We all know the story of the Prodigal Son. Traditionally, the father in the parable represents our heavenly father, the older son represents the Pharisees who live the letter of the law but not the love of the law, the wayward son represents all sinners.
However, the beauty of a parable is that it can have many layers -layers that speak to us at different times in our lives and even during different liturgical seasons of the Church.
Which is why I think this parable is also a story about Lent and what happens when we misuse one of God’s most beautiful gifts . . . the gift of free will.
You’re probably wondering, “What does free will have to do with Lent?” I know that many times Lent seems as if we are in chains . . . that Lent is all about what not to eat, or what not to watch, or when to go to church. There seems to be nothing free about it at all.
But the wonderful thing about these next 40 days is that each and every day serves to remind us to appreciate the free will that is God’s gift to us; that we have the power and self-discipline to live as free people.
The key is to devote that freedom to God.
And in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, both sons show what happens when we misuse our God-given free will.
In the case of the younger son, he desired independence from his father - both his earthly and his heavenly father – and wanted to be in charge of his own life. He mistakenly thought that freedom could be found in the opportunity to do what he wanted; he didn't realize that freedom comes not from the opportunity to choose, but from choosing the right thing. Instead of finding freedom, he became enslaved to his own selfish desires.
On the other hand, the older son shows us a different kind of misuse of free will.
Lent isn’t meant to be oppressive, or weigh us down, or enslave us; if we let it do that, then we are like the older son who merely goes through the motions of doing the right thing. His misuse of free will is that he does it out of obligation ... it wears him down ... and there is no freedom in that. He doesn’t freely choose to do the right thing, he does it because he has to.
God created us in His image, and He loved us so much that he let us go ... and just like the father in the parable who lets his youngest son go only to eventually have him return home, God releases us because he wants us to freely choose him instead of being forced to choose him.
Wisdom teaches us that unless we are free to say no to something, we are not free to say yes to it. During Lent we are reminded that our free will of saying “yes” and “no” is a gift from a loving parent.
And that is what Lent is: a time to say “no” for a while so that we can fully appreciate it when we say “yes”.
John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right (or the free will) to do what we ought.”
And that’s what I want my Lenten journey to be about . . . to choose God in everything and experience that freedom he so desires us to have.
(originally posted 3-8-11)