On the surface, the story of the prodigal son is one of the most comforting Gospel readings: God portrayed as a gentle and loving father, waiting with open arms to welcome us home, no matter what we’ve done or how far we have strayed. So why do I find it such a hard reading to accept?
All too frequently, I identify with the oldest son, not in that I resent a lack of goat roasting parties, but in my rigid mindset toward guilt and reparation, my struggle with the concept of unbounded love and mercy. How is it logical or just to forgive and reward the repentant sinner?
I speak primarily about how I analyze my own guilt. I stand as the oldest son, and I sneer at myself, the prodigal. Ask for forgiveness, and move on? How is that fair? I’ve done wrong. I know I’ve done wrong. I sometimes see life as a ledger, and I’m so far in the red, there’s no digging out. No hope.
This is part of why I have trouble approaching the sacrament of reconciliation. On top of having to say I did the same stupid embarrassing things again and again and again, on some level, it feels like a sham, a trick. It can’t really be that easy, can it? I just come back, sincerely say I’m sorry, and bam, I’m not only forgiven but welcomed with abundant graces?
This Gospel teaches us that yes, it is that simple. That beautiful. That…unfair. The truth is that God isn’t fair. If we all got what we deserved, we’d all get damnation.
Instead, God is merciful. Infinitely so. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It isn’t clean and tidy, it isn’t this plus this equals that. It doesn’t make sense.
And so, a lot of the time I am the prodigal son, but I get stuck at the point in the story where I’ve squandered my inheritance and am starving in a pigsty, miserable, afraid to go home. I tell myself I’m not worthy of even being where I am. I wallow in my shame, while my Father mourns. I don’t even give him the the opportunity to embrace and console me.
That’s pride. That’s foolishness. Do I think I can sin so big, God doesn’t have the capacity to wash it away?
It’s time–it’s always time–to dry my tears and go home.
Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”