There is a tremendous kindness in the parable of Prodigal Son. There are many ways to speak of reconciliation with God, or of the forgiveness of our sins. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, however, we find perhaps the most gentle of all images. The son who asks for his inheritance in a greedy and untimely manner wanders far in a land that is waste. He destroys himself in the wickedness of his own life only to find himself in a foreign country in the midst of a terrible famine. He attaches himself to someone as a hired hand and is assigned the menial task of tending pigs. In his hunger he envies even the pigs and the food they are given.
No more complete fall could be described.
But the same son “comes to himself” – he returns somehow to his right mind and determines to go home and beg to be forgiven. No longer worthy to be called a son, he determines to ask only to become a hired hand.
Again, the kindness of the story comes to the fore. He not only returns home, but finds himself forgiven before he can speak a word – not only forgiven – but the Father embraces him and kisses him – again before he utters a word. His Father will hear nothing of hired hands but restores him to his former position and orders a feast in his honor.
In the second portion of the parable the same kindness is manifest. The older brother, jealous of the attentions given to the younger, refuses to join the celebration. But he finds kindness as well. Again, the Father goes out to a son and entreats him to come in. “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” Beyond these kind and tender words he urges the older brother to be merciful and to rejoice at his brother’s return.
It is a story that is fittingly read among the pre-Lenten Sundays. For it is a reminder that repentance is not our turning away from our natural selves – but a return to our natural selves. It is a turning away from famine and life among the pigs and returning home. Blessed Theophylact says of the sons “coming to himself”:
The man who until now had been prodigal came to himself. This because he was “outside himself” and had taken leave of his true self so long as he committed foul deeds. Rightly is it said that he wasted and spent his essential property. This is why he was outside himself. For he who is not govern by logos, but lives irrationally without logos, and teaches others to do the same, is outside of himself and has abandoned his reason, which is his very essence.
The image of the Father is an image of unrelenting love – a love that remains constant and unmoving. Whether in running to the younger son, or going outside to the older, he is ever a love that is welcoming and urging that we be properly at home.
I have heard many people speak of conversion as a “coming home.” It is indeed the case – not if we treat Churches as though they were clubs to which we switch allegiances – but if in coming to the Church we are truly coming to God. For the Church of the living God is nothing other than our true home – our proper relationship with the Father through His Son in the Holy Spirit. All every son, whether he has wandered far in a land that is waste, or whether he has always remained at home with his Father, every one of us – must come to know the Father as He is in His kindness and mercy. For it is this kindness and mercy we are bidden to have in ourselves. It, too, is our true home.
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. (St. Luke 6:35-36).