The parable of the prodigal son contains depths of wisdom and profundity which, in all likelihood, I will never attain in this life. Twenty centuries of reflection on this story have greatly profited the Church, and I recommend reading the Saints and Divines for their illumined teaching on it. I would, however, like to offer my own reflection, not as a supplement to anything lacking in the tradition of the parable’s interpretation, but merely as a (rather impromptu) observation of how I see it speaking into a recurring experience in my own life.
The experience I’m referring to is the periodic realization that sin cripples me. If someone were to ask me, “What does it mean to have sin in your life?”, my initial answer would have something to do with separation from God and possibly guiltiness. But “separation from God” and “guiltiness” don’t usually inspire moment-of-crisis confessions of sin in me, to be perfectly honest. What brings me to my knees is the feeling of being defeated, being broken. It is at such moments that I pray, quite instinctually though not very eloquently, these three things: Heal me, Forgive me, and Clean me.
I was trained to pray “Forgive me” when approaching God regarding my sin. But what, in all other life experience, does forgiveness have to do with health or cleanliness? Why does sin, which needs forgiveness from God, also inspire me to ask for healing and cleaning? It’s here that the parable Jesus gives in Luke 15 begins to speak to my experience.
The prodigal son, destitute and starving in a far off country, “came to himself.” He awoke to find his delusion of satisfaction evaporated and in its place a painful reality. “I will arise and go to my father,” he says, but we aren’t told that it’s a desire to be reconciled to his father that makes the wayward son return home; it’s the desire just to be fed, to be brought back to health. His own starvation prompted him to remember the abundance of bread in his father’s house and motivated him to arise and go there. So, too, does my desire to be rescued from the injuries of sin –wounded relationships, crippling despair, enslaving lusts, cancerous pride, suffocating envies– compel me to arise and go to he who has the remedies. If this sounds like a shameful, disgraceful way to come to God, that’s because it is. As C.S. Lewis observes in The Problem of Pain, however, “If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer…” There’s nothing graceful about debilitation or starvation. So like the prodigal, wounded by the circumstances resulting from sin and by the sin itself, I arise and go to my Father.
The son, seeing his situation now made clear by his intense hunger, isn’t expecting to return home to the way things used to be. He made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with his father, which is what taking one’s inheritance while one’s father is living and running away means. Then he squandered his inheritance. He had completely ruined his relationship with his father, and could never be a “son” in his household again. Still desiring to be fed and to live, and possibly just to be close to his father again, he intended then to acknowledge to his father the wrong he had done and beg only to be treated as a hired servant. As he was driven home by hunger, the prospect of being in his father’s presence again made him take account of what he had done, and realizing his own sin, left him no aspirations of sonship, but only the hope for mercy. In these desperate moments, when I most clearly see the yawning chasm I’ve put between myself and my God, I have no aspirations of sonship, but only the hope for mercy – no aspirations to sit at the right or left hand of Christ in glory, but only to touch the hem of his robe. That’s the extent of my desire for forgiveness in those hard times; my heart can imagine no more.
But thanks be to God. What happens next in the story? While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and ran and embraced him and kissed him. The son, I have to imagine sobbing through his tears, begins, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” But before he can finish is plea for mercy, his father has called for robes and rings and shoes to be put on this rawboned runaway – all the things that sons wear. Soon all the servants, too, were celebrating, and a feast was underway. The son is cleaned up and brought into the house. Had his return home been what the son had imagined back in the far off land, his robeless, shoeless state might have remained so as he was dismissed to the servants’ quarters (though as it was with the servants’ abundance of bread, I imagine the wardrobe of the father’s servants far exceeded the prodigal’s, too). But as the father himself said, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; was lost, and is found.” There’s a standard of cleanliness, of glory and splendor, in the father’s house, especially for sons. Filth is not only a reminder of sadder times but is a lingering presence of the evil itself. Filth must be removed and splendor put on.
In a way, the son from the moment he turned in humility back toward his father’s house ceased to be a muddy, starving, disinherited wretch, for his father saw him when he was a long way off and ran to meet him. And all at once he was forgiven, made a son again, cleaned up and fed. I believe it’s the same for me. The realization that I’m injured may be difficult to face, and the decision to face the God I’ve abandoned, slow and painful; but the moment I turn in sincerity back toward my home, I find no chasm – just God. I begin the petition for mercy I had rehearsed in my squalor, and before I’m finished I’m being fed and clothed, healed and cleaned. And so I am forgiven: for the restorative feast and the cleansing robes are the indication that I am being made a son, that I am forgiven. Thus the parable of the prodigal son speaks for the purpose of this lesson. This story of forgiveness, healing, and cleansing gives me a path by which to approach God from the far away places where I exile myself. The Prophets, the Epistles, and certainly the Psalms also affirm this path. But the image of sin and forgiveness in this story, from our Lord himself, is especially poignant. This lesson as I’ve expounded it by no means exhausts the riches of the parable, but for me, it is the most immediate and comforting lesson I can now glean from it. I hope this helps you, too.