“I will get up and go to my father and say to him, Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” It’s a fine little speech. It is deeply touching. It seems to show penitence, humility and a willingness to make amends. And it is really quite bogus. It is the kind of speech you find in a 19th Century novel. No son ever spoke to his father like that if he really meant what he was saying.
Is he sorry about the way he hurt his father by walking out as he did? Is he sorry about leaving his brother to do all the farm work? Is he sorry about wasting half the family fortune? Is he sorry about the sins he committed while wasting his money with prostitutes and drunkards in the town? There is no sign of it. He seems to have forgotten the specific things he has done wrong, the people he has hurt, the harm he has done to himself. In fact, it is only himself he is interested in. The story tells us he has only come to this radical point of change because he couldn’t bear to go on living on pig food. He is not concerned about how his father might be feeling. He just wants to get some decent food and a place to sleep. He was always a self centred young man and hardship has not changed that.
Also, he has never understood his father. He hasn’t noticed how much his father loves him. Or, if he has, he assumes it is because he is such a lovable person, and he has used his father’s love to get what he wants, like the half share in the family estate. Does he really think his father will treat him as a hired servant? If he does, he has seriously misunderstood his father. If he doesn’t, he is cynically using him, trying to impress him with a speech he doesn’t mean so that once again he will get what he wants.
We know what happens. His father doesn’t wait to hear his carefully prepared speech of penitence. He rushes out and flings his arms around him. When he finally gets his chance to make his speech the father ignores it and sends for a ring, the best robe and a great feast. I wonder if he realises then just how much his father loves him? One would like to think so, but human nature being what it is I fear he has not. But maybe there is just a little crack in his self centredness. Maybe he recognises just a little what being loved can mean. Maybe a process has started which will lead him away from that focus on himself and begin to acknowledge his father’s love. If he does he may finally realise just how much his father was hurt by his departure and why. Maybe he himself will start to love.
You may think I am being hard on the young man. He may have had better motives than I give him. But in looking at this parable we must be clear about what we are looking at. It is not a parable about a young man’s repentance. It is a story of a father’s love. The love of this father cannot be bought. It is simply there. You don’t need to ask for it, plead for it, wheadle it out of him or anything like that. It is there in its fullness from the moment you appear. It is not just love, if there can be such a thing as ‘just love’. It is love which is also mercy and is therefore also forgiveness. It is, of course, the love of God. Unlike human love, it can never be finite; it can never have boundaries. There are no limits. Most often we approach God with a sense that we have to earn his love, get it in small bits and pieces. In fact the problem we have is how to receive it, or even a tiny part of the great love which is offered. One way we can do that is to believe in his forgiveness.
This story has an obvious significance in the middle of Lent. Easter is a time when most of us will be going to confession. Perhaps we are nervous of that, wondering if we can dare say the things we know we should say. Or perhaps we are wondering how we can make a really good confession. We need God’s forgiveness and grace. Can we really make our confession good enough to get it? Would it be better to put it off until we have more time, time for a retreat perhaps, time for more reflection, time to get it right? Perhaps out of respect for God and for this truly wonderful sacrament we should wait until we can do it really well. That I’m afraid would be pride. We don’t want to offer a poor quality, incomplete confession to God. So we offer nothing at all.
For all my criticism of the prodigal son there are two things he got absolutely right. He swallowed his pride: he decided to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. That is the first thing and probably the hardest. True, he was starving. True, he was living with pigs. But many people would rather die than swallow their pride. He had more sense than they. And the second thing was that he simply went; he went home. His penitence may have been bogus; he may have misunderstood most of what his father was about, but he went home, and that was enough to gain him the complete and utter forgiveness which only that father could give.
One of the mistakes we make in our Christian life is to try and see things always in a neatly linear way, a pattern of cause and effect. We feel sorry for our sin; we know we have damaged our relationship with God; we prepare carefully for confession. We make our confesssion, receive absolution and go on our way rejoicing. Of course, it often does happen like that. But sometimes it gets all muddled up. We know we must go to confession but we don’t really want to. That probably means we are not at this point loving God, or knowing God enough to feel the horrible nature of our sin; we are sorry for our sins because we have to confess things we really wish we didn’t have to say, not because they are offensive to God. Perhaps that is the point we decide not to go; it is obviously better to wait until we have got things into better perspective. Or else we go because it is Easter and we know we must. Duty drives us forward, not love, or sorrow or contrition. It is a most inadequate way of going to this meeting place with Christ and receiving from him the limitless forgiveness of God. So we stumble through our confession, leaving things out, expressing ourselves badly, feeling only a kind of grubbiness and inadequacy, and afterwards, after the absolution we suddenly realise it has worked. Now that our sins have been forgiven we can see God as he is; we can see his love, know his mercy, feel his compassion. Now we know real sorrow and contrition; now we long not to sin again because the message has finally got through to us. God in a sense really doesn’t mind what we have done, or how we express it, or what we say. He simply wants us to come home.
Rabbi Lionel Blue tells a story of how, when he was studying for the rabbinate, he got sick of it all, ran away and ended up in a sleazy part of Amsterdam, where, some weeks later his tutor found him. Lionel was determined to show this rabbi the aweful truth about hmself, so he took him round all the sleaziest dives he had found in that city. At the end of a long evening they came home and sat down, and the rabbi began to laugh, and laugh. “Lionel,” he said; “Judaism is not a prison. It’s a home.” So the prodigal son came home. That was enough for him to gain entry to his father’s heart. And it’s enough for us also to come home.