St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart. What is feeding this illness? The happiness and good fortune of others! The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received. Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues. That turns a negative passion into a good. I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own. This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life. One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.
“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing. How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness? And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”
Brothers and Sisters, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
St. Basil the Great makes a distinction between rebuking and reproaching a fellow Christian who has fallen into sin. Rebuking in his thinking is correcting the sinner, meaning that if we point out to a fellow Christian that they have fallen into sin, we do so with the goal of helping them, not just embarrassing them. Here St. Basil (4th Century) touches upon something modern counseling would agree with. For Basil, if we merely shame an individual without offering them help for correcting their behavior, then we are wrongfully reproaching them. If we drive someone into feeling shame, we rarely help them improve themselves, for shame most often causes a person to withdraw further from those who might help them. Shame causes a person to hide, to cover up, to lie – all of which are tools of the devil to further keep a person in sin. St. Basil writes:
“And it seems that while rebuking has the goal of correcting the sinner, reproach is meant to disgrace the fallen sinner. Now as for reproaching poverty, low birth, ignorance, or physical disability, this is utterly irrational and alien to the virtuous man. For whatever we did not choose to happen to us is involuntary. And in the case of involuntary disadvantages, it is appropriate to show mercy to the unfortunate rather than to mistreat them.” (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p 98)
A second issue St. Basil touches upon is a tendency of some to shame a person for things over which they have no control: poverty, poor upbringing, bad genes, family dysfunction, social status, lack of education, lower intelligence, physical disabilities, illnesses, addictions and the like (for some unemployment or homelessness might also be issues beyond their control). Today we are confronted with novel claims there are many other issues over which a person has no control – gender identity or sexual orientation.
For St. Basil it is irrational for the virtuous to blame people for issues over which they have no control. Basil’s list, though probably not intended to be exhaustive within the context of his comments, does not include the new categories for which claims are being made that we humans don’t choose these characteristics but receive them at birth. In any case, St. Basil’s teaching on how to respond to those with characteristics which are involuntary and not of an individual’s choosing is mercy. His comments don’t resolve what human characteristics are truly involuntary [some today would say these new categories are not characteristics but rather are behaviors and so were not imagined by St. Basil], but he does see whatever characteristics are involuntary as disadvantageous to individuals, and so require from Christians a response of mercy. He forbids Christians to mistreat them in any way. Certainly, the proscription for how to treat others, especially those with “involuntary disadvantages” (Basil’s words, I recognize many today want these characteristics to be seen simply as human and normal) is to treat them as unfortunate and thus deserving mercy. Many today might say but that attitude is wrong, such people do not want our pity, they want our acceptance, they want to be treated with dignity as full human beings not as defective ones. My point here is only that if we follow St. Basil’s thinking, we will not treat such folk with disdain, judgment, hatred, fear, rejection, but rather with mercy and empathy. We would recognize them as human beings for whom Christ died in order to save them, just as He did for the rest of us. We would recognize them as having human struggles like the rest of us. Struggles that many of us would never want (and often we can’t imagine that God would give to anyone), but nevertheless can recognize as human, and thus the very kind of struggles which St. Paul envisioned when he wrote in Galatians 6:2:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
In the modern world, we accept many more categories of behavior than St. Basil had in his day. In his world there are conditions over which we have no control and behaviors over which we can and should control, including desires. In the modern age we have a much more nuanced approach to human behavior and do recognize the possibility of behaviors resulting from genetics, addictions, medical conditions, mental conditions, chemical imbalances, dysfunctional upbringing and social conditioning – over which we have no control or which we have little control but which seem to control us. Consequently, we have to deal with a more complex world – a matrix of values, beliefs, science and pseudo-science. In the midst of all that, we still find ourselves following St. Basil’s interpretation of Christ’s Gospel commandments that are grounded in love for one another. The changing nature of culture and science continues to challenge us in how to live the Gospel in a society in which there are few permanent values, no one perspective predominates, in which there is little agreement about what the facts are even when related to science.
She also said: “Just as treasure is found to be lacking once it is exposed, so virtue disappears when it becomes known and is noised abroad. And just as wax is melted before a fire, so too does the soul disintegrate and lose its vigor from being praised.” (Syncletica, Give Me a Word:The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 306)
“A man who outwardly fulfills all the commandments, but retains pride, contempt and malice in his heart will still remain far from God. God cannot be “bought off” by fasting or sacrifices, because-as the psalm tells us – “the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit” (meaning grief for one’s sins), but “a broken and contrite heart God will not despise” and will not reject.” (Fr. Alexander Men, Awake to Life: Sermons from the Paschal Cycle, p 7)
“It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. . . . and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. (Jeremiah 51:15-16)
The Prophet Jeremiah tells us that it is the same God who created the universe who makes fog appear on earth. Yesterday morning was one of the foggiest days I’ve seen for a long time – perhaps a sign that God the Creator is still at work on earth. A combination of a warm winter day with lots of moisture in the ground produced the dense misty fog. It made it a difficult drive – for one could only see about half a block ahead.
It did remind me of the second creation account in the book of Genesis where a mist came up from the earth just before God created the first human.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground— then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:4-7)
In the Wisdom of Sirach, there is an interesting interpretation of the above Genesis passage, for the mist turns out to be Wisdom who says:
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.
You can see all the photos I took in the morning fog at Foggy Morning 2-20-2017. The weather pattern may repeat itself again later this week so we may have more heavy, dense fog. It would be great if it were the Wisdom of God.
But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
1] In many ways the Epistle readings before Lent certainly frame fasting in a very particular way which seems to go against many of the popular ideas about fasting, especially among those who want to keep the food fast strictly. Paul seems to argue eating or not eating is all indifferent for the Christian. It doesn’t commend us to God one way or another. But there is an issue of love, this is maybe the Paul Principle for how to deal with disagreements in the local community. One needs to pay attention to the scruples of those around us. Those who are really concerned about food and fasting: these are the “weak” in Paul’s framework. They worry about what others are doing, they suffer a loss of faith and fervor if they see others aren’t keep the fast strictly. They worry over ever little detail about fasting rules and regulations. They read the labels on every product. St. Paul would consider them weak in faith. Those who are not so fastidious have an obligation to love those who are overly scrupulous and respect their concerns by following their fasting rules when with them. This is what love requires. Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys, but both can be blessed and loved by Christ. I may not be so bothered by all the minutiae of fasting regulations, but if I’m with someone who is I should in love follow their rules. Love tells me don’t wound their conscience. I end up laying aside my thoughts, beliefs and practices in love so that I don’t offend my fastidious neighbor. Yes, I surrender my freedom in Christ, but I do it voluntarily in love.
2] The Paul principle – let all you do be done in love, be concerned about your neighbor, put your neighbor’s needs and scruples ahead of your own. This is to be in the heart of everyone in the parish. So if people become concerned about what others are wearing, or how they make the sign of the cross, or how their children are behaving, then one has to think what is the need of this person, and put that ahead of my own concerns. This doesn’t mean we can’t express differing and disagreeing opinions. We can do that, but then we are supposed to think, “what is best for my neighbor?” If my child is disturbing my neighbor, then I should think about what is helpful to my neighbor. If the child in front of me is misbehaving, what is helpful to the parents of that child? If I think the person in the next pew is dressed inappropriately, what should I do that is best for my neighbor? When I’m getting dressed to go to church, I should consider whether my clothes might offend or be too alluring to my neighbor. I should always be thinking about the other.
3] This is very hard to live in real life. It is an ideal that is very had to live up to. So often we fail, then what? Back to figuring out how to love the neighbor and do what is best for them, not for me.
Gospel:Matthew 25:31-46 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
1] Note the righteous in the Gospel lesson were also not aware of having done what they did for Christ. They are surprised that He judges them this way. “When did we do that?” they ask. They are being kind and charitable to the poor and needy. They didn’t know in treating others with mercy that Christ was being blessed. Every truly merciful act of kindness and charity that we do for others is being done for Christ. Even when we care for an aging parent or grandparent, or care for someone that no one else cares for, we are doing it for Christ, even if we aren’t aware of that or feel we have no other choice then to do the kind thing. When we care for that bothersome or negligent neighbor, we are ministering to Christ whether we know it or not. It isn’t the case that the righteous have to consciously be aware of doing good for Christ. If they are merciful to others, they are doing it to Christ, even when Christ isn’t in their mind or on their radar or part of their belief system.
2] The Gospel of the Last Judgment is a Gospel of hope, it is good news. Whether or not you have sinned, even if you are burdened with sin, even if you fail to overcome your habitual or pernicious sins, you are still capable of loving others – and so you can still receive a favorable judgment from Christ. Even if you don’t have proper faith, you can still unwittingly show mercy to Christ by showing mercy to others, and thus receive a favorable judgment on the last day. This Gospel lesson if full of hope! I may be addicted to sin and not able to overcome my weaknesses, but I can still love some of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
3] The fathers talk about 3 levels of justice – First, there are those who aren’t interested in justice and don’t even attempt to be just. Second, there are those interested in human justice, this is about being fair (but humanly speaking we are often interested in fairness only when it is to our advantage). This can also be an eye for an eye thinking, or retributive justice, or revenge. Human justice is imperfect as we see sometimes in the court system when some criminals are set free unjustly and some innocent are punished unjustly. We often use our ideas of human justice to understand the Last Judgment. The third level is divine justice. Because God is love, divine justice is the same thing as Divine love or divine mercy. God can find ways to have a judgment in which even sinners are forgiven and blessed. As in the Gospel of the last judgment, the terms of the judgment are changed – it is not about sins/breaking the commandments. The question is ” have we loved those whom we could have loved? In these terms, even sinners and unbelievers might find God’s mercy!
If you are at home, pray at the third hour [i.e., 9:00 a.m.] and bless God. But, if you are elsewhere then, pray to God in your heart. For at that hour Christ was seen fixed to the wood. Hence even in the Old Testament the law ordered that the bread of proposition should be offered at the third hour as a type of the body and blood of Christ; and the immolation of the irrational lamb is a type of the perfect Lamb. For Christ is the shepherd, and he is also the bread that came down from heaven [see John 6:41].
Pray likewise at the sixth hour [i.e., noon]. For when Christ was fixed to the wood of the cross the day was broken and there was a great darkness [see Matthew 27:45]. So let a powerful prayer be offered at that hour in imitation of the voice of him who prayed and caused darkness to overshadow all creation because of the unbelieving Jews.
Let a great prayer and a great blessing be offered also at the ninth hour [i,e., 3:00 p.m] to imitate the manner in which the soul of the righteous praises God, who does not lie, who remembers his holy ones and has sent his Word to glorify them. At that hour Christ, pierced in his side, poured forth blood and water [see John 19:34] and, illuminating the rest of the day, brought it to evening. And so, when he began to fall asleep, while causing the following day to begin, he imaged the resurrection.
Pray as well before your body rests on its bed. But toward midnight, rise up, wash your hands and pray…It is necessary to pray at that hour. For the ancients who have recounted the tradition to us told us that at that hour the entire creation rests for a moment in order to praise the Lord: the stars, the trees, the waters stop for a short space of time, and the whole army of angels who serve him praises God at that hour along with the souls of the righteous. That is why those who believe should hasten to pray then. And the Savior bears witness to this when he says, “Behold, a cry is heard in the middle of the might of one saying, Behold, the bridegroom is coming; rise up to meet him” [Matthew 25:6]. And he continues, “Watch,therefore, for you do not know the hour when he is coming” [Matthew 25:13].
And at cockcrow rise up and pray once more. For at that hour, at cockcrow, the children of Israel denied Christ [see Matthew 26:74-75 par.], whom we know by faith. In the hope of eternal light at the resurrection of the dead,our eyes are turned toward that day.
One week before Great Lent begins, the Sunday Gospel lesson in the Orthodox church is Matthew 25:31-46, the Last Judgment. In this surprising parable of Jesus, the final judgment of all humans by God is not based upon sins we have committed or avoided, nor upon whether or not we fasted during Lent, nor on how often we attended church or kept a spiritual discipline, nor on whether we kept the Ten Commandments, but rather God’s final judgment of us is based solely on whether or not we have loved the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. The only question to be asked at the Last Judgment is whether or not we showed mercy and charity to those to whom we could have done so.
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“Listen and be glad, all of you who are poor and needy, for in this you are God’s brethren. Even if you are poor and lowly against your will, with patience and thanksgiving voluntarily turn it to your own good. Listen, all you who are rich, and long for blessed poverty, that you may become more truly heirs and brethren of Christ than whose who are involuntarily poor, for of His own free will He made Himself poor for our sake. Listen and groan, all you who overlook your suffering brethren, or rather, Christ’s brethren, and do not give the poor a share of your abundant food, shelter, clothing and care as appropriate, nor offer your surplus to meet their need. Let us listen and groan ourselves, for I who am telling you these things stand accused by my conscience of not being completely free of this passion. While many shiver and go without, I am well fed and clothed. But more grievously to be mourned over are those who have treasures in excess of their daily needs, who hold on to them and even strive to increase them. They have been commanded to love their neighbors as themselves and have not even loved them as dust, for what are gold and silver, which they loved more than their brethren, other than dust?
But let us change direction, repent and agree together to supply the needs of the poor brethren among us by whatever means we have. If we prefer not to empty out all we possess for the love of God, let us at least not callously hold on to everything for ourselves. Let us do something, then humble ourselves before God and obtain forgiveness from Him for what we have failed to do. For His love for mankind makes up for our omissions, that we may never hear the horrifying voice: ‘Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed’ (Matt. 25:41). How great a horror! Be ye removed from life, cast out of paradise, deprived of light.’” (Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, pp 30-31)
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as it comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits… (James 3:13-17).
To be meek means to be gentle and kind, to be empty of all selfishness and earthly ambition. It means, in a word, never to return evil for evil but to overcome evil by good (Romans 12:14-21).
Meekness means to distrust and reject every thought and action of external coercion and violence, which in any case can never produce fruitful, genuine and lasting results.
Meekness is to have the firm and calm conviction that the good is more powerful than evil, and that the good ultimately is always victorious.
Meekness is an unchangeable state of mind which remains the same in honor and dishonor. Meekness is the rock overlooking the sea of irritability which breaks all the waves that dash against it, remaining itself unmoved. Meekness is the buttress of patience,the mother of love and the foundation of wisdom, for it is said, “The Lord will teach the meek His way” (Psalm 24:9). It prepares the forgiveness of sins; it is boldness in prayer, an abode of the Holy Spirit. “But to whom shall I look,” says the Lord, “to him who is meek and quiet and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). In meek hearts the Lord finds rest, but a turbulent soul is the seat of the devil. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 24).”
In the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion (pp 14-15) we find an interesting explanation for why there is a fast free week before Great Lent begins (in 2017 this week occurred February 5-11). The Synaxarionsays the fast free week is good for the monk to remind them not to become proud and arrogant because of his fasting discipline. It is a reminder to us all that if during Lent we find ourselves judging and condemning others (especially for their Lenten practices), then Lent is a failure because we have got off track. It is not a failure to find Lent difficult or to not be able to keep it strictly. We learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, our addictions, all the things on which we are dependent other than God, and all the things that have become more important to us than God. It is not failure to come to know one’s own weaknesses, temptations, dependencies and sins. Such knowledge helps us deal with truth and reality. But there is failure if Lent causes us to think we are better than other Christians, that we do more than others, that we are closer to God than others because of our supposed righteous behavior or that we engage in schadenfreude – rejoicing when others can’t keep Lent as well as we can which makes us feel superior to them. Humility is a difficult virtue to learn and practice. If keeping Lent makes us proud and arrogant, then Lent has failed and even made us demonic! To do what we need to do because it is right, not because we will be recognized and praised for it or because it will get us into God’s favor or His kingdom. Lent is the time to learn about our inner self and to find there what separates us from God and what prevents us from loving neighbor, so that we might repent of this and change our lives. The Gospel Parable of the Publican and Pharisee is placed right before Lent begins to remind us if we think like the Pharisee as a result of our Lenten discipline, we have failed in our spiritual discipline.
“…the saints advise that no one should be elated over concerning his own accomplishments and exalt himself over his fellow man, but one should always be humble. For ‘God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5). It is better to sin and repent than to succeed and become prideful. ‘I tell you, the Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.’ (See Luke 18:14)
Therefore, this parable demonstrates that no one should become prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but one should always be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, as he is never far from salvation…
So that we can learn to avoid the pride of the Pharisee by following our own self-imposed and self-directed fasting practices–instead of the moderate and time-tested traditions of the Church–the following week is fast-free. Through Your unspeakable compassion, O Christ our God, grant that we may be counted worthy to regain our former delight in Paradise, and have mercy on us and save us. Amen.”
Thus, according to the Synaxarion the fast free week reminds us that we like everyone else is human, we each have a body which is given to us by God as the means to come to know Him. We are taught that fasting itself cannot lead to salvation if our heart is weighed down by the sin of pride. The most important part of Great Lent is overcoming our passions, of repenting of our sins, not of denying ourselves some food.
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?