The Gospel lesson of Luke 15:11-32, the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father, has become in the Orthodox Church the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, used to help prepare us for keeping the season of Great Lent. Below is the text of the Gospel Lesson itself interspersed with comments from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware taken from The Lenten Triodion (p 46).
Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
“The parable of the Prodigal forms and exact ikon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger.”
But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father.
“Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father’s house. But repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go…’ (Luke 15:18).”
But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
“To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but to take a decision and to act upon it.”
Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”
Interestingly in the parable, the older brother of the Prodigal plays as big a role as the Prodigal himself – at least in terms of the length of the text. One can repent and seek reconciliation with our merciful and forgiving God. Sin however is never just between the sinner and God, for it affects all of one’s relationships. God may forgive, but we may find those around us unable or unwilling to be reconciled with us. Repentance involves a tremendous amount of energy, working on our relationships, and learning to deal with how others judge us for what we have done. Even the Father could not force his elder son to be reconciled to the younger brother and prodigal. We can find our way back to God, but still find ourselves estranged from community. This is because our sins cut us off from our brothers and sisters and cut into our relationship with them. Repentance, our confession of sins, needs to acknowledge all of those whom we have hurt through our shallow, selfish and self-centered sinfulness. We need to acknowledge not just that our sins cut us off from God, but that they also showed a callous disregard for our friends and family. We are the cause of their hurt. Our sins may have damaged permanently our relationships on earth, and we must humbly accept the consequence of that. It may not be until the Kingdom comes that we find ourselves having in heaven the relationships we desired on earth when we repented.