The Gospel passage given to us for this Laetare Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday, just over halfway through Lent, might be one of the most familiar in all of the Scriptures. The story of the Prodigal Son takes its place alongside the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the Parable of the Talents, as a teaching of Christ that has become a part of Western culture’s very fabric. For this reason, it is perhaps one of the passages whose meaning is easily obscured precisely by familiarity. We might understand easily why this parable suits a Sunday set aside for rejoicing, but the fact that so many Christians still believe, even without saying so, that God and the Church forgive their sins reluctantly, or wait for them to prove the quality of their virtues, of their moral life, before accepting them and showing them love, demonstrates that we have not deeply heard the truth of what Christ preaches here. Let’s take this opportunity to re-familiarize ourselves.
In order to understand this parable rightly, we have to see the elements of the story with their full weight. First, the so-called Prodigal Son is not intended to be a sympathetic character. He is not a “basically moral person” who “makes mistakes, but has a good heart in the end.” He is not an antihero, driven to morally ambiguous actions by the difficulty of his situation and the pressures of society. He is a true sinner. He has everything anyone could ever want, a comfortable and peaceful life with loving family, status, and freedom, but he chooses to reject it all, wishing his good father dead in the process, simply in order to waste his inheritance on pleasures that he might well have enjoyed in a healthy way had he stayed at home. There were no doors shut to him, no oppression placed on him, and yet he chooses to destroy himself, insulting and rejecting those who love him in the process. He is a true sinner.
We can let that truth sink in if we ask ourselves what we would do in the position of his father. If our own child, to whom we had given every freedom and privilege, had demanded half of our estate, what would we do? Would we give it to him? What would we do if he spent it all on dishonest living, on sin, and then came back? Perhaps we would suspect him of looking for more. Perhaps we would want to see proofs of repentance. Perhaps we would accept the apology and simultaneously explain how much we had been hurt, or even withhold reconciliation until we saw that he knew what he had done. Maybe we would forgive, and then in the weeks and months to come let our resentment flare out in new special rules for the child or in sarcastic remarks. Perhaps we would forgive, but bring up the whole matter whenever there was further conflict. But what does the Father himself do? He rejoices.
This is the heart of the parable. The Father does not recriminate, does not ask for explanations, does not accept the son with conditions, but rejoices. Whatever his hurt, he does not show it or bring it up. He only loves. This is not a merely human mercy. This is the mercy of our heavenly Father. When we repent, the Father forgives in just this way. He does not only love and forgive “basically moral people who make mistakes.” He loves and forgives even the worst sinners, giving them healing in the measure of their ability to receive. It is this love that allows us to look without self-deception at the depth of our own sins and sinful desires, knowing that the Father will not stop loving us, no matter how much that is unlovable we find in our souls. This joy of being loved beyond measure and condition gives us the courage to repent. The grateful rejoicing that comes from being alive when we were dead, and by rights should have remained so, is what can power us through the rest of this Lenten season, and is also a foretaste of Easter’s own joy, itself an image of the unending jubilation of Heaven.