There was once a man whose younger son wanted to make his own choices in life. Now it pained the father to let him make these choices because he suspected that his son was not really mature enough to make wise choices – but still he gave him the freedom he wanted. (There are times when this is a good thing for love to do.)
At any rate, his son was pleased, and he began to make his choices. He chose, first of all, to have his share of his father’s inheritance turned into spending money. Then he chose to leave his father’s home, taking all his money with him. Next, he began to choose some new friends, and together with them he chose some ways to spend his money. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. Until at last he found that his choices had ruined him.
That was the turning point.
One day, while feeding a stranger’s pigs (that was where his choices had led him), he remembered something. He remembered who he was and to whom he belonged. And he began to make some new choices. He chose to set aside his pride and return to his father to beg his forgiveness. He chose to be willing to be a servant in his father’s house rather than to go on being the master of his own fate. He chose to go home. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. And these choices were good choices for him; eventually, they brought him security, fulfillment and joy.
He was not the only one, of course, who was making choices. His father saw him “while he was still far off,” and he too was faced with a choice. He could have waited in the doorway to receive him with offended dignity – but he didn’t. He could have rebuked and scolded, demanding an apology for his son’s foolishness – but he didn’t. He could have talked about making amends or doing penance – but he didn’t. He could have refused to see him and turned him away (and with just cause) – but he didn’t. He chose instead to hitch up his robes and to race down the road to meet his repentant son. He chose to throw his arms around him and shout and laugh and weep with joy. He chose to cover him with a robe, and to put a ring on his finger and new shoes on his feet. He chose to welcome him with a feast. And each choice that he made reflected that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, which had been shaped and fashioned by many, many choices made over the course of many, many years.
Now this story about a son and his choices is also about you and about me. And one of the things it means to tell us is that we are shaped by our choices, moment by moment, day by day, and year by year. Every time we make a choice we are turning some deep and inner part of ourselves, the part of us that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking our lives as a whole, with all our innumerable choices, throughout the whole of our lives we are slowly turning this deep and inner part of ourselves into something that is in harmony with God and with God’s purposes in the world, or into something that is contrary to them. Each of us at each moment is progressing one way or the other.
The great spiritual leader of India in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.” We become what we yearn after. By these words Gandhi does not mean that we will achieve whatever we desire: that if we yearn after wealth, we will become wealthy; or if we yearn after popularity, we will become popular; or if we yearn after youth and beauty, we will become (or remain) young and beautiful. When he says, “We become what we yearn after,” he does not mean that we become whatever we want badly enough. But he does mean to suggest, I think, that what we yearn after, what we set our hearts on, what we most deeply desire, will influence the type of person we will become. Our desires shape our choices, and our choices shape our character. If we yearn after wealth or popularity or beauty or any other thing, that yearning will shape the choices that we make: choices about where and how we will live, about what work we might choose to do, about whom we will choose to be our friends, about how we relate to others, about where we put our time and energy. Our desire, our yearning, will shape our choices in life, and the choices we make will determine the sort of person we become. In that sense, suggests Gandhi, “We become what we yearn after.”
“We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.” Prayer gives us space and opportunity to look deep within ourselves, to discover and name our deepest desires, to examine our true priorities, and to determine which choices are congruent with the person we want to become and that God wants us to become. Quieting ourselves in prayer, seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, we descend into that deep place within ourselves, that part of us that makes choices, to discover what it is that we truly yearn after. It may not be at all what we assume it is. We may be surprised at the hidden forces of desire that rule our hearts. We may even be shocked and embarrassed by what we find there. But discovering and naming the desires at work within us gives us the freedom to choose whether to cooperate with them or to reject them. It gives us the space and perspective we need to consciously make choices that are in line with the deepest and most authentic desires of our hearts, those desires that are truly from God. Prayer gives us the gift of knowing ourselves. It offers us the power to shape our lives by choosing according to the yearnings we have consciously embraced as being congruent with our truest selves. In prayer the Spirit reveals to us the ways of God, ways which often are in opposition to the ways of the world around us.
The son’s initial choices reflect his yearning for independence, popularity and pleasure. These choices do not lead him to love, security, joy or fulfillment, as he hoped they would. Instead they ruin him. But the second set of choices he makes, which includes the choice to turn around, to repent and to seek forgiveness, gives rise to humility and genuine contrition. These choices bring him home.
Our choices matter. Our lives are shaped by our choices, and our choices are shaped by our deepest yearnings. “We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.” One thing this story can show us is that we become what we choose, moment by moment, day by day, and year by year.
But another thing that this story means to tell us is that God also chooses – in fact, God has chosen. God has chosen to forgive us. God has chosen to accept and pardon and welcome us. No matter how miserable our choices have been in the past, no matter how vacillating and unpredictable they are in the present, no matter how misguided they may be in the future, God says we are forgiven. God’s forgiveness does not begin with us or with what we deserve; it does not wait for us to be very, very good so that we may be deemed worthy of it. God’s forgiveness begins with God, and with what God chooses freely to give. “God proves his love for us,” St. Paul says, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God chooses to love us precisely when we are least deserving of it, when we are least lovable. When we come dragging home in our lowest, most unattractive, most undeserving state, God runs to meet us.
This is the beauty of the gospel – that God loves us, without the least regard to what we deserve. We are forgiven. It may be difficult for us to accept this unwarranted grace. We would prefer to win forgiveness through our own efforts. But God’s choice does not depend on us or on anything we do or say. It is pure gift.
Who can fathom such forgiveness? Who can comprehend the wideness of this mercy? Apparently not the elder brother. He too is faced with a choice and he chooses to remain in the field – refusing to attend the party, nursing his hurt feelings and questioning his father’s generosity.
Before we dismiss him as an angry or resentful person, or as a miser who has never learned to dance, let’s consider his choice and try to understand why he made it. What concerns him is not that his younger brother has been allowed to return; it’s that he’s receiving a hero’s welcome. It’s the party that troubles him. Why the feasting and dancing? Yes, let the prodigal return – but to bread and water, not a fatted calf. Let him return in sackcloth, not in a new robe. Let him wear ashes, not a new ring. Let him come back in tears, not in merriment; kneeling, not dancing. What disturbs the older brother is that the father’s lavish forgiveness seems to minimize the offense. Is the offense simply to be overlooked? Are the younger brother’s actions to have no consequences? Is it fair to welcome him back without expecting him to make restitution? Doesn’t having a party send the wrong message? Doesn’t it condone his bad behavior? Is it wise, is it fair, is it acceptable, to simply let him off the hook like this? Why throw a party?
We can understand these feelings, can’t we? We want wrong-doers to pay for what they have done. We want there to be justice and retribution for those who suffered as a result of the offense. We want to send a message that this kind of behavior is not permissible. We might agree with the elder brother that what’s needed here is tough love, not generosity and forgiveness!
Consider this: If you or I had been neighbors to this family and had been invited to the party, would we have gone? Or would we have stayed at home to show our disapproval of the lavish welcome this foolish boy was receiving? It’s not an easy question to answer, is it?
Jesus’ stories have a way of shocking us, just as they shocked his original audience. And this story shocks us by showing us the wideness of God’s mercy, the generosity of God’s love, the expanse of God’s forgiveness – all of it undeserved, unmerited. Pure grace!
If we are honest with ourselves, we may have to admit that we’re not that much different from the older brother. We too might have chosen to deny such generosity to our younger sibling. But when we recognize that we too have been the beneficiaries of such grace, we begin to see things differently. The truth is that all of us, at some time and in some way, have wandered away and become lost. All of us, at some time and in some way, have squandered what has been entrusted to us. All of us have stumbled into darkness and lost sight of who and what we are meant to be. “For there is no distinction,” says St Paul to the Christians at Rome, “since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
And the Very Good News of the Gospel is that God has chosen to forgive us in Jesus Christ. When we finally awaken and are able to recall who we are and to whom we belong, when we stand up and dust ourselves off and begin the journey home, God comes running to meet us. God offers us forgiveness even though we don’t deserve it. God offers us pardon even though we haven’t earned it. God offers us a home even though we were the ones who chose to leave.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost and now am found,
Was blind but now I see!
Oh, and did you want a party? Listen to Jesus’ words to tax collectors and sinners who came near to listen to him: “I tell you,” he says to them, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Do not fear. God has chosen to forgive you. Welcome home!
 Quoted in The Diary of Mahadev Desai, p. 58.
 Craddock, Fred; Luke (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 188.
 Romans 3:23
 Luke 15:7
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