The Prodigal Son: Looking for Heaven on Earth
“Forward, no matter what happens! Cling tightly to our Lord’s hand and remember that God does not lose battles. If you should stray from him for any reason, react with humility that will lead you to begin again and again: to play the role of the prodigal son every day…”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Friends of God, no. 214
This greatest of all parables is a response to a complaint. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” The Lord’s response is meant to show that it is right that sinners come to Him and that He break bread with them.
Breaking bread with another is a meaningful gesture—and the scribes and Pharisees knew it: it always implies fellowship and union with others. Yet it is not in any way awkward for Jesus to welcome sinners. He means to teach us, one and all, that sinners belong with Jesus, belong to Jesus, and He with them. How the parable illustrates this is exquisite; it is so sensitive, so understanding, something that each one of us can and should identify with.
The Prodigal Son went out looking for heaven on earth. He was restless at home. He entertained a fantasy that things could be better elsewhere—in a faraway place, with different people, where he could be carefree, an anonymous rogue—with money to burn, no consequences or responsibilities, and no one looking over his shoulder. He went out looking for this paradise. And when he arrived, he thought he had found it, and gave no thought to the future.
Whenever people are discontent with what they have at home—with the place itself or the people with whom they live—they always imagine running away. Or they actually run away, breaking relationships, and reverting to a kind of infantile behavior. They want to get what they want right away, before it’s not available any more—while I’m still young and attractive and have the strength, etc. The world looks like such an inviting, friendly place—full of wonder and opportunities for the flesh that never grow old. But as the great Victorian poet Matthew Arnold said famously: “…the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”
The Prodigal Son thought that he could find all of those things somewhere–somewhere far, far away. He even had them in his hands, for a while. Then reality struck. All of a sudden he had no money, no friends, no food. He had nothing but himself–hungry, lonely, a soul burdened with regret. But, my father’s house! How many are fed and clothed in my father’s house! I shall arise and go to my father. This is what brought him home: The memory of his father’s goodness and his father’s house—the place where he belonged. This is what brought him back into the household, back to being a son and a brother. His father will tell him the shocking truth: even as a “runaway,” even as a foolish and reckless young man, you never ceased to be my son and a brother.
Maybe what brings us to desire mercy is not really the point. The Prodigal Son remembered his father’s house standing over a pig sty. The stench, the flies, the mess of it all—that was the occasion for his remembrance. The reality of the world hit him there and then. What brings us? What brings you here? That is a personal question, but it is the right question. We have a sense that we belong where we are. Whenever we are with the Lord, we feel that we belong nowhere else. We know by experience that whatever bad choices we’ve made, whatever bad roads we’ve traveled on, we have never ceased being children of the Father. We have always heard His voice calling us to return.
The paths on which we have gone astray–many have taken them before us, many will take them after us. The path that is “wide and easy” seems to stretch to a land of dreams, and one starts out with haste and anticipation. Who needs mercy and salvation when I can make my own heaven on earth? But because God is our merciful Father, He allows the vault of our heaven to collapse. He allows the blue skies of our paradise to turn black. And He makes us feel a hunger that no food can satiate.
“And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” And Jesus said in reply, They are hungry, and I am the Bread of Life. I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.
The sense of belonging we have, that we belong to the Lord as His possession, is planted in us by God our Father and nothing can uproot it. A man who has two sons will always be the father of those sons; a brother will always be a brother; a child, always a child; one purchased by the Blood of the Lamb, will always belong to the Lamb as His possession. And as long as we keep rising up and coming to Him, then we who have shared the table of the Lord, who have been fed by His hands in this life, will not be rejected in eternity; but our hunger will be satisfied, and we will eat and drink at His table in His kingdom forever.