In today’s gospel reading we are reminded of the great and overwhelming love and mercy of God. We see this in the picture of the son who asked for his inheritance from his father and then proceeded to use this inheritance, these hard earned resources in a careless and negligent way. How do we know that the son used them in a careless and negligent way? Because everything that he chose to do was for himself and his pleasure. He lived in a selfish and unbalanced way and it wasn’t long before this lifestyle caught up with him, it was unavoidable. He lived only for his own desires and happiness, and that does just the opposite of what we might think. Instead of helping us and strengthening us, it actually destroys us. It divides our body from our heart and mind. As we live a life of self-indulgence and seek after our own desires we become confused and lost and we stray far away from the purpose of our life and the Creator who has blessed us with life. Your purpose in life is not necessarily what you think it is. Your purpose is given to you by God and first and foremost it is to know and love and serve God. Sin obscures this goal and confuses us.
While it is clear that the father in today’s gospel reading is a symbol of God, it may not be as clear that the house of the father is a symbol of the Church. When the young man leaves the house of his father, he is no longer blessed, no longer under his protection, no longer sheltered from evil. Our understanding of the Church is similar. If we knew the multitude of benefits that are bestowed on us because we are faithful members of the Church, the household of God, we would truly be in awe! When we depart from the Church (in our hearts and minds and will), as well as physically, when we decide to separate ourselves from the assembly and from the sacramental gifts, we are in fact abandoning God and turning away from His protection and the grace that He instills in our lives. Slowly but surely this actually darkens our understanding and separates us from God and His people. It leaves us open and vulnerable to all manner of attacks of the evil one.
Yet it is important to remember that just as we see with the prodigal son, there is always a chance to turn back. No matter our situation, no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how we have squandered our gifts and wasted our inheritance, God stands ready not only to forgive us, but to run to us and welcome us back into His home, which is the Church. He runs to welcome us back to share in the banquet with Him.
St. John of Kronstadt said “All our attention must be centered on the parable of the Prodigal Son. We all see ourselves in it as in a mirror. In a few words the Lord, the knower of hearts, has shown in the person of one man how the deceptive sweetness of sin separates us from the truly sweet life according to God.” But he goes on to say that “[God] knows how the burden of sin on the soul and body, experienced by us, impels us by the action of divine grace to return, and how it actually does turn many again to God, to a virtuous life.”
How could this be possible that we should squander every gift that God has given us and yet once again turn back to Him? It happens because our pain and the feeling of deep loss are so painful outside of the house of God, and apart from His presence, that this pain is an alarm that wakes us up and can allow us to come to our senses. This possibility is open to us if we repent seriously as did the once rebellious son. What does it mean to repent seriously? It means that our repentance is not simply empty cold words, but a convicted heart that is confirmed through serious actions and efforts to reject our old and destructive ways and turn back to His way, the way which leads to life. Part of repentance is to check and see if we love anything in our heart more than we love God and His teachings. We have to take these idols of the heart and allow them to be crushed beneath the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is how we embrace the God who first embraced us. We look for whatever is a wall between us and God, whatever is a hindrance to peace and intimacy with God, and we turn from it and towards the Lord.
Lent itself becomes this reminder of our first love and the promised land of the Kingdom of God. Through our ascetic struggles of fasting, repentance and prayer we are reminded that we are all in some ways like this wandering and lost young man because of our sins and the distance of our hearts from God. But this isn’t bad news. It is only bad news if we remain in such a state. However it is good news if it is fuel for our desire to know God more deeply and enter into the life of our Christian faith more fully. In the book of Revelation, The Lord tells the church at Ephesus to “remember thy first love.” And in fact that is the goal of great lent and of our whole life of repentance, to remember our first love, the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we remember Him we draw nearer to Him and He embraces us within His arms. There is no joy that could possibly compare to returning to our long lost home. There is no joy that could compare with sitting at the table and partaking of a meal that is meant to welcome you back from your long journey. There is no joy that could compare with being received into God’s presence, not as His servant, but as His own son or daughter. Yet that is what God has promised to us.
I will leave you with a quote from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk who wrote,
“Sinners that repent are still saved; both publicans and fornicators cleansed by repentance enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The compassionate God still calls to Himself all that have turned away, and He awaits them and promises them mercy. The loving Father still receives His prodigal sons come back from a far country and He opens the doors of His house and clothes them in the best robe, and gives them each a ring on their hand and shoes on their feet and commands all the saints to rejoice in them.”