This Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching at my new parish, St. Augustine's in Brighton, Colorado. Along with the excitement of getting to know a new community, I was especially excited to preach because of the parable of the Prodigal Son, becaus the Prodigal Son is one of the most loved in all of the gospels. And sometimes scholars like to use this particular parable as the paradigm or the model parable. This parable about the Prodigal Son shows so clearly how Jesus takes our conventional values and turns them on their head, and how in a few short lines he can show love for the poor and downtrodden and offer a warning to the rich and comfortable.
So with a parable this rich in meaning, I had to limit myself, otherwise the kind parishioners of St. Augustine's never would have gotten to leave. The older son and the father provides lots of lessons on forgiving others, but I focused on the younger son and the father, which teaches us about God's love and about how to receive forgiveness.
So were going to walk through the interactions between the father and the prodigal son and see what lessons there are for us through the whole thing. The first thing we need to notice in this parable, and anytime we hear Jesus speaking in the gospels, is who he is speaking to and why, because that influences how he speaks. Today, the beginning of the story tells us that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and the scribes, the rule-followers and the "in-crowd", and he is addressing them because they're unhappy about the tax collectors and sinners, the "outsiders," trying to be a part of the crowd. So the whole story is meant to rebuke the cold-hearted pharisees.
This younger son does a lot that we know to be bad, yet if we look a bit closer, we might see ourselves a little bit in this prodigal son. So he asks his dad for the inheritance. This money and the freedom that comes with it is the only "good" the son can see. He can't see the good that would come from years of laboring on his father's property, the tough love that his father could give him. All of that is a "bad," and he wants to avoid it.
And, side note: inheritances only come once the parent is dead, so the younger son is in a way telling his dad, "I wish you were dead."
The father knows that the son is just going to hurt himself, but he also knows that he can't explain that to the son, and he values the son's freedom. So he gives him what he wants, he lets him have the money. Similarly, when we want to abuse the freedom God the Father gives us, and when we aren't interested in the rules God puts in place to protect us, God respects our freedom so much that he lets us go. He wont force us to stay with him or follow his commandments, because he loves us too much to force us.
Once he has his money, the prodigal son leaves. Here we need to keep in mind some cultural details of Jesus' audience that sometimes we miss. The story tells us that he went to a far off land, which is faux pas number one. This parable was addressed specifically to the scribes and Pharisees, and in their rigid interpretation of Jewish life, Jews should live in Israel, they shouldn't be going to foreign lands to live with foreign people. Then, once he burns through his money, he is forced to feed pigs. Remember, Jews don't eat pork, it is an unclean animal, so to feed pigs for a non-Jewish employer is just about the ultimate self-abasement.
But he got what he wanted! He got the money, and he got the freedom from his Father! This should be great! Similarly, when we wander far from God the Father, when we ignore the rules and commandments he has set for us and fall into patterns of sin, we don't do it looking for misery. We do it because we think it's going to make us happy, happier even than if we follow his rules and commandments. But God loves us enough to let us have this freedom, and he also understands stubborn human nature well enough to know that just telling it's going to hurt won't stop us, we have to find out on our own. It's like telling someone the stove is hot, now they have to test it for themselves.
But our prodigal son, just like most of us when we fall into patterns of sin, eventually has a moment of clarity when he realizes that nothing is working out like it was supposed to. So he gets the idea to go back home, but there is still some confusion in his thinking, because he thinks that after what he did there is no way he can be restored to his former position. The best he can even hope for is to be a servant. He didn't understand his father's love before, so he left, and he still doesn't understand it now.
So he starts for home. But as soon as the father sees him, the father moves towards him. That's what God the Father does for us after we've sinned. Once we start moving towards him, he moves towards us too. He doesn't stand at a distance making us work for him, making us earn him. No, after we've wandered far from his love, once we make a movement back towards him, he moves towards us too.
But even after the father meets him, hugs him and kisses him, the son is still convinced of his own unworthiness, so he tries to spit out this prepared speech about how he has sinned, not worthy to be a son, treat me as a servant etc. But the father doesn't care about any of that. As soon as the father hears the words "father" and "son" he cuts off the son's humiliating speech because he wants to bestow huge honors on him. The son is back, he has returned! Whatever came before doesn't matter, because his son is home again!
Similarly, when we come back to God after sinning, we often don't think that we can have the same relationship that we had before. We think "Can I really go back to God, back to Church, after what I've done?" And the answer is yes, you can! So you say, "Ok, fine, but surely I can't be as loved as I was before." But again, yes, yes you can be! This is good news for each of us, because even if we've never wandered far from God and his Church in a visible way, each of us are sinners, and we have wandered far from God in our sins. But once we go to Confession, God completely forgets our sins. He doesn't just set them aside and ignore them. He forgets them entirely! You could ask him about your past sins that you've confessed and he wouldn't know what you are talking about!
So wherever you're at in your personal walk with God, resolve today to turn towards him even more, because each of us can always do better in that regard. Pick a sin, something that bothers you, and tell God today that you want to give that up. And then when you fall into that sin again, pick yourself up, go right back to Confession, and begin again. Turn to God time and time again, and he will take you back time and time again. The Prodigal Son teaches us just how endless his mercy really is.