty granted to us by God but squandered by a lifetime of selfish sins. And do we not sometimes come to confession only to gain what we want out of it, a release from those nagging feelings of guilt, and a quick spiritual band-aid to assure us that everything is going to be “all better”?

We need to understand that this is not repentance, but it is at least a beginning. It represents a movement back toward God--clumsy and imperfect perhaps--but one that at least returns us to our Father, where we can begin the true work of repentance.

What is the difference between confession and repentance? Confession reestablishes the communion with God that we have broken by our sins. Even on a strictly human level, confession is often needed to reestablish broken relationships. What if the Prodigal had taken a back-road to his father’s house and hopped the fence to avoid facing his father at the gate? Would we not think that he was a coward seeking to take the easy way out? The same is true for those who avoid the confessional or come at best only once a year by obligation. In that case are we not trying to live in our Father’s house without rebuilding the relationship that we have broken with Him? The sacrament of confession is also the place where we receive grace from God to take on the hard work of actually changing our lives once we are brought back into communion with Him.

To illustrate this difference, let us consider what life must have been like for the Prodigal Son after he returned to his father’s house. Would it not make sense that he spent the rest of his days working very, very hard to help his family recover some of the wealth he had caused them to lose? Along the way, he would learn to stop thinking only of himself, and put the needs and interests of others ahead of his own. He would also have to work very hard for years to combat the lusts in his heart for the “loose living” that had taken him away from his father, and struggle often to purge himself of the memories of the sins in which he had so wantonly engaged. He was damaged goods, and it would take time and effort for him to repair that damage and regain a pure heart. He would also need to discover a new love and respect for his father and learn from him, valuing him as wise and selfless man, and a person worthy of imitation. These kinds of things would represent a good and maturing repentance, gradually transforming the Prodigal from being a thoughtless young punk into a good and loving man, much like his own father.

And so we see that both confession and repentance are needed in our lives to continually renew our communion with God and to make us partakers of His divine life and love.

As painful as deep and therapeutic confessions may be, and as hard as the daily work of repentance truly is, we are not alone in this work, struggling as it were to regain God’s favor from a distance. The story of the Prodigal Son shows that God eagerly receives us back even at our worst, and grants us every blessing to enable us to resume our life as members of His family once again. Before the Prodigal even reached his home, while he was still afar off, his father saw him and joyously rushed to meet him on the road, showering the undeserving one with gifts and love, and ordering a great feast and celebration to be made in his honor.

See how good God is toward us sinners! Sometimes we stand in His House bored and ungrateful, sometimes wavering in faith, sometimes dreaming of that far country with its lure of an easier existence. But here in this place God bathes us in His love, clothes us in a robe of light, and feeds us at His Great Banquet. No matter how spiritually blind or sick we may be, God’s love is given to us, and is greatly needed by us. Can we see how deeply damaging it would be to our souls for us to turn away from this love of God in even the smallest way? Let us faithfully guard our hearts, labor hard at our repentance, and grow as members of God’s Household.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 2/27/2010 2:32 AM , Anonymous オテモヤン said...

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