The Prodigal Son: Re-Centering Until Our Last Breath

“God requires of us to go on repenting until our last breath” [Saint Isaias the Solitary].

“Repentance…. It means not self-pity or remorse, but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity ... It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see” [Metropolitan Kallistos Ware].

I believe that we should think of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son extending itself throughout the week, thus giving us the Week of the Prodigal Son and the possibility of meditating upon this extraordinary parable carefully and thoughtfully.  This parable is perhaps “the parable of parables,” and thus deserving of a great deal of attention on our part.  Sundays come and go perhaps too rapidly and we find ourselves back in our “routines,” living in a world far different than the one we are given a glimpse into through the Liturgy.  That fleeting glimpse, which is actually a vision of life that is Christ-centered and Spirit-guided, may thus appear to be “ideal,” but not “real.”  However, it may actually be the vision of the one underlying reality of all that exists and which makes everything else not only tolerable or endurable, but meaningful and embraceable.  If our liturgical and eucharistic experience is forgotten the moment it is over, as we move on to Sunday’s entertainment, and then prepare to endure Monday morning’s responsibilities, perhaps then we are “cheating” ourselves of “the one thing needful.”  And in the process we lose sight of the riches of the Gospel if we only absentmindedly await next Sunday’s.  That certainly applies to the Parable of the Prodigal Son!

Yet, before briefly looking into some of the riches of this well-known parable, perhaps we should place it within the wider context of its setting in the Gospel According to Saint Luke.  For the Evangelist Luke places the Parable of the Prodigal Son as the climax of a series of three parables in chapter 15 that reveal the “joy in heaven” when sinners are “found,” following an implied or clearly stated repentance.  In fact, these parables are told to a group of “tax collectors and sinners” who “were drawing near to hear Him” [Luke 15:1].  The first of these is the Parable of the Lost Sheep [Luke 15:3-7]:  “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The Parable of the Lost Coin [Luke 15:8-10] follows immediately:  “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you , there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

These are wonderful parables that serve as images of our heavenly Father rejoicing when He “finds” a sinner who has returned to Him through repentance. This “rejoicing” links together these two shorter parables with the masterpiece to come that closes out this trilogy of repentance-oriented parables. For the father of the parable will command his household to “make merry” with the return of his wayward son [Luke 15:24, 32]. Repentance is not simply a time of hand-wringing, regret and guilt. It is the beginning of a new life and an open-ended future that is a radical change in direction from the “no exit” of sin and alienation from God. The somber and stultifying atmosphere of sin is driven away by the “breath” of the Spirit, which “blows where it wills.” Of course, repentance is hard work—for old habits die hard—but sustained by the grace of God and the promise of salvation, the entire process to this day is most perfectly described by Saint John of the Ladder as “joy-creating sorrow.” Remorse for the past devoid of forgiveness will only produce sorrow—if not despair. The acceptance of divine forgiveness produces joy—both for God and the sinner. A profound awareness of God’s gift of salvation as the only meaningful release from the sorrow of sin led to the “gift of tears” of the saints. Their weeping was the expression of an inner joy that was overwhelming.

If (or As?) we squander our “inheritance” from our heavenly Father, we resemble that representative figure of the prodigal son. We too, then, “journey into a far country” there to waste our wealth in “loose living” [Luke 15:13]. Unlike the prodigal son, though, we can do this without moving a step away from our homes. We need only retreat into the seemingly limitless space of our imaginations where fantasies entice us with unattainable visions of “self-realization” or “pleasure.” Then, there are the murky recesses of our hearts; uncharted territory that if not filled with the grace of God will “fill up” with “inner demons” that will eventually frighten us by the sheer audacity of temptations we never thought ourselves capable of entertaining. Or, perhaps a bit less dramatically, there are “the pods that the swine ate” [Luke 15:16], symbolic of philosophies and worldviews totally foreign to the Christ-centered life of the Church. The end result will be an emptiness and desolation that will exhaust our own inner resources. Our humbled minds and bodies will begin to search elsewhere for more satisfying nourishment. Anyone in such a predicament will only hope to be blessed—as was true of the prodigal son—with that mysterious process that leads to repentance, described simply as “he came to himself” [Luke 15:17]. Then, in words that have an urgency far greater than in an entire book of theology, we too may cry out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” [Luke 15:18-19].

We all know what follows: the compassionate father who runs to embrace his son in love; the clothing of the son in festal garments; the orders and preparations for a sumptuous banquet of joy; and the solemn words, “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” [Luke 15:24]. As this parable repeats itself endlessly until the end of time, with its finely etched descriptions of sin, repentance and redemption, we continue to witness some of the “mini-resurrections” that make up the meaningful dramas of everyday life.