The Return to God

"Der verlorene Sohn hütet die Schweine," Sebald Beham, 1538

Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

One of the principal themes that we meditate upon during these weeks that precede Great Lent and during the Fast itself is forgiveness. And it’s no wonder, because the Christian Church is really the only place in which forgiveness makes any sense, the only place where forgiveness is actually possible.

If you’re standing in front of a judge who is about to sentence you for a crime, try saying, “Please forgive me!” Or imagine Richard Nixon, during the announcement of his resignation from the presidency in 1974, saying, “Please forgive me!” Or what if you get an “F” on an exam in school—can you say to your teacher, “Please forgive me”? Forgiveness is not really how our society operates. And yet we think about it a great deal here in the Church.

So what does it mean? And what can we learn about forgiveness from the Gospel theme for today, the parable of the Prodigal Son?

I think a lot of people think of forgiveness as a sort of deal we do with God. We come to church every so often (perhaps even regularly), give a certain amount toward our pledge, or even just say, “God, forgive me,” and God will of course forgive us—right? Actually—wrong. In fact, that sort of approach to Christian faith indicates that we don’t even understand what forgiveness really is.

So first let’s talk about what it’s not. Forgiveness is not a ticket to Heaven. Forgiveness is not for God to look at our sins and say, “Oh, I guess that’s all right. Just don’t do it again. Here, have some eternal life.” Forgiveness is not having some big mystical debt or punishment just wiped away.

To get inside what forgiveness actually is, consider your own experience. Have you ever had anyone say to you “I’m sorry,” but you just knew that they weren’t really sorry? You knew that there was no real change on their part, that they just wanted whatever had happened to be over with, that what had happened had not really affected them inside. They just wanted to get out of whatever bad experience awaited them, even if it was just the experience of continuing to be confronted with their failing. Or perhaps you were that person—not really sorry for what you did, but just sorry you got caught or sorry that something uncomfortable happened because of what you did.

But have you ever had someone who had failed you, who had betrayed you, who had hurt you, and who then came to you with genuine sorrow, not because they feared bad things happening to them, but because they could not bear to be separated from you? Their sorrow for their sin came out of the brokenness of the relationship with you, not from concern for their own comfort. That’s the basis for real forgiveness, because there is real repentance there, a real desire to be reunited, to be reconciled.

So, now think for a moment about your real relationship with Christ. When you say to Him, “Lord, have mercy,” are you saying it merely out of habit? Are you saying it out of a sense of obligation? Are you saying it just because it sounds nice when the choir sings it? Or are you actually aware that you need, well, mercy?

Are you aware of your separation from your Creator? If not, there are two possibilities: You are a saint and have a constant and unbroken awareness of God’s presence with you or you do not actually care to have a real relationship with your God, and so the separation doesn’t matter to you.

If you come and listen to the hymns of the Sunday Matins service leading up to and during Great Lent, you will hear a hymn sung shortly after the Gospel reading in which the writer says that he “tremble[s] for the terrible day of judgment.” Why would anyone tremble, though? Didn’t the writer of that hymn—probably a saint—have his ticket to Heaven? Even in his holiness, a saint is aware that he still has separation from God, and his thirst for God’s presence is so strong and his awareness of his inability to be perfect is so strong that he cries out to God, “Lord, have mercy!”

I think this is a real problem for many of us—we do not know that we are separated from God, and probably worse yet, we may not even care. But probably all of us do care for how we will spend eternity. But we may be deceived, thinking that all we need to do is to fulfill some religious “obligation,” and that ticket to Heaven will be ours. If we believe that—no matter how we may define our “obligation”—then we have believed a lie, and it is a lie whispered to us by the demons.

The truth behind all this is to be found in today’s Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, which we all know well, an ungrateful son takes what belongs to his father and wastes it all in a far-off country, eventually finding himself in total shame, total filthiness, total rejection from society.

We know how the story ends, but let’s imagine an alternate ending for this parable. Instead of the Prodigal “coming to himself” and going back to his father, he sends him a letter:

Dear Dad,

As you may have heard, I am now living in a far-off country and am forced to feed pigs for a living. I’ve even gotten so hungry that the pigs’ food is starting to look pretty good to me. I messed up, and I’m sorry. I was hoping you might send over one of your servants with a bag of gold so I could pay off my debts and maybe buy something to eat. I’d appreciate it.

The Prodigal

That’s ridiculous, of course. But that’s basically the approach a lot of us take. We send God the occasional prayer-letter and want Him to bail us out in exchange. But that’s not what forgiveness is about. It’s not a bail-out from the Big Banker in the Sky.

What really happens in this parable is what forgiveness is all about. The Prodigal “comes to himself,” meaning that he really realizes what he has done, meaning that he really has become aware of his separation from his father, from his home, from his family. And then he goes home. And he makes no request other than “Please take me back.” He doesn’t even expect to be treated as a son. He just asks to be treated as a servant.

Ask yourself today whether you’re aware of the separation that exists between you and God. Really ask yourself that. If you don’t think there is one at all, well as much as it may be hard to hear, there actually is. If you think there isn’t one, ask yourself whether you have yet become perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, because that’s the only way there’s no separation.

If you’re not there yet, then that means you have some work to do. And if you can at least acknowledge that intellectually, but you have no idea where to start, no idea how to actually “come to yourself” and start heading toward the Father, then please, come to confession and let’s talk. It’s true: No one is perfect. But if we’re satisfied with that, then that means we are satisfied with living with the pigs, satisfied with the temporary pleasure and success the world has to offer, satisfied with forgetting about living with God and all our family in Heaven at the end of our lives. But if you’re not satisfied with that, if you want to know what you can do about overcoming that separation, then Christ and His Church stand ready to take you by the hand and lead you, step by step, back to the Father.

As ever, our forgiveness depends on our hearts. We cannot be forgiven if our hearts are not really set on drawing close to Christ. We cannot only set our minds or our sense of religious “obligation” on the forgiveness of God. We have to give our hearts. And you know when you’ve given your heart to something—it’s when you can never answer the question, “How much is enough?” There is no “enough” when it comes to the heart.

So what is forgiveness? It is to be received back by our Father. And how do we get there? We “come to ourselves,” return to Him, and open our hearts. Then we will gain not only the glory and beauty of His presence in this life, but eternity with Him, as well. As the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither” (from The Joyful Christian).

So which way are you aiming?

May the God of peace, forgiveness and restoration, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be therefore glorified always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


  1. “No one is perfect. But if we’re satisfied with that, then that means we are satisfied with living with the pigs”

    Ouch. Truth stings. Great homily, Father.

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