This week’s Gospel reading, the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, is one of my favorites to reflect on periodically because I’ve been able to picture myself as different people in the story at different times in my life.
The younger son in the story gets the most attention by many readers – we can all recognize how offensive it would be to ask a relative for your inheritance as if they were already dead. Most people can relate in some way to a time in their lives when they were headed down the wrong path, for a brief or long period of time. Most translations say that the younger son “collected all his belongings, and set off to a distant country” (Luke 15:13). The original Greek description of where the youngest son goes actually means “the big emptiness” – which I think is much more relatable to our daily lives than spending lots of money in a foreign land. Have you ever felt like you’ve ended up in “the big emptiness?” Maybe for you that means feeling stuck in some type of suffering, or even just like you’re exhausted, going through the motions in life, unable to see, or even think about, moving forward. Maybe that’s feeling lonely, anxious, or helpless. How did we get there? Is feeling this way at all tied to our own version of lacking in faith, or not spending time in prayer? I haven’t blown my bank account in a far away place, but when I think of it more in the terms of “the big emptiness…” – that strikes a chord.
The older brother’s complaints are something we can also relate to – the “it’s not fair” mentality comes naturally to us as humans, especially when we read that he offended his family by asking for it, then squandered away everything and became so destitute he “longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed.” My first instinct is to say “serves him right,” and stick out my tongue, like any older sibling who watches a younger one get themselves into trouble. He is right when he complains that it’s not fair that his “terrible, wasteful, embarrassing” brother gets a celebration. But it’s not about being fair – it’s about the love of the Father. When the older brother complains, he misses the point – reciprocal, sacrificial, unconditional love. He treats his relationship with his father like a transaction (I do good things, you pay me back with a big party), instead of a relationship. There are no limits to how much the Father loves us – and there is more than enough love to go around. The Father’s love is infinite – and so beyond our comprehension of measurements and fairness that it can never be measured. “Everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31), because His love is total, and freely given. By refusing to enter the celebration because of his anger, he isn’t taking anything away from his brother – he is only hurting himself.
I can think of lots of different emotions my own parents might have if I asked for an inheritance – awkward laughter, tears, angry yelling, etc. – none of them are willingly dividing the property up without question. When I think of encountering someone who has wronged or hurt me in some way, my initial reaction isn’t to greet them with joy and an embrace (Luke 15:20). And yet the father not only does that, but he also abandons all sense of proper expectations. In Middle Eastern culture at this point in history, an adult man would have always walked, purposefully, as a sign of status and being put together. Running? Out of the question, you’d be taken for a fool. And yet the Father of the Prodigal Son does exactly that – at the tiniest glimmer of hope that his son is returning, the only thing that matters is that he is home.
Lent is beautiful because we are reminded to shed the behaviors, distractions, mindsets, temptations, sins, doubts, and more that keep us from being close to the Father. We fast from the things that make us feel like we aren’t worthy of being close to God, like the Prodigal Son who didn’t think he was worthy of doing anything but being one of his father’s hired workers and eating with the pigs. We are called to sacrifice and serve, in ways that the older son struggled to do. And above all, love, and let ourselves be loved by the Father. Unconditionally.