Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.“ (Matthew 22:37-40)
If we accept this premise, then all other commandments should flow from these two. These are the words of Jesus and we should hear them echo throughout all He says and does and all that we believe and practice. This is especially true of all of the words of Jesus as we have received them as recorded in the Gospels. The parables, the stories Jesus told, likewise, should reflect these two commandments. All that we say and do and teach as followers of Jesus Christ should be guided by these two commandments - love of God and love of neighbor.
The quintessential parable was read three Sundays before the beginning of the Great Fast but could be read on any Sunday or every Sunday of the Great Fast. The story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father and the Unforgiving Brother is the story of humanity as well as the story of the life of Christ and the story of our life in Christ and in the Church. The first (great) commandment and the second can be heard loud and clear in this parable.
What is it about the parable of the Prodigal Son that makes it so perfect a reflection for the season of the Great Fast? We know that the Loving Father represents God the Father. Jesus reveals Him to be loving and forgiving. How does the Loving Father react when his Prodigal Son returns home? He runs out to meet him, doesn’t wait for him to finish his apology, and welcomes him back with an embrace and a festive celebration. He does the same with the jealous brother, coming out and asking him to also be loving and forgiving and welcome home his brother. God loves us all with the unconditional love with which He created us. He wants us to know, love, and serve Him.
He wants us to be in an intimate relationship like He has with His divine Son, and that we would have with a father who gives us everything, allows us to take it away and squander it, and who even then still wants us to come back home. He loves the ones who stray and the ones who don’t. He loves the ones who come back begging forgiveness and the resentful ones who refuse to be forgiving in imitation of Him. He is perfect and the perfect example of fatherhood.
What is it about the parable of the Prodigal Son that makes it so perfect a reflection for the season of the Great Fast? We know the sons represent us, sometimes one, and sometimes the other. We know that we sin not only against the Father, but also against one another, even unintentionally, especially if we act selfishly, ignoring how our actions affect others. We know that we can be like the ungrateful servant in another parable. We want the forgiveness of the Master in great matters, but we won’t extend the same mercy to others in lesser matters.
God is love and the principles of love set the stage for His interaction with us. He loves us and wants to forgive us. He wants us not only to love Him in return but also to love one another in imitation of Him. No matter how you slice it, the meaning of the Great Fast reflects the meaning of the whole liturgical year and our whole life in Christ. Love and forgiveness. It’s what we hear in the Gospel. It’s what we see in the life of Christ. It’s what God wants to see in us. Think about it. Try it. Read it. Read it again.
The writer is a priest of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh.