Holy Mother Church places the well-known Gospel story of the Prodigal Son son (Luke:1-3, 11-32) near the mid-point of Lent to create a kind of climax for our Lenten journey. The son who used his freedom and gifts irresponsibly, squandered his inheritance of faith and material goods, reminds us that the cataclysmic consequences of sin lie one temptation away. The reminder of God’s constant presence, his waiting for our return, and his full forgiveness before our repentance is the live-saving blessing of immeasurable expanse, one we have no right to deserve. Pure grace.
The Prodigal Son story helps us always in our own examination of conscience in three dimensions:
How have I have I demeaned my freedom? Ultimately, sin leads us to flounder and starve in the filth of a pig sty. In our personal sins, we identify with the Prodigal Son.
How have I responded to the needs and blessings of others? Have I been envious, judgmental — unloving? In these sins against others, we identify with the elder son.
How have I responded to those who come to me in forgiveness? Have I welcomed them with open arms, offered them my best to honor their dignity, forgiven them fully? In these sins, we are called to identify with the father. We are to offer our loving embrace to all.
The Prodigal Son story offers such comfort as we approach Our Lord through acts of repentance; we know his constancy and faithfulness. However, that story often haunts those of us who have a wayward child, one who has left the faith, squandered the greatest inheritance we promised them when we offered them back to God in baptism.
As a friend of mine reminded me, the point in the story we need to remember is that the Prodigal Son chose to return with a repentant heart, resolved to restore himself in full relationship with us in the faith. And so, many of us stand, like the father, with a door open, waiting and pouring our prayers beyond to pig sties unknown where our lost sheep may be mired. Ultimately our love wait until the lost one repents and returns, uses his freedom to honor his God-given dignity. All we can offer through that open door are our prayers, and trust in hope that the Great Shepherd will not stop searching until the lost lamb is found and restored to fullness.
Henri Nowen, in his book, The Prodigal Son: The Story of Homecoming, reflected on Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. This excerpt from his book moves me in this three-dimensional Lenten examination of conscience:
“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father? I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me — my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts — and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God.
“The prodigal son’s ‘No’ reflects Adam’s original rebellion: his rejection of the God in whose love we are created and by whose love we are sustained. It is the rebellion that places me outside the garden, out of reach of the tree of life. It is the rebellion that makes me dissipate myself in a ‘distant country.
“Looking again at Rembrandt’s portrayal of the return of the younger son, I now see how much more is taking place than a mere compassionate gesture toward a wayward child. The great event I see is the end of the great rebellion. The rebellion of Adam and all his descendants is forgiven, and the original blessing by which Adam received everlasting life is restored.
“It seems to me now that these hands have always been stretched out — even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them. God has never pulled back his arms, never withheld his blessing, never stopped considering his son the Beloved One. But the Father couldn’t compel his son to stay home. He couldn’t force his love on the Beloved. He had to let him go in freedom, even though he knew the pain it would cause both his son and himself.
“It was love itself that prevented him from keeping his son home at all cost. It was love itself that allowed him to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it.
“Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving it. But the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’ “