What inspires the deepest repentance? Is it fear or love? Is it the terror and threat of punishment, or a generous and unmerited charity, that best pierces the heart and brings forth conversion?
The prodigal son is the classic story of repentance. After squandering his inheritance in dissipation, the younger son is in dire straits. He has lost everything. He is a starving swine heard. But is that the moment of his conversion? Not really.
His situation, and not a sorrow for sin, first brings him “to his senses.” He is suffering. He reasons that he can fare better at home, for “how many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat.” His motivation is self-preservation. He is not sorry for his offense. His only concern is himself.
One may even doubt the sincerity of his repentant speech: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” He rehearses it. He will speak it from memory and not from his heart. It is specially designed to play on his father’s emotions: “I no longer deserve to be called your son.” It is manipulation. He is still serving himself. But he is finally repentant when he meets his father.
Catching sight of him “while he was still a long way off,” the father runs to meet his son. He embraces and kisses him. The son, taken aback by this treatment, still attempts to give his speech but is interrupted by his father: “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.” Bowled over by this reception, the son breaks down. He is cut to the quick by mercy. He suddenly understands his father’s love, the love he offended, and, finally, he repents.
By this parable, Jesus reveals the Father’s eagerness to receive sinners. Perfect contrition springs not from fear, but from knowledge of God’s love. As the prodigal son came to know love through the embrace of his father, so we came to know love through Jesus Christ (1Jn 3:16). In Jesus, the Father robed our sinful humanity in divinity (Jn 1:14), he put a ring of authority on our finger (Matt 9:8), and he gave us sandals to tread where Moses was barefoot (Ex 3:5). In Jesus, the Father slaughtered the fattened calf, the ultimate act of love (Jn 15:13), so that we who were dead might come to life.
The love revealed in Christ is the source of true repentance. We are bowled over by it. In Christ we see both the love we have offended and the love that welcomes us home. It elicits our sorrow and brings us to joy.
Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from Pontifical North American College in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s Scriptural reflections during Lent.