In the 2 preceding parables (the lost sheep and the lost drachma), St Luke tells us about the compassion of God the Father for man and for His creation: how God looks for the sinner and how he rejoices when He finds him. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, St Luke describes also the compassion of God the Father for man. However, in this case, he seems to be using a magnifying glass to tell us about the details of how the lost soul returns to God. This is what the Church invites us to meditate a few weeks before Lent, i.e. before we start our own pilgrimage back to the Lord.
In the parable, the Father stands for God the Father. He has two sons: two young men who have received baptism and therefore can call Him “Father.” I shall deal today mainly with the youngest son.
The first action of the youngest son is to ask for his inheritance, the share that will belong to him. Note here the first act of rebellion: he does not beseech His Father but rather demands his share like a debt from the Father. His only consideration is his own self. In the same way, there are people in the Church who are seeking their own power and refuse to ask a blessing before acting.
The second action of the youngest son is to leave, putting a distance between himself and the Father, in order to live according to his own desires, his own will, independently. No consideration for what the Father may have wished for him; no consideration for what the Father was calling him to do. The only consideration of the son is for what he thinks he should do with his own life, without seeking advice or blessing because he knows better. This is the second act of rebellion against God. As a direct consequence of this, the sinner leaves the Church either concretely or in mind: the fear of God is no longer there and respect has disappeared.
The third level: this is the time of impurity and sin. “He squandered his property in dissolute living.” In other words: he wasted his life and his mind in sin. This is the first step towards enslavement to the devil. Note that what is wasted is not only our life but also our mind. The door has been opened to the passions and the mind is infected and wanders; the mind has lost his power of discernment. We are blind like the youngest son.
Then — and this is the fourth level — the youngest son has spent everything. As a sinner, he can no longer be a simple consumer. To survive in the land of the passions, he must become one of the hired servants of the devil and feed the pigs, i.e. the passions of others. The level of corruption is worse: the sinner is completely addicted to sin. Sin is no longer the source of pleasure it was at first for him; it has become an addiction.
And then what happens? When it seems that there is no solution, no end to this inferno, the youngest son, i.e. the sinner, “comes to himself”. In other words, there happens an awakening of his state of mind. Despite the deep involvement in sin, recovering seems to be a possibility. How does this happen? Listen to what the sinner says: he talks about the servants of his Father. The important thing is that the youngest son still calls the Father My Father. Sin has dwelt over him; however, as corrupted as his life may be, the Holy Spirit received at baptism is still present. Without the Holy Spirit the sinner could no longer say: My Father.
The Fathers agree that there exists a deeper level of sin “beyond addiction” when the Holy Spirit is no longer present in man. This is when man commits the sin which is a blasphemy against the Spirit. This happens when total rebellion causes the sinner to be involved in satanic activities, or when the sinner knows about God but rejects Him. There is a short distance between addiction and the level of blasphemy; but the youngest son does not cross the threshold as Dathan did during the crossing of the desert by the Hebrews. The Holy Spirit is still dwelling in the youngest son. Moreover we must understand that the return of his frame of mind is made possible only because of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Thanks to the baptismal grace and despite our sins, we remain sons of God.
However, let us not be proud of this longing to return to God. Look at the motivations of the youngest son: hunger and need. Nothing noble, nothing spiritual. The return is motivated at first by self-preservation. We are far away of the proud independence which had caused us to break away. We are broken and humbled; but the Lord will transform and use our weakness for our salvation.
Then the youngest son set off and went to his father. Note an important point here. As long as the son was in the land of the passions — even with the desire to return to God — there is no benefit. To bring fruits, the longing to return must be transformed into true repentance, into a real change of mind and behaviour. This is a real fight, a violent struggle. It is no longer a question of words and tears upon ourselves. We must struggle so that a change may emerge in us. This is the basics of Christian Life. Christian Life is a work of sanctification in order to be granted again the likeness of God. Or, if you prefer, to rediscover the grace of baptism. To enter the Kingdom we have to make violence to ourselves, to struggle against our passions — not in words but in actions. There is no other way. For example: if you are subject to arrogance, be sincere and true, and recognize your limits and mistakes; if you have a spirit of domination, stop thinking in terms of power, cooperate and accept rebukes; if you are subject to self-love, stop pampering yourself and obey the rules of the Church without discussing.
In this violent struggle, our soul on her way back to the Father is not alone. As soon as we have set off, the Father comes to us with open arms as for the youngest son of the parable. He is looking for us, sinners, to bring us back to His bosom. There is a total cooperation — the synergy described by Saint Paul and the Fathers — between God and man in the work of sanctification of the sinner. Without the Help of God, we would not make it. The youngest sons says: “make me like your hired servants”; he does not say, I will become like your servants. He no longer acts proudly and by himself but in humility.
This happens however under one condition. The youngest son tells his Father: “Father, I have sinned.” The sacrament of confession is the necessary preamble to reconciliation. We, as sinners, must go through this step — if not sanctification will remain a vain word. A few people, still moved by a spirit of rebellion and pride, view it as a trial, a rebuke. It is not: thanks to the confession of our sins, we become free again. Confessing one’s own sin is a grace. It is granted only to those who repent truly, like the youngest son, even if the motivations are not always pure. Without it, we will never sit in truth at the table for the Eucharist meal. We hear that Communion is for the sick, the sinners; to receive forgiveness of sins. However it is not magic. This requires serious preparation and true repentance, it requires real change. And this happens only when we confess our sins to the Lord through his servant, the priest, in the sacrament of confession. The youngest son returns to God: this represents our community during Lent. The youngest son confesses his sins: this is each of us when we receive the sacrament of confession towards the end of Lent, after fighting and struggling against our own passions.
What happens then? True freedom replaces false freedom. We no longer desire to construct our own self, but we accept to be formed in the image of God. We long for God and for our true self. Our will becomes the will of God. And, like the younger son, we are invited at the Eucharist meal: as free men we are clothed by the servants, i.e. the priests of the Lord. We are clothed again in the robe of baptism and sonship; we are given the ring which represents the union with God, the contemplative virtue; we are given the sandals to crash the serpents; finally we are invited to partake of the sacrifice of Christ slain for us sinners. And as such we are invited to enter the Kingdom.
To become a Christian is to become a saint: the only way is to renounce Satan and his works, and to become intimate with God. This intimacy requires cleansing; it requires honesty, i.e. confessing our sins and infirmities, remembering always that we may be able to cheat others, but that we cannot cheat God nor ourselves. And only then we shall be called to enter the Kingdom.
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