Sermon notes for The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (February 2017)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
1] “… the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord” – no dualism here. Jesus does not save souls. The body belongs to the Lord. In one famous old movie the sergeant barks, “his soul may belong to Jesus, but his a– (a certain part of his anatomy) belongs to me.” St. Paul would vehemently disagree. Even the Christian’s body belongs to the Lord – the resurrection is about the deification of the entire human being, including our bodies. Bodily sins, sexual sins are sins against the Lord. This is also why fasting is a spiritual exercise and spiritual asceticism involves the body. My body becomes through baptism a member of Christ, part of Christ’s body. This is spiritual, but involves the physical body.
2] The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – we are to glorify God not by escaping our body but by using the body to glorify God. We can achieve a victory for God in and through our bodies. Thus sexual morality is essential. Thus the importance of fasting, self control, self denial. The body is not God and we should not treat it as if it is – it should not control our lives and selves. We are to be masters of our own desires, not slaves to them. (The body belongs to the Lord but note also: “they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” – says st. Paul in Philippians 3:18-21). We practice gaining mastery over our bodies in order to submit our entire life to God. That is the goal of Great Lent – transforming our lowly body to conform to His glorious body.
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32
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.
1] The parable, now placed before Great Lent, is commonly seen in Orthodoxy to be one of repentance, exile and return, reconciliation and restoration. In the beginning of this parable, we don’t actually encounter any breaking of any law – it is not illegal for the son to ask for his inheritance. He isn’t sinning against civil law, probably not against Torah either. In a culture in which the first born son is favored by the inheritance process, the younger son might even be wise to take what is his while there is something to get, before the elder brother lays claim to everything. Besides, the Father could have said, “NO!”, to the younger son’s request. But the father is the most consistent person in the parable. He is loving, merciful, forgiving. But to this point, probably no sin is committed by the younger son – if sin is considered mostly as breaking of some law. We have to take this into account when we prepare ourselves for confession. Of what are we repenting? Sin is not always breaking a law. The story so far does not tell us much about the inner nature of the younger son – what are his motives? why is he doing this? We have to speculate to add those details, or perhaps we need to wait to see where the parable is headed.
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. 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.’
2] It quickly becomes obvious the younger son has no plan regarding the inheritance. He doesn’t use it wisely, makes no provision for the future, does not establish himself as he has seen with his own father who had some wealth, a livelihood, a path to follow in life. The younger son is foolish. He burns through his resources immediately and quickly finds himself on the verge of starvation. He is incredibly wasteful, thoughtless and foolish. He “gathered” all his possessions from his father and then “scattered” them in wasteful prodigality and recklessness. Still, in the parable we don’t know exactly what the prodigal did with his wealth. He wasted it, though we can imagine all manners of sin as probably necessary for burning through his wealth so quickly, he might just have been foolish, throwing big parties, spending as if there is no tomorrow, enjoying life with his friends. Even if what he did involved no sin as such, he was a fool, and his folly left him penniless and friendless. No one who enjoyed his prodigality is there to help him in his time of need.
It is his hunger, his need, his poverty which wakes him up. He has nothing left, and nothing to lose. Now he remembers his generous, kind and loving father. He realizes even being a servant or slave in his father’s mansion is better than the freedom of total poverty. He was feeding pigs – a form of slavery with few rewards. He was willing to trade one form of servanthood for another – the servants in his father’s house did not live in poverty, in famine, in pigsties, in starvation. Better a servant in his father’s house, than a free son in a pigsty. His “repentance” as such is self serving, but no matter, the forgiving, loving father will embrace him. Even if his father takes him in as a servant, he still is better off than his current situation. So of what is he repenting? Poverty, hunger, degradation? He is abandoning his folly and embracing wisdom. Whatever terms his father might lay down, still he will be better off being in his father’s house.
In the icon detail: The prodigal has to raise himself above the pigsty mess he is in to see what to do. Often we can’t see our way out of our sinful messes, we are trapped, so we need clairvoyance – clear vision – a new perspective to see Christ, to see the love of God.
And he arose and came to his father. 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.
3] The loving, forgiving father is over joyed to have his son back. He doesn’t even give his son the chance to express his contrition. The father has been ever watching and hoping for his son’s return. All the son had to do was get himself back into the presence of the father. His father did all the rest. The father’s love is unconditional, full of grace, not dependent on the son making a proper confession and apology. The father’s love is not a reaction to the son’s behavior. The father is loving, he doesn’t wait for the son to beg forgiveness, it is already granted. We can ask ourselves again, of what do we need to confess? Of what should we repent? Are we willing to leave our past indiscretions behind? To abandon prodigal living and instead live as servants of the father? Or do we hope to be able to continue at least in part our wasteful, self-centered pleasure-seeking, while at the same time enjoying the father’s estate? The parable says you can’t have the father’s estate AND a pleasure-seeking attitude in the world. We have to leave that part of our life behind – not because we have no more money to spend in the world, but because we need to live with and for the father, even if we have an abundance of goods. Repentance – we are repenting of our self-centered, self-serving life styles. We are denying ourselves in order to take up our cross! We don’t repent in order to be able to continue pleasuring ourselves, but to take up the cross.
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.'”
4] When we call this the parable of the Prodigal, we lose sight of the fact that the parable doesn’t end with the prodigal’s reconciliation with the father. Jesus was only 2/3rds done with the parable at that point. The parable goes on, there is another son in this who does not like his father’s willingness to love and forgive the prodigal. The father remains consistent, loving both of his sons, but the older son seems to think that he is loved if he is the only one loved by the father. He doesn’t feel loved if his father also loves the other son. This is where the parable began – the younger brother, unsure of the father’s love (or of his brother’s love), takes his property and leaves not wanting to have to share with another. Both brothers are selfish and self-centered. The older brother is also not breaking any law in his attitude, but his thoughts are not those of his father. He does not love. It is only with the older brother that we hear the accusation that the younger brother spent his money on prostitutes. This was not mentioned earlier in the parable. Is the older brother speaking the truth or just making an assumption and accusing his younger brother of sin? How does he know what his younger brother has done, for all the younger brother did was done in a country far away.
So, as we prepare ourselves for confession, for true repentance, of what do we have to repent? Sin, as the parable shows, is not just a matter of breaking the law, the Ten Commandments, or the Torah or Tradition. We have to think about love and relationships. For what do we live? Is life mostly about good times and pleasure? Are we ever willing to deny ourselves in order to serve God? Do we avoid serving God so that we can rather serve ourselves? Are we willing to live in the world as God’s servants rather than as free and independent individuals who get the most we can for ourselves out of life?