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.
Every year the parable of the prodigal son comes back to us as a streak of light that dispels all the darkness of despair, and elevates the weary souls from the heaviness of the distant land. This biblical text is exceptional for us to understand the dimensions of the relation with God and the meeting with Him after a long oblivion, at a time when the sacrament of penance is exposed to some distortion, ambiguity or retreat.
Christian life appears to some as a “religion” that carries people to an “obligation” of commandments that should be kept in order to guard us from God’s anger. Since this was impossible overall, religions added “penances” and “atonements” for the benefit of God’s forgiveness.
The language of the Holy Bible is different than this mysterious circle of “human sin followed by divine redemption and the acts of penance”! The language of the Holy Bible, and the only word that summarizes its content, is the one that Jesus has began his preaching with “repentance”! Repentance in the bible is connected directly to joy, as we heard at the end of this parable today. Five meanings come out from reading and listening to the parable of the prodigal son, that deserve our profound examination, they are:
1- Distinction between sinner and sin
It is obvious that Christ emphasized in this parable on the importance of each human, whether he is a righteous man or a sinner. The human being is a “son” in variable circumstances, and what ever his circumstance is, in the house of his father or in a distant land, he will always remain a “son” who he has the same love. God is love. God is a father Who loves his sons, He loves us. But this love has two faces, the face of joy when we come back and the face of the cross when we go away. Yes, sin is distinguished from sinner. Sin is the incorrect act of the son and not his true value. The value of the son is in the Father’s love that never changes, but sin is his weakness and his mistake, and this can be adjusted. Righteousness and sin are two options for the human being. Therefore when a man sins, he does not become on the cursed list or with the rejected ones, but he becomes wanted by the Father because he went astray! Thus Saint Paul commands us to restore the strong, who are the weak in love and spirit. As there is sin there is repentance. The sinner is the son who has not repented yet, and the righteous is the son who did repent and returned to God.
2- The waiting of the Father
In this parable Jesus shows the father in a state of waiting for his son who left. This father is just in his expectation for his son to come back, perhaps with confidence, for he knows that his son will never find the warmth of the fatherly house in any distant land. Some icons depict this parable and present the father waiting on his roof for his son to return from afar. Yes, God is waiting, let us hope that His waiting for us does not long! This is the cross of the Lord: His waiting! God does not ask for atonements, He does not anger nor revenge from us when we sin, but the hope of our return crucifies Him. This is the magnitude of “love” in a world adorned by weakness and grace.
3- Judging not the penitent
How strange! When the son returned, the father gave him all his privileges and lost graces instead of asking him where he wasted his money, or why did he offend his love and leave for a distant land. This is natural for him who waits. Those were the questions of the oldest son, and this is how his father astonished him. Is it not this weird non-judgment that will make the returned son not to think about leaving again, and remain forever in debt of love and repentance for his father? Yes, God does not judge for the past, for He is the compassionate father, He is not the offended nor the wounded one.
We all wish for our reconciliation with each other, but we mostly choose different ways than this merciful father. Because we ask and we do not forgive when we meet! We blame, we judge and we require conditions before forgiveness. But for God it is a meeting and not a judgment! “My son, give me your heart”! This is God’s right from every sinner who repents!
4- The greatest joy
No wonder that this father was pleased with his oldest son who did not leave the house. But how marvelous is the emphasis of this parable, and many other parables in the Holy Bible, it is “the greatest joy” with the return of the prodigal son, the finding of the missing coin and the sheep that was lost in the mountains. They provide a special joy! In these parables, Jesus desires that we “delight” when someone lost be found! This is not a poetic impression! It is an anthropological fact promised by the Book! Yes, God does not expect righteousness from us without experiencing weakness! The saint is not born and dead without sin! This is an interpretation that reversed the reality of the sacrament.
The saint is the one who has sinned and repented forever. The man grows in holiness and the face of his life transforms from the color of sin to the color of grace. God tolerates sin in the Book as an act, but He rejects it as a way of life. Sin is cured by repentance and it is given complementary forgiveness! The most important for us is to keep our faces towards the fatherly home and not the distant land!
It is not our sin that we do not love God, the prodigal son never ceased to love his father, even at the time when he left. His sin is similar to our sin, that at a certain time he loved the distant land more than he loved the fatherly home. We do not sin when we do not love God! We sin when we love anything else in this world more than God. Was it not for this reason that the prodigal son or anyone of us did leave the Father, to divide the wealth and go away? This is the real sin that tempts us everyday, and we need to repent all day long and everyday! Repentance and sin are not two specific acts, they are parallels between the love for the Father and the love for objects. Him, who loves God less than objects, is lost, and the one who loves God more than anything is the repentant. It is the constant scale, where God’s inclination is called “repentance”. This repentance is the reason for the son to return.
The Book tolerates our moments of weakness, and our tendency to love something more than the Father, be He calls us to return and repent. It is not a judgment that we sin sometimes, but it becomes a judgment if we remain in sin. It is not a judgment if we leave sometimes, but it becomes a judgment if we remain in a distant land. The understanding of righteousness in the Book does not stand on a shallow and spontaneous holiness that did not experience sin or weakness. Understanding righteousness is to prefer the fatted calf on all the Carob of the world. The man grows in God’s love, he begins to prefer the heavenly bread more than all the pleasures of this world, to an extent where some people, sometimes practiced abstinence on the daily bread which is very important in our life, and the bones of David cleaved to his skin and he forgot to eat his bread when he called for the heavenly home. Thus there is a special joy in one repentant person more than the ninety-nine!