The themes of exile and return are prominent throughout the entire narrative of the Bible. Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise. The Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt until Moses led them back to the Promised Land. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah went into exile in Assyria and Babylon, respectively, with only Judah returning home. The Jews endured a kind of exile when the Romans occupied their land and longed for restoration through a new King David. Our Lord provided the true restoration of a kingdom not of this world, leading all with faith in Him back to Paradise through His Cross and glorious resurrection. The canon of the New Testament concludes with the Revelation or Apocalypse, which portrays the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the joyful fulfillment of all things in Him.
As we continue preparing for our Lenten journey, the Parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us that true repentance is a matter of returning home from self-imposed exile. It shows us who God is and how we have all chosen to turn away from a loving relationship with Him due to our insistence on serving our own self-centered and foolish desires, no matter how miserable and weak they have made us. The parable calls us never to fall into despair, no matter how depraved we have become, because we remain the beloved sons and daughters of a Father Who wants nothing more than for us to return from exile and embrace our true relationship with Him.
The younger son had done his best to reject his father completely, for he had treated him simply as a source of money for funding a decadent way of life that gratified his passions. He did not relate to his father as a beloved person, but only as the source of his inheritance. That was essentially the same as wishing that his father was dead; it was the very worst insult that he could have given the old man. The prodigal son rejected his identity as a beloved son so that he could live as an isolated individual who was free to indulge his passions in any way that he saw fit with no responsibilities toward anyone. Once he burned through the cash, however, he faced the harsh realities of being a stranger in a strange land during a famine. He sunk so low that he envied the food of the pigs he tended. The Jews considered pigs unclean and this scene shows that he had repudiated not only his father, but all the blessings promised to the children of Abraham.
In the midst of his misery, the young man finally came to himself and realized that he would be better off as a lowly servant in his father’s house, where there was bread to spare, than in some Gentile’s pig pen starving to death. He recognized how he had broken his relationship with his father and no longer had any claim to be his son. Reality had slapped him in the face to the point that he gained a new level of spiritual clarity, for he understood the shameful gravity of what he had done. Then he began the long journey home in humility.
That is when the young man got the greatest shock of his life. In ways that contracted all the customs and sensibilities of that culture, the father ran out to hug and kiss the son who had so gravely insulted him. The old man must have scanned the horizon every day in hope of his son’s return. Despite the son’s despicable behavior, the father did not view or treat him according to what he deserved. He did not even consider receiving him as a servant, but said, “‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’” The party began, but the older son was offended by the injustice of the celebration, as he claimed to have always obeyed his father and was never given a party. This fellow missed the point of the father’s joy, for “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” He had returned from exile to the Promised Land and been restored as a descendant of Abraham. It was simply obvious to the father that this was a time to celebrate.
The parable reminds us that our return from exile to the joy of our Lord’s Kingdom is not a reward for good behavior. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23) Each of us is the prodigal son, for like him we have chosen to repudiate our identity as the children of God in order to live as anonymous, isolated individuals according to our own desires. It does not matter what we have put before God, for if we have put love for anything before Him then we have rejected our vocation to know the great joy of becoming like our Lord in holiness. The passing pleasures the prodigal son sought were base and brought him into obvious misery, even as our first parents’ unrestrained desire for the fruit of the vine resulted in their expulsion from Paradise into our world of corruption. His behavior was obviously shameful, but our habitual sins are equally dangerous, if not more so, due to their subtlety in turning us away from our calling to share more fully in the life of Christ. That is especially the case if we distort the spiritual disciplines of Lent into opportunities to become more like the older brother in slavery to vainglory and self-righteous judgment by wanting a reward for our apparent virtues and condemning our neighbors for their failings. He refused to enter into the celebration of the return from exile of a beloved child of God. He referred to the prodigal as “this son of yours,” for he had become blind to his calling to love him as a brother. We can easily do the same thing to our neighbors, thus shutting ourselves out of the joy of the Kingdom where, thanks be to God, none of us hopes to get what we deserve.
The father restored the prodigal son by clothing him in a fine robe, shoes, and a ring. The young man had surely been half-naked in stinking, filthy rags during his journey home. Adam and Eve had stripped themselves naked of the divine glory when they put gratifying their own desires before obedience to God. In baptism, we receive the robe of light they rejected as we put on Christ like a garment, but still we refuse to live each day as those who have been restored to such great dignity as the beloved children of God. The father had the fatted calf slain for a great celebration. As St. Paul wrote, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5: 7-8) In the banquet of the Eucharist, we already participate mystically in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, being nourished by His own Body and Blood. Yet we all fall short of our calling to live each day in communion with Christ as members of His own Body, the Church. Like the prodigal son, we so often think, speak, and act as isolated, anonymous individuals enslaved to the self-centered desires that have taken our hearts captive. No matter how appealing or noble we find the objects of our desires to be, we obscure the distinctive beauty of our souls when we act more like bundles of inflamed passion than as beloved children of our Father.
As we prepare to follow our Lord back to Paradise through His Cross and empty tomb, we must recognize that we have exiled ourselves and begin the long journey home. Like the prodigal, we must not allow the fear of rejection to deter us. Like the father in the parable, God is not a vengeful tyrant or a strict dispenser of justice. “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) and constantly reaches out to us, calling us to accept restoration as His sons and daughters. All He asks is that we repent by reorienting the course of our lives toward the blessedness of His Heavenly Kingdom. With King David, we must pray, “Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.” (Ps. 24) “A contrite and humble heart, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps. 50) We must mindfully refuse to allow the hurt pride called shame keep us from returning to our true home. Now is the time to leave behind the filth and misery of the pig pen and to enter by grace into the joy of a heavenly banquet that none of us deserves. Now is the time to end our self-imposed exile and direct our steps to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, our true home.