“He came to himself and said… ‘I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.’” St. Luke 15:17-18
At first, of course, he blamed everyone else. We would do the same, sitting there by the pigs, our bellies gnawing with hunger. It had been quite a ride for a while: sharp clothes, fancy meals, all the wine he could drink, fast women. He was on top of the world, a friend on every corner. No rules, no boundaries, no regrets. How in the world could it all have come to pieces so quickly?
He blamed his parents, of course. Half the inheritance--they’d promised that’s what it amounted to, but it sure didn’t seem like very much. And what about that responsible brother of his—if he’d have come to mind the books, well it wouldn’t have all slipped away so quickly. He blamed all those who called themselves his friends, and sponged on his good nature, all those who’d tricked him into schemes and promised to pay him back in a month’s time. Who wouldn’t blame a thief—the dealer with the weighted dice, the pickpocket who snatched the sack from his coat, the women who left his bed before dawn. It was the fault of tailors who made shiny clothes that wore thin too quickly, tavern men who overcharged for cheap food. And this wretched famine—who could have seen it coming. This master he was serving—surely he could pay more. Surely he could find some work with more dignity. He cursed his lot. He cursed his enemies. He cursed life itself, and then stared back at the pigs, and he would have climbed down into the trough beside them if he could.
He was miserable, of course. But there’s a kind of steadfastness that can come with misery, especially when we are so certain it’s all someone else’s fault.In his mind he was the victim, the martyr, the hero even. He was everything but the sinner, the narcissist, the fool that the rest of the world could see so clearly. In her poem about the prodigal, Elizabeth Bishop described it this way:
The sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more…
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.
What made the difference? Jesus said that there in the mud, his belly growling, “he came to himself.” That’s a weighty phrase if there ever was one. The prodigal came to see himself as he really was. He reexamined his life, weighed the sorry deeds of the past. His conscience, at long last was awakened, and he saw himself for what he truly was: a sinner, a person deeply in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with those whom he had wronged.
In the recovery community, they call it “hitting rock bottom.” It doesn’t just mean coming to the end of your resources or making your life a living hell. People can stay there for quite a long time before anything changes. Hitting rock bottom means coming to yourself, taking responsibility, admitting your sin, resolving to live differently.
The theological term is compunction, the pricking of the conscience, which is awakened to life, that shuddering awareness that I have done wrong and now must do something about it. Compunction, we believe is the work of God’s grace. It is the first step in the healing of the wounded soul.
But those stirrings must be recognized, affirmed and put into action. This is becoming contrite. The contrite person recognizes his or her own fault. He is not merely the victim of other’s cruelty. The excuses don’t tell the whole story. “I have sinned against heaven and before you,” the prodigal says. The just man, Saint Ambrose wrote, “begins by blaming himself.” The prodigal’s disrespectful and impatient demand for the inheritance, his wastefulness—these, he says, are offenses against his father, to be sure. But he has also sinned “before heaven.” He has sinned against God, who has given him the knowledge of good and evil and the freedom to do what is right. The prodigal recognizes this, detesting his sin, and he resolves to avoid the same mistakes again. He wants to make things right, and so he steps up from the mud, and he turns his face toward his father’s house.
And of course, what the prodigal finds there astonishes him. His father doesn’t wait imperiously to receive his groveling. He runs out, forsaking respectability, to throw his arms around him, and welcome him back with celebration. The prodigal confesses his son, but before he can announce the plan for restitution, the Father showers him with signs of peace and favor. There must be a ring for his finger, shoes on his feet, a festal robe, the fatted calf. There is such joy, Jesus tells us, for all who repent and return to the Lord.
When we come to ourselves, God shows us His true heart, His profound love. “A broken and contrite heart,” the Psalmist tells us, “he will not despise.” “LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” He stretches wide His arms, and assures us of His forgiveness and restoration to the company of His faithful people. “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
But the Father can only receive the contrite. It is possible for us to remain crouched among the pigs, despising God’s goodness, unwilling to admit our fault. We can resist the pricks of the conscience, bound fast and so terribly alone. That’s of course, where the elder son finds himself at the close of the story. To be sure, he’s well dressed and he’s had plenty to eat. He doesn’t smell of the pigs, but confidently looks over his own fields. But make no mistake about it, he’s as lost and dead as his spendthrift brother ever was. He has not yet come to himself, and until he does, he will never know for himself the true extent of the Father’s love.
And what of us? As some of you will know, the preachers usually suggest that you see yourself as either the prodigal or the elder son—the black sheep or the goody-two shoes. I don’t think that’s entirely useless. But I’m pretty sure that God wants to get a little more out of this story than a moralistic lesson about being a little nicer to your kid sister who’s still out in Monterrey trying to figure out what to do with her life.
Every one of us is the prodigal. There is none, righteous, no not one. Read the commandments for yourself. Examine your conscience. We have all chosen our own way, and wandered far too long in a land that is waste. We have all wasted far too much time blaming others for our misfortunes. There are only two abodes, the pigsty and the Father’s embrace. The question staring us each in the face today is “how long it will take you to make up your mind to go home?”