Of all the parables, the story of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most beloved. Many of us who have encountered the Father of Mercies in the sacrament of Penance see a parallel to our own lives, as well we should. Yet, one aspect of this parable is often overlooked—it is lesson about love, truth, and the vital connection between the two.
The parable does not explain exactly why the prodigal son wanted to leave home, but we do know this: he no longer wanted to live with his father. The son seemed sick and tired of living according to his father’s rules; instead, the son wished to live under his own set of rules, which is to say, no rules at all. Referring to the prodigal son, St. Augustine writes:
But if he perversely wishes to imitate God, that as God has no one by whom He is governed, so should he desire to exercise his own power as to live under no rules, what remains for him but that having lost all heat he should grow cold and senseless, and, departing from truth, vanish away.”
After seeing the senselessness of living under his own rules, the son came to realize his emptiness and resolved not only to go back home to his father, but rehearsed a speech he plans on delivering when he arrives. Though his contrition was imperfect—being motivated by fear of continued misery rather than being motivated by love for his father—he was contrite. The father sees his son coming from a far way off and runs out to greet him, kiss him, and tell his servants to prepare a feast for his son.
Though his son left home, the father never stopped loving him. The son’s request for his inheritance implies he never wishes to return home, yet the father yearned for the return of his son. And though the son expressed imperfect contrition, it was met with perfect forgiveness from the father.
It’s easy to focus on what the prodigal son’s father does; less obvious is what he does not do. The prodigal son’s father does not say: “You know, I can understand why you left; after all, my set of rules was very hard to follow. I’ll relax those rules for you. Welcome back!”
Why didn’t the father say those words to his son? For that matter, why hadn't the father already searched for his son to tell him that? The answer is that the father’s rules are rooted in truth. It was never the father’s rules that were the problem; it was the son’s refusal to follow those rules that resulted in misery. Only in being weighed down with sin did the prodigal son finally discover his father’s yoke was easy and his burden was light.
There is a lesson for us here. Sometimes we are so determined to bring someone back into the family or into the fold that we relax the rules, relax the truth, and relax the Catholic Faith. Some people seem insistent on watering down the Catholic Faith to accommodate those who find its rules—which are rooted in divine law—too hard. However, that does them no favors. The Catholic Faith is a springtime for souls, but the garden of faith can be so watered-down that nothing will bloom.
It’s worth remembering that God did not pick ten random rules for us to keep. Rather than being an arbitrary set of regulations that could have been any ten rules, the Ten Commandments tell us about Who God is, who we are, and who He made us to be. The Ten Commandments are a guideline for happiness and peace, and the vices opposed to the commandments are a recipe for misery.
Therefore, when we refuse to admonish sinners—worse, when we encourage others in their sins—we are doing them an injustice that is the furthest thing from love and mercy. By doing so, we aid and abet them not only in denying God, but in denying themselves. Speaking of the return of the prodigal son, Saint Ambrose writes: “He rightly returns to himself, because he departed from himself. For he who returns to God restores himself to himself, and he who departs from Christ rejects himself from himself.”
The prodigal son’s father was not a permissive parent—that is, a parent who endorses his child’s sinful behavior—and neither is God. Neither should any of us be. The pity of it is that the behavior that constitutes permissive parenting is not the sole domain of parents; it can be shown by prelates as well as parents, by friends as well as family.
Scripture tells us the truth will set us free; therefore, it is a lie to suggest or behave as though the reverse is true: that sin sets us free. All of us must try to help others return home, to strive for repentance and contrition, and to seek the merciful love of God; but we must always do so in truth.
This article originally appeared June 28, 2017, in the Register.