“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living” [Luke 15:13].
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son—alternative titles could be “The Compassionate Father” or “The Unforgiving Brother”—we find the classic expression of a young person making the wrong decision and suffering the consequences of that decision. Seeking that much-vaunted—but certainly over-rated—desire for “autonomy,” “self-fulfillment,” “independence” or similar assertions of the “self,” the so-called prodigal son only succeeds in squandering his portion of the inheritance and impoverishing himself in the dreary process. Alone, friendless and desperate, this young man is reduced to feeding the pigs in a “far country” and narrowing his former grandiose plans down to a narrow desire for self-survival. Not every such journey into self-assertion necessarily ends in such a spectacular demise, but the parable as unforgettably delivered by Christ rings quite true to life. Jesus is not moralizing, shaking His head, or clucking His tongue at the expense of this pathetic figure in His parable. Rather, the prodigal son is elevated to tragic dimensions because he is representative of any human being – of any age – who, through self-will, lack of vigilance or sheer carelessness can waste his or her God-given gifts along a path with “no exit.” This aberrant life-decision will then demand a further hard decision: to make one’s way back to authentic life – and for Christ, that means returning to our heavenly Father in repentance, humility and self-emptying – or falling into a further despair that ends in hopelessness. The Gospel always presents the gift of hope, and that is why it is “Good News.”
In the parable, the prodigal son “came to himself” and made the decision to return to his father and throw himself upon his father’s mercy. He did not know how his abandoned father would react. Therefore, he took the risk of a possible further rejection that would have been devastating. However, he was “surprised by joy” and the loving embrace of his compassionate father who, in turn, rejoiced at the return of his lost son. The other brother, of course, remained displeased, envious and angry with his father’s forgiving attitude. The parable takes on a universal dimension when we realize that it describes our own relationship with God and the openness to a new life through genuine repentance. Others may not be convinced, but it is God who can discern our inner heart and the authenticity of our repentance when it wells up within us as we languish in a “far country” with a mind and heart that are far from God. There is no better description of the meaning of repentance that the one given by Archbishop Kallistos Ware in his now-classic The Orthodox Way: “Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. 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 “ [pp. 113-114].
If we have no self-awareness of being lost in a “far country,” or if we are not hungry for “something” other than the “good life” as conceived by a world totally devoid of God, or if we fail to see the need to repent and offer our lives back to God in humility and repentance, or if we have no real passion for a life committed to Christ—if that is our current spiritual condition, then we certainly have no need for Great Lent. Great Lent has been called the “School of Repentance.” As disciples of Christ (disciple means “student”), we look to our Teacher – Jesus Christ – to guide us and direct us toward the realm of light and life – the Kingdom of God. We may have to break through a formidable accumulation of “bad habits” with which we have managed to entangle ourselves over the years, and this will demand courage and perseverance. But our goal is a worthy one: to hear our heavenly Father exclaim with joy what the father in the parable said when his wayward child returned: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” [Luke 15:32].