If you have seen the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, then you know who Captain Jack Sparrow is. He is the central character, the main pirate, and he always knows exactly where to look for treasure. The reason he has such a good sense of the direction is because of the compass that he carries with him at all times.
It is certainly no ordinary compass. It does not point north, south, east and west; the compass of Captain Jack Sparrow points in only one direction: the direction of the thing he desires the most! When his heart is set on treasure, the compass automatically points in that direction.
But as the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean begins, in the movie Dead Man’s Chest, we discover that Captain Jack Sparrow is in a crisis: he doesn’t know exactly what he wants. There is some interior confusion, and for that reason, his compass will not work the way it should. It is unable to bring him to the place he wants to go.
That is the picture we are given this weekend in the beautiful and familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son. The son doesn’t know what he wants; he thinks he does. He says to his father: “Give me the share of your estate that should come to me” (Luke 15:12). He then takes that share and goes off to “a distant country” where he squanders the entire inheritance “on a life of dissipation.”
The Fathers of the Church and early Christian writers have always understood that journey into “a distant country” as the alienation from God that comes from the life of sin. The more we become entangled in sin, the further we become entrenched in that “distant country,” and the more estranged we become from God.
The tragedy of the prodigal son lies not so much in the details of the sins he has committed, or even in the sad consequences of those sins which have made him a pig farmer in a foreign land (an unthinkable profession for the Jews). The most painful reality of all is that the son has let his moral compass take him in the opposite direction of where he most needs to be; he has become completely separated from the father.
We listen to that parable knowing all along that the father is such a father! He is so willing to give the son anything he asks for. Later we see how ready the father is to take the son back; how eager he is to reconcile that older brother; how filled with love and compassion! We ask ourselves: “Why would anyone ever leave a father like that?”
And that is the triumph of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the son suddenly begins to ask himself that very question! There, alienated, broken and alone in “a distant country,” he remembers the kindness and benevolence of his own father; he longs for the home that he now understands he never should have left to begin with. His compass begins to work once again, and sets him back in the right direction, to the one thing he desires more than anything else in the world, the greatest treasure of all.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book Jesus of Nazareth, writes about this very conversion of the prodigal son. Our Holy Father (who has probably never seen the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, or probably never heard of Captain Jack Sparrow!) writes:
What [the prodigal son] finds in himself, though, is the compass pointing toward the father, toward the true freedom of a “son.”
—Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 205
He gets his bearings once again, and soon makes a decision: “I shall get up and go to my father” (Luke 15:18). He follows through on that decision, and is received back again with open arms.
It is a beautiful and heartwarming story; one that we are all familiar with. But the story prompts us to ask ourselves today: What about us? Where is our compass pointing? Is the compass pointing us in the right direction and bringing us ever closer to God? Or is our compass bringing us farther away, into that “distant country,” and away from the heart of the father?
I would suggest this weekend three aspects of the prodigal son that we should seek to imitate in our own lives.
Firstly, we should remember that this Father is such a father! God is so good, so merciful, so generous to us. He wants nothing but what is good for us, and to give us Himself and draw us to eternal life with Him. That should motivate everything we do, and guide us in the way we live. It should set our compass to the thing we should want more than anything else: God and His plan for our lives.
Secondly, like the prodigal son, we should be ready to make a decision. Whatever God is prompting us to do, we should be ready to answer His call. Has it been a while since we have come to Holy Mass? Are we able to make it some of the time, perhaps even most of the time, but not every weekend? God is asking us to make a decision to be with Him here every weekend.
Going out to dinner on Saturday night, or having a big family breakfast on Sunday morning is a great thing. To sit around the house and read the newspaper, or rest and watch TV is fine. But these things, of themselves, will not bring us to eternal life with God. They will not lead us to the heart of the Father. Mass will.
Mass is the place where Jesus Christ comes to us—Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity—where He comes into our lives and into our souls, and leads us ever closer to His Father. This is the place where we hear the Word of God proclaimed, and the Father says to us, over and over again, “Welcome home. Welcome back, come ever closer to the life I have called you to share.” Is God asking you to make that decision to attend Mass every week?
Or when is the last time you made a good sacramental confession? Is there anything in our lives that still needs to be forgiven by God? Our faith teaches us that when we have committed any serious or grave sins, ordinarily they can only be forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Might God be moving us to make that decision this week: to come to Him in that sacrament, and hear the words of absolution, to receive the embrace of our heavenly Father in that special place reserved for reconciliation and peace.
Or are there things in our lives that are keeping us from growing closer to God? Are there things we need to let go of, or say “No” to, or perhaps habits of prayer and fidelity that we need to follow through on in order to become, more and more, the sons and daughters God is calling us to be? Could that be the decision God is calling us to make?
Which brings us to the final aspect of the prodigal son that we should seek to imitate: like the prodigal son, we need to not only make a decision to return and draw closer to the Father. We need to actually do so, to follow through and make good on that decision.
We need to set our course, and, with the prodigal son “get up and go to [our] father.” In our lives this week, may we find our true compass once again, the compass that leads us to the one thing that we should desire above all other things: to seek the heart of the Father, and find in Him our greatest treasure, our deepest desire, and our one hope for eternal life.