John Glenn, one of first American astronauts, wrote a book describing the early days
of the space program. There was demanding physical and mental training. Glenn recalled a day he and others were given a piece of paper with one question, “Who are you?” with twenty blanks for the answers. At first, the answers came quickly: “I’m an American.” “I’m an Air Force pilot.” “I’m a husband.” But then it became more difficult, forcing him to think and go deeper in order fill in all the blanks. Glenn had to peel away the layers and find out the deepest part of his true identity that motivated his life.
The parable of the prodigal son is a parable of people who forgot their true identity. With the loss of identity, the way of true living is also lost. The younger son tried to create a new identity apart from his father. He was going to give vent to all his dreams, even if it meant breaking from his family and dragging the family name through the mud. His new identity was an illusion which ended when all the money was gone. Reality hit him hard and fast, waking him up to the memory of his father’s goodness to his workers. He goes home hoping at the very least to be treated as a hired hand. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.” (Lk. 15:19) He sees himself as a worker, that’s the best he hopes for with all the wrong and sin he has committed. That’s his identity.
The father’s actions offer something different and unexpected to the younger son. He runs to his son, which no father at the time of Christ would have done. A ring is placed on his son’s finger and sandals on his feet. Only members of the family were allowed to wear those objects. The father is telling his son, “You are not a worker on the payroll. Always and forever you are my son! That is your identity. That is who you are! That is how you are to live!”
The older brother also needs that reminder since he’s forgotten his identity. He is full of anger and resentment that spills out into the open. “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I ever disobey one of your orders.” (Lk. 15:29) He doesn’t sound like a son but a hired worker. Since he sees himself that way, he’s never free enough to ask his father for anything. A true son would ask, but never a worker. The older son also breaks relationship with the family when he says “when your son”. He refuses to acknowledge a true identity, they are brothers.
The father reminds the elder brother who he really is: “My son…everything I have is yours…your brother was dead and has come to life…” The parable leaves us hanging. Did he hear his father’s words? Will the brothers live out their true identity? If they do, their lives will be radically different.
Lent is needed because we’ve forgotten our true identity given in Baptism: the adopted children of the Father, the brothers and sisters of Christ, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit who calls us to be the Church and disciples of Christ. Would that be your answer if someone asked you, “who are you?” We easily reduce ourselves to work, politics, pleasure and forget who God made us to be. People live out a false identity that never brings wholeness or holiness.
Like the younger son, conversion is needed to rediscover our identity. Grace is needed to live that Baptismal identity day after day in the great and ordinary moments of life as God’s holy people. It begins with a simple question, who are you?, that needs to be answered honestly and daily with the help of Christ.