We have all had the experience of being ashamed of ourselves. We had done, said, or thought something which probably seemed fine to us at the time, but which we later realized was simply terrible. Sometimes when that happens, we catch a glimpse of truth about ourselves that is hard to bear. Sometimes when that happens, we are paralyzed by shame, by a prideful refusal to accept in humility that we—like everyone else in this life—are very far from perfect and in constant need of our Lord’s mercy and grace. Those who remain stuck in the rut of shame will face great obstacles in finding healing for their souls.
The prodigal son in today’s gospel reading provides a wonderful example of how to get over wounded pride and repent of even the most shameful acts. Remember that this fellow had given his father the ultimate insult by asking for his inheritance, which was basically to tell the old man that he was tired of waiting for him to die. The father apparently meant nothing to this son other than as a source of cash that he could use to fund a debauched life. The young man was apparently blind to the gravity of what he had done until he found himself in truly wretched circumstances, especially for a Jew. In a foreign land, he tended pigs and was so hungry that he envied the food of the swine. Then it dawned on him what he had done. He came to himself and began the long journey home, knowing that the most he could possibly expect from his father was to become one of his hired servants. When he finally arrived at home, he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The son knew what he had done, made no excuses, and was not going to ask anything from the father other than to become one of his hired hands. He knew the seemingly irreparable harm that he had done. He had come to see clearly the seriousness of his rotten behavior. He was well aware that his father owed him nothing at all. He was totally dependent upon his mercy.
Before we continue with the story of the parable, we should pause to admire the courage and humility of the prodigal son. After seeing how horribly he had treated his father, he refused to be paralyzed by shame. He began the journey home, accepted the truth about what he had done, and was ready to accept whatever rejection, criticism, or awkwardness resulted from daring to show his face to the father whom he had rejected. At this point, he had no illusions about himself, his behavior, or how it had impacted others. He knew that he could hope, at the very most, to return to the household as a servant, not a son. Nonetheless, he still took the long journey home.
Had the son not done so, he would not have put himself in the place where it was possible for him to receive his father’s unbelievable mercy. The father ran out to greet him when he was still a long way off, which shows that the old man had been scanning the horizon and hoping for this moment. When the father embraced him, the son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before he could ask to become only a servant in the household, the father restored him fully as a son with a robe, a ring, shoes, and a party with music, dancing, and a great feast. For from the father’s perspective, he was not simply forgiving someone who had rejected and insulted him. No, he was celebrating a resurrection: “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
Most of us do not have to think very hard to recognize times in our lives when we have done, said, or thought shameful things. We usually do not like to be reminded of them because they challenge our pride. Unfortunately, some of us go through life with a crippling sense of shame, which is more a reflection of our refusal to accept in humility the truth about ourselves than of anything else. If we have the proper attitude, the intensified spiritual disciplines of the coming weeks of Great Lent can help to heal us from shame, for they are not only for you, me, or anyone else in particular. They are a common calling of the Church because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We have all failed to love the Lord with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves. We are not perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We have all turned away from fulfilling our vocation to become ever more like God in holiness. That is why we all need the coming weeks of intensified prayer, fasting, generosity to the poor, and repentance. Through them, we will come to know our true spiritual state more clearly and open ourselves more fully to receive the mercy of our Lord.
Before the infinite holiness of God, we are all guilty of shameful thoughts, words, and deeds, but none of us should be stuck in a rut of pride that keeps us from taking the journey home. Some disregard Lent and avoid Confession because they cannot believe that God would ever really forgive them for what they have done. Today’s parable is a good remedy for that attitude, for the father in the story is an image of our Heavenly Father, Whose love is such that He will restore our dignity as His sons and daughters through our repentance. His abundant mercy is eternal, but we must respond as the prodigal son. That means acknowledging our failings, sincerely regretting them, knowing that we deserve nothing by our own merits, and actually beginning the journey home.
As we prepare for the spiritual disciplines of Lent, we must all keep the lessons of this parable squarely in mind, for it provides such a powerful image of what happens when we come to our senses and recognize our sins, turn away from them, and turn toward the Lord. The overwhelming mercy of the father in the story is an image of the abundant grace of God. For He does not settle simply with forgiveness, but restores us fully to the dignity of His sons and daughters. He makes us true participants in eternal life by grace, not hired hands with some low level of blessing who somehow sneak into the Kingdom through the backdoor. He does not scold or shame us, but truly welcomes us home with love beyond what we can understand.
Sin is shameful because it is ultimately a rejection of our Lord and His blessed purposes for us. Repentance, however, is never shameful because it is an acceptance of our Lord and His blessed purposes for us. How tragic it would have been for the prodigal son to have remained as a starving laborer on a pig farm due to wounded pride, for him to have chosen such lonely misery over the joyful restoration that he found when he went home. The same is true for us, no matter what we have done, thought, or said, no matter how far we have strayed from our Heavenly Father.
The prodigal son’s return home was a resurrection from death to life, which is why his father called for such a great celebration. Lent prepares us to follow our Savior to His Cross and the glory of the empty tomb at Pascha. We must die to sin so that we will be prepared to behold with joy our Lord’s victory over death and to enter into eternal celebration of the Heavenly Banquet. There is no shame in preparing ourselves to accept such a great invitation. In fact, the only shame would be if we refused to accept it out of wounded pride.