Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Prodigal Man: The Transition from a Life of Illusion to a Life of Truth

I know it’s been a while since I posted, but as they say, better late than never.

 

 

I believe that the readings from a few weeks ago (the Third Sunday in Lent) really touch on the heart of Lent. Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus, which was the fulfillment of His Mission. In returning from the dead, Jesus defeated the forces of sin and death, proving they no longer have the final say, but HE does. In order to reap the fruits of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, we need conversion, that is, a turning away from or rejection of our sin and an attachment to the One Who alone provides salvation, and thus true happiness. Lent is thus a meditation on the nature of repentance.

One reading I would like to reflect upon is taken from chapter 55 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It gets directly to the point. In verse one, God says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!” So, what we see is God’s invitation to repentance. Water is often a symbol for life, or that which sustains life, and on a spiritual level the source of life is  God, or more broadly our relationship with God. As fallen, sinful beings, we cannot merit the grace whereby we enter into this relationship, and this is alluded to later on in the same verse when God says, “You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat…”

 

God is inviting us to repentance, which implies that God is giving us the opportunity for repentance. Yet, why do so many people go astray if they are given the opportunity for salvation? This question is answered in verse two when God asks, “Why spend your money on what is not bread; your wage for what does not satisfy?” The answer is that for various reasons, man turns to that for which he was not created. God was created not only by God, but also for God: God, as the source of all goodness, created us so that we can share in His goodness, since it is the nature of goodness to extend beyond itself and share itself with others. Man comes forth from God as his ultimate origin, and is ordered towards God as his ultimate end.

 

Maybe the question is more rhetorical: “Why is man investing his efforts striving towards an end for which he was not created? Why is man confusing intermediary ends – that is, goods that also serve as means to higher goods – with man’s ultimate end or destiny?”

 

The Bible doesn’t call us to neglect the goods of this world. Rather, the Bible calls us to look beyond the goods of this world towards a higher good – namely, THE HIGHEST GOOD, the Good for which man was created. We can only do this if we listen for the Voice of God, and respond. Thus, God goes on to say, “Only listen to Me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Pay attention to Me; listen, that you may have life.” (Isaiah 55:2b-3)

 

Since the goods of this world reflect the Goodness of their Creator, man, in seeking the goods of this world, is, knowingly or unknowingly, trying to seek that Good for which the goods of this world point. A thing is good or desirable insofar as it points towards the Ultimate Good. Man, in seeking out the good, is ultimately seeking that Good which can satisfy eternally. Man lives in the world, in the midst of a multiplicity of temporal goods. Man thus must accept this reality, but in doing so not get bogged down by the goods of this world, but rather see them as a means to a higher good. Man has a longing for that Good which never fails to satisfy. The difference between the elect and the reprobate, sinners and saints, Christians and non-Christians, is that the former see through the things of this world towards that Good which never fails; they, by God’s grace, use the things of this world to get to that Higher Good; the latter get caught up in the things of this world, and therefore are constantly jumping from good to good, trying but failing to seek their heart’s true desire.

 

Thus, St. Augustine famously wrote in Book I of The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee.” One of the Psalms, picking up on the symbol from Isaiah of eating and drinking, makes a similar point: “O God, You are my God, I seek You, my soul thirsts for You; my flesh faints for You, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) This is the cry of the one who, in searching for God, becomes caught up in the things of this world, and thus looses sight of what is important: they hunger and thirst for eternal things, for truer or more authentic goods, but ultimately go unsatisfied. It is like being in a barren land.

 

Man, in his sin, dwells in a spiritually barren wasteland, incapable of doing anything pleasing unto God. Yet, this is where the readings from last Sunday come in: the responsorial psalm for last Sunday (the Fourth Sunday in Lent) was taken from the Thirty-Fourth Psalm, which, in verse 9, reads (using the food-based language of two weeks ago): “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” Food sustains us, gives us the nutrition that we crave, and therefore fulfills our desires. Likewise with God: God, as the Source of all goodness, gives us the goodness which we crave in the depths of our soul. Yet, whereas food and other temporal goods only satisfy for a brief period, the good of God never ceases to satisfy, since, as the only eternal good, fulfills our deepest longings for the true, the good and the beautiful.

 

By calling us to “taste and see” God’s goodness, the Psalmist is calling us to attach ourselves to the only true source of spiritual nourishment. And to do so is to make the transition from an illusory life to an authentic life. An illusory life is a life in which we accept a warped understanding of how the different goods in life relate to one another. There is a hierarchy of goods, with some goods having a greater, deeper or more profound level of goodness than others. There is a particular Good which is THE HIGHEST GOOD, since it is the source of all goodness. Such is the definition of God. We need to look at all other things through the lens of God as the Highest Good, and arrange all lesser goods in such a way that it leads to this goal. When we have a warped understanding of what the Highest Good is, or how we attain union with it, that is the life of illusions. Through grace, and the faith and works of holiness by which we cooperate with grace, we overcome this illusory life and live lives of increasingly authentic goodness. This is seen in the first reading from last Sunday: taken from the Book of the Prophet Joshua, chapter 5, it talks about how the manna – that is, the bread sent down from heaven to sustain the Israelites during the exodus – stopped once they reached the Holy Land. The Holy Land represents true, full or complete holiness, or union with God more generally, or heaven. This can be seen in the fact that the Holy Land was the land promised by God to the Israelites. On a soteriological level, this is symbolic for the eschatological promise God makes to us, that is, of salvation. The exodus itself – that is, the escape from Egypt – represents the transition from the spiritual slavery of sin to the freedom of being in a relationship with God through Christ.

 

The Israelites thus didn’t need the manna anymore: they were now no longer desert-dwellers, but were rather dwelling in the Land of Milk and Honey. Likewise, as we grow in holiness, we are rendered more and more capable, by God’s grace, to think beyond the illusions of this life. We become less and less dependent on it as we become more and more dependent on God, the source of truth and goodness.

 

This is symbolically conveyed in last week’s Gospel: taken from Luke 15, which speaks of the parable of the Prodigal Son, what we see is the Prodigal Son taking his father’s inheritance and squandering it, living a life of immorality. He wants what his father has promised him, but uses it independently of the well-ordered relations with the rest of his family. Likewise, God gives us material things, He gives us love, reason, talents and skills, relationships, wealth, a good family life, a good work ethic, and we misuse it by placing these things above the One Who gave them to us. THAT is the life of illusion.

 

As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, God sent plagues among the people of Israel to punish them for their wickedness. As Jesus says in Luke 13:6-9, any tree that does not produce fruit is cut down. Anyone who persists in their life of illusion, thereby remaining in their wickedness and failing to produce spiritual fruit pleasing to God will be subject to punishment. But, for those who repent, overcoming, even if only slowly but steadily, their illusion, they have the promise of being received by God in a manner similar to how the father accepted his prodigal son when he returned.

 

 

Sources:

To see the mass readings, visit: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/033119-yearc.cfm

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