One of the greatest moments children look forward to at school is the break period. This is simply based on the fact that at such times there are no protocols like keeping quiet in class, listening to the teacher and similar acts of comportment. During our elementary school days we called that period FREE PLAY. During the FREE PLAY one can jump, dance, play soccer, run and do anything one likes, but no one is free to commit any crime during FREE PLAY. Hence it could be said that you are FREE TO PLAY but you are NOT FREE TO STRAY!
The foregoing idea was evident in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were free to eat of any of the trees in the garden but not the one at the middle of the garden (Gen. 2:16-17). They were given freedom but they were at the same time told to be responsible. There is indeed no absolute freedom. The French Philosopher and Political Theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract made it clear that “Man is born free but he is everywhere in chains!” You are free to cross to the other side of the road but your freedom can be withheld momentarily by an on-coming vehicle; if you insist on your freedom the vehicle may crush you. There is an eternal struggle to be free but this goes with responsibility.
I decided to begin the reflection on the gospel of today with the issue of freedom because it characterized the decisions of the major actors in the parable commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son (though I prefer LOST SONS which I will explain later). The younger son of the rich man in the parable was exercising his freedom when he approached his father and requested for his own share of his father’s properties. His request was totally preposterous and out of place because what he was asking for should ordinarily come to him after the death of his father not before his death. His father was a kind hearted man. He did not stop the boy from realizing what he wanted, so he allowed him to have what he requested. God allows us in our choices; He does not force us to do this or that. Armed with his own share of the father’s wealth, the boy left for a FAR country. Far country in this sense refers to a place of disconnection. It is a place of disconnection from the father’s love, care, protection, provision and direction. Far country is a place and a situation of lawlessness and sin. It is furthermore a place of hunger and famine on account of the disconnection from the source of sustenance. Nothing actually lasts in the far country. Like the younger son, some of us have various FAR COUNTRIES in our lives. Far countries are those things that push us to sin and disconnect us from the grace of God. What is your own FAR COUNTRY?
After squandering the property he got from his father on loose living and following the famine in that country, the second son became poor and friendless. This points to the fact that in the FAR country all riches will disappear but God’s word will remain (Mark 13:31) and the greatest of riches can be found in our souls (Matt. 16:26). When we are disconnected from God in our FAR country experience we suffer spiritual hunger and famine (Jn 15:5). In his desperation in the FAR country the younger son decided to hire himself out to one of the locals to take care of their herd of swine (pigs). Now this is the lowliest of job a Jew could do that time. This is because Jews consider Swine as unclean animal. Hence for a Jew to take care of them and feed them is very senseless. That the young man could not even get leftovers from the Swine points to the fact that he was hanging in there only to get shelter.
At a point we are told that the young man came to himself (or to his senses)! This is a pointer to the fact that often when we are lounging in the FAR country we operate outside of our real selves, out of our senses. This “coming to himself” is the turning point in the parable. At this point the young man realized where he came from and what is happening in his wretched life. At this point he realized that he was where he was not supposed to be. This was the turning point of repentance. At this point he longed for reconciliation. It should be noted that repentance comes before reconciliation. There is no real reconciliation without a prior repentance which in our context here refers to realizing oneself and coming to one’s senses. This is actually what we need to do at this point in time. This Lenten season is apt enough for us to come to ourselves, to come to our senses and do things in new and better ways! REPENTANCE is the watch word for us.
It is one thing to realize how far we have strayed into the FAR country and another thing for us to make the decision to return home. There are many people out there who have been vacillating from coming to themselves (to their senses) and going out again from themselves (from their senses). It takes a strong conviction to return from the region of sin and disconnection back to the region of God and salvation. The young man coming to himself said: “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him “father I have sinned against heaven and before you ; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants”. Pay attention to these: “I will arise!” This actually means that he has been completely down. Sin has a way of bringing us down spiritually and even physically (Luke 5: 17-26). Furthermore he said that he would go to his father and acknowledge his sins. Very often we rationalize and justify our sins. He went immediately without wasting time like we often tend to postpone our repentance and reconciliation with God. If he wasted more time he could have died without realizing what he had already conceived in his mind. Many people have died with their wonderful dreams due to inactivity and delay.
The young man was on his way coming home when his father: (1) sighted him from a distance, (2) ran towards him, (3) embraced him and (4) kissed him. These gestures demonstrated the father’s unconditional forgiveness, affection, love and readiness to reconcile with him. By sighting him from a distance we understand that the father had been waiting and looking forward to the day his son would return; he was hopeful. The father running towards him demonstrated his eagerness to have him back alive. A man at the age of the father was not expected to run except the situation is between life and death and that was the situation in the father’s perception. Embracing and kissing the boy the father demonstrated that he still values his son so much. He is priceless now regardless of his notorious past; every saint had a past and every sinner has a future.
The boy tried to apologize to the father with the words he had rehearsed but his father stopped him half way. God is definitely not interested in our past, he is rather thinking about a better future for us. Hence the father called for a robe, a ring and sandals for his younger son. This tells us that when we make a return to God he will restore our lost fortunes (Deut. 30:3). He was given the best robe indicating royalty, a ring of authority and sandals for a new platform as a son not a slave; a member of the household not an outsider, an insider not an outsider. Above all a feast was organized immediately in his honour. All these happened because this lost son freely decided to come back from the FAR COUNTRY! The decision we make today can lead us to a brighter or bleaker future! This point is highlighted by St. Paul in the second reading (2 Cor.5:17-21) where among other things he said that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new one has come. The old is the FAR country and the new is our reconciliation and reunion with God.
The story would have ended with the father’s reconciliation with the younger son upon his sorrowful return, but there comes the elder son who is very much unlike the father. There was no mention of him pleading with the younger brother not to leave the house. He could not even go out to look for his lost brother. He was obviously happy about his misbehavior and may be in his mind he is gone and gone forever for good. For him he deserves to die out there. He was surprised and angry that his brother repented and came back and was having a party to celebrate his return. When a servant told him what was going on in the house he refused to go in. He was not ready to see a lost and wayward brother reconciled and reunited with the father. When his father came to persuade him to come and rejoice with the others over the return of his brother he complained that a party had not been thrown in his honour since he had been labouring for his father. He went on to give us the information no one had before now that the younger brother spent his property on prostitutes. From the elder son’s statements his relationship with the father was simply business-like: “I work for you and you pay me!” He had no love and affection.
A general overview of the parable tells us that there were two lost sons and a prodigally loving father! When the younger one was out in the FAR country, the elder one was at home but when the younger one returned the elder was out as he refused to come into the house. At the end of the story the elder son remained lost while the younger one was finally found by the loving father. Very often some people identify others as sinners and in their memory register such people as legally condemned and qualified for hell fire. Nobody has right to condemn another when God had not said the final word on someone. Our Lord Jesus Christ actually shocked his listeners at some point when he indicated that tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God (Matt. 21:31). More so God is not interested in the death of sinners but in their repentance (Ezk. 18: 23). A Saul could as well become a Paul!
The message today is an invitation for us to freely return to God as individuals who are in need of God after wasteful years in the FAR country. We are also called upon not to judge and condemn others who are still in the FAR country after all we have been there too. What efforts are we making to bring people back to God? Do we help or hinder repentance and reconciliation? Do we intend to be alone in heaven and have hell filled with our neighbours? Our answers to these and similar questions would help us to make a better season of Lent.
I wish you a blissful Sunday and a most rewarding week ahead!