Every year, as we make our journey towards Lent, just as we complete the last week in which we are supposed to eat meat, we hear again of the Prodigal Son as his hunger begins to bite (Luke 15.11-32), but also of his father who slew the fatted calf for a feast to bring him back home.
But this is a story of deprivation, heavy fasting leading to repentance, and loving restoration only on the surface. For, if you look at the parable as a whole, one of the longest in the Gospels, it is a story of God the Father and God the Son, of the Passion and the Resurrection. Toward this aim we keep to the track of Lent, and it is why we recall the prodigal every year at this early point on our path to the Cross and then to new life, and by the Ascension to the Kingdom of blessedness in the Spirit.
But, you will protest, the prodigal son bears no comparison with Christ. The prodigal son was selfish; he split his family estate and impoverished his brother’s inheritance; he lived beyond his means and squandered everything that once supported half his entire family on high living and satisfying his physical urges, as he misused the women he encountered. How can this person resemble Christ the Father’s Son?
But, if you remember, what St Paul said to the Church at Philippi (Philippians 2.7-8), you will see what I mean: “He made Himself of no reputation, and emptied Himself into the form of a bond-servant, found in the likeness of a humbled man.” And St Paul gets to the heart of the matter when he write to the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 5.21): “For our sake, He made Him Who knew no sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the Gospel today, then, we see a human son who is sinful, but someone from whom the Divine Son refuses to be separate, even in the moments of the young man’s furthest separation from his father – especially in the moments of his furthest separation from his father. We see a wasted and then broken man, with whom God the Son has identified and, even though He is sinless, taken on that man’s sin, and turned it inside out to face the light and overjoyed love.
Slowly, in the degradation from honour, to abandon of self-respect, to waste, disgrace, humiliation, the pains of acute hunger, of calling out in utter loneliness to his father, the final brokenness, we see the steps that Christ too would come to take in His own work of saving what was lost, and redeeming it back. Christ is God the Son, likewise as a man resolved to take a journey that entails an exile from His Father, so that at the sorest moment He too will cry out for His Father, “Why have you forsaken Me?” Thus, to the sin-filled prodigal, the Son who knew no sin lends His own righteousness. In abject isolation the prodigal is joined by Christ. Within that disfigured humanity, the Humanity of the One who will go to the Cross to be disfigured too, instils the deepest instinct of the life of the Trinity itself and causes him to set his mind on Resurrection and Ascension: “I will arise, and go to my father”.
The righteousness of Christ in the heart and mind of the sinner who has destroyed his own life, grows and changes; it flourishes and gives rise to hope. The prodigal son who was regarded as dead comes to life. His father is likewise taken up with the momentum of redemption, and runs out to find what was lost restored to him. He exclaims, “The son is come to life again.” He proclaims and foretells the Resurrection that leads all of us who are still picking our way through our sin. But it is the younger son, whose new life speaks of what has been going on unseen within him, in mystery, behind the scenes. To allude to St Paul again, the prodigal son, by his humanity restored from its living death and set on glory rejoicing, says, “My life has been crucified with Christ. It was not me who was alive in that pit of mine, but Christ who was living within me.”(cf. Galatian 2.19-20). “He Who knew no sin, became my sin for my sake, so that I might become His righteousness.” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.21).
So, when St Paul, as he does in today’s Epistle (1 Corinthians 6.12-20), exhorts us to fasting from food and warns us repeatedly about fornication, it is never in a life-denying way or to induce guilt and misery, still less to take away pleasure and enjoyment in the Creation God has made and in which generation after generation is designed to take its part. Like the father in the Gospel going after his firstborn son to come back to the feast of forgiveness and restoration, Paul asks us what we really want, what ultimately satisfies us. What brings us the fulfilment of our deepest aspirations, what is the cause of our lasting joy? Is it what we feel are our just reward; is it food and an ample way of life with plenty of resources? All these run out. Is it physical gratification to fill the void of loneliness? We may be made this way, but how it ebbs and flows. So what is the great connection that brings lasting happiness and God’s intended sheer joy of being alive? Judging what this is, is what we in turn are to be judged on. St Paul says it is this: being united with Christ who paid the highest price for you, sacrificing Himself so that you might no longer be lost to death, becoming your sin so that you could become God’s own glory, in every corner of you, heart, mind and soul; body, spirit and eternal life.
In other words, turn inside out and face your coming glory. If you yourself cannot turn your heart and your outlook from the dark inside, let Christ within you push His face through your sin to look out and see God’s light. Let the voice of the One Who knows no sin be the one to say by your lips, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Even if you call yourself unworthy, even if you are not ready, let the Christ within you stand forth in you, for His Father to run and embrace you, and clothe you in that robe of joy restored. Let Christ’s be your eyes to behold His Father’s coming judgment on you, looking back at you, adoring you and weeping over you, loving you back to everything that is His, because all that He has is for you.
This inexhaustible, unconditional love is the judgment that dissolves impenitence and going round in earthbound circles without hope. So let Him Whose Cross takes away the sin that destroys you, be your endless Resurrection – your heaven on earth for now, but your place in the blessed Kingdom for ever.