The Stages of Sin and Repentance

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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).” 

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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.'”

 

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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.

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What is True Repentance?

As we continue through the Nativity Fast, we know this season before Christmas, is a time for all of us to confess our sins before God and to acknowledge our need for God’s forgiveness.  Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos gives us a sense of the deep profoundness of confession.  It is not merely listing what commandments we have disobeyed.  He writes:

“Profound repentance is the entrance for the uncreated grace of God to man’s heart; it burns passions and makes man a bearer of Revelation.” (The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p 58)

True repentance is humbling our self before God, emptying our self to allow God to enter into our hearts.  It is the realization that I cannot save myself or make myself into God.  Only by cooperating with God, and recognizing God as Lord, can I attain theosis.    Deification is possible in this lifetime, on this earth, but I must completely open my heart to God to allow this to happen.  This is true repentance.

Enumerating sins in confession might lead to true repentance or might result from it, but it is not equivalent to it.

The Key to Evangelism: Repentance

“Today we call this cooperation with God in our lives in order to transform them synergia. The same teachings, practices, and sacraments that made new people out of pagan in the second century exist in the Church today, and they can accomplish the same thing. But for us to call others to this way, we have to be living transformed lives ourselves, or today’s pagans will not give us the time of day. As the author of the Second Epistle to Clement wrote: ‘For when the heathen hear from our mouth the oracles of God they wonder at their beauty and greatness; then discovering that our deeds are not worthy of the words we utter, they turn from their wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is all a myth and delusion.’ If we are going to evangelize successfully, we must stop making excuses for our own sins.” (Micheal Keiser, Spread the Word, p 680

 

The Sinful Neighbor

The Lenten Spring has come!

Even though we pray throughout Great Lent, “grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother/sister“, we often can’t help but notice when someone sins against us.  So what are we to do?

“It is better to pray devoutly for your neighbor than to rebuke him every time he sins.” (St. Mark the Ascetic in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, pg. 119)

And how many times should we forgive them?

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)

 

Committing and Confessing Sin

St. John Chrysostom taught that the failure to confess one’s sins in order to seek God’s forgiveness was a more grievous offense to God than sinning itself.  Living in the world of the Fall, we humans easily succumb to temptation and sin.  While this failure is an offense to God, even worse is to fail to acknowledge the sin and seek God’s mercy which God so readily offers to those who repent. Repentance is far more within our power than to resist temptation.  In sinning we may not intend to offend God, but in resisting repentance we are intentionally offending the God of love and mercy.

In one of the short wisdom sayings of the desert fathers, it is clear that in the very instant we sincerely repent, God forgives.  It is our reluctance to repent that is offensive to God. Chrysostom says:

“You see, confession is of the greatest efficacy for correction of faults. Thus, as proceeding to deny guilt after committing sin proves worse than the sins themselves – which was the condition of that man who killed his brother [i.e. Cain, see Genesis 4] and who when questioned by the loving God did not merely decline to confess his crime but even dared to lie to God.”

(St. John Chrysostom: Homilies on Genesis 18-45, p 39)

 

The Medicine of Repentance

 “Once we regard Confession as fundamentally Christ’s action rather than our own, then we shall begin to understand the sacrament of repentance in a far more positive way. It is an experience of God’s healing love and pardon, not merely of our own disintegration and weakness.

We are to see, not just the prodigal son, plodding slowly and painfully upon the long road home, but also the father, catching sight of him when he is still a long way off and running out to meet him (Lk 15:20). As Tito Colliander puts it, ‘If we take one step toward the Lord, He takes ten steps toward us.’ That is precisely what we experience in Confession. In common with all the sacraments, Confession involves a joint divine-human action, in which there is found a convergence and ‘cooperation’ (synergeia) between God’s grace and our free will. Both are necessary; but what God does is incomparably the more important.

Repentance and confession, then, are not just something that we do by ourselves or with the help of the priest, but above all something that God is doing with and in both of us. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, ‘Let us apply to ourselves the saving remedy (pharmakon) of repentance; let us accept from God the repentance that heals us. For it is not we who offer it to Him, be He who bestows it upon us.’ It should be remembered that in Greek the same word exomologesis means both confession of sins and thanksgiving for gifts received.  […]  Not that the penance should be regarded as a punishment; still less should it be viewed as a way of expiating an offence. Salvation is a free gift of grace. By our own efforts we can never wipe out our guilt; Christ the one mediator is our only atonement, and either we are freely forgiven by Him, or else we are not forgiven at all.

We do not acquire ‘merit’ by fulfilling a penance, for in our relation to God we can never claim any merit of our own. Here, as always, we should think primarily in therapeutic rather than juridical terms. A penance is not a punishment, nor yet a form of expiation, but a means of healing. It is a pharmakon or medicine.” (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, pp 51-53)

The Prodigal Son’s Dependency

The second of the three Pre-Lenten Sundays takes its theme from Christ’s Gospel parable as recorded by St. Luke (15:11-32), the Prodigal Son.  Our Lord Jesus taught:

Then He said: “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.

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.  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.  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.’

Archbishop Dmitri comments on our Lord’s parable:

And He said, A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of good that falleth to me.   And he divided unto them his living (vv 11-12).

The younger son judges himself capable of independence, and, like many young people, he wants to leave home and live on his own. Strangely, he sees no inconsistency between his desire to be independent of his father and his request for his inheritance. Even in the new way of life he proposes for himself, he must begin with his father’s endowment. His words betray profound self-centeredness: Give me the portion…that falleth to me. Just as children often do not realize what a great debt they owe their parents – their birth, their nurture, their training, their knowledge, their health, and many other things – so the human being often thinks nothing of all he owes to God, Who has brought him into being, crowned him with glory and honor, endowed him with talents and abilities and brought him to adulthood by His Providence. The son asks his father for what is his, failing to see that what is ‘his’ is the fathers gift. Human beings often take for granted that God owes them something. And, just as the father in the parable, despite his son’s youth and inexperience, gives him what he asks for, so also God gives freely to those who ask of Him, even though this recipient may misuse the gifts.[…]

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him (vv 14-16).

The son has been reckless; rather than use his gifts to build an admirable life consistent with his upbringing, he has wasted them in self-indulgence. Having spent everything on an illusion of happiness, he wakes to find he has nothing. ‘Mighty famine’ really describes the state of his soul. Empty spiritually and morally, he has nothing to sustain him. He adopts a kind of substitute father, and this ‘citizen of that country’ indeed takes him in, but he sends him to the fields to feed swine, no doubt the most despicable task on the farm. How sharply this picture contrasts with the relationship he had with his loving father! The emptiness and meaninglessness of his life are brought out by the statement that he would have gladly filled his belly with the husks he fed the swine. Every attempt to satisfy his real needs leave him unfulfilled. No man can replace what he has lost.” (Archbishop Dmitri, The Parables, pp 80-82)

Want to Help God Celebrate?

Man’s repentance is God’s celebration.” 

(St. Ephrem the Syrian, in THE HOMILIES, Vol 1, of St. Nikolai Velimirovich, p 99)

 

The Lord Jesus taught us: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. . . .  Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”   (Luke 15:7, 10)

Repentance Begins the Christian Life

“As repentance is the beginning and end of the Christian way of life, the Lord’s Forerunner and Baptist, who was himself the starting point of this approach to living, preached saying,

Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 3:2).

And the Lord Himself, the perfection of all goodness, said the same in His preaching (Matt. 4:17).

Repentance means

hating sin and

loving virtue,

turning away from evil and

doing good

(cf. Ps. 34:14, 1 Pet. 3:11).

These acts are preceded, however, by condemning ourselves for our faults, being penitent before God, fleeing to Him for refuge with a contrite heart, and casting ourselves into the ocean of His mercy, considering ourselves unworthy to be counted among His sons. As the prodigal son said when he repented,

‘Lord, I am not worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants’ (cf. Luke 15:19).”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p 489)

Confession as Love and Communion

“Our culture encourages us from an early age to be strong and assertive, to handle matters alone. Yet, for the spiritual wisdom of the early desert, such a way is false; it is, in fact, the way of the Devil. For ‘we are members one of another’ (Rom. 12:5), not islands unto ourselves. And the Orthodox spiritual way proposes a variety of contexts within which we may begin to open our hearts and affirm the communion that exists among us: these include the sacramental way of confessing to a parish priest and the spiritual way of sharing with an experienced elder, whether male or female. People need others because often the wounds that they feel are too deep to admit to themselves; sometimes, the evil is too painful to confront alone. The sign, then, according to the Orthodox spiritual way, that one is on the right track is the ability to share with someone else. This is, of course, precisely the essence of the sacrament of confession or reconciliation. Yet repentance (or metanoia) should not be seen in terms of remorse, but rather in terms of reconciliation, restoration, and reintegration. Confession is not some kind of transaction or deal; it defies mechanical definition and can never be reduced in a juridical manner merely to the – albeit significant – act of absolution.

Confession is not some narcissistic self-reflection. Sin is always understood in Orthodox spirituality as a rupture in the ‘I-Thou’ relationship of the world; otherwise metanoia could easily lead to paranoia. Instead, genuine confession always issues in communion; it is ultimately the ability to utter, together with at least one person, ‘Our Father’. It is the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mystery of communion, lived out day by day.” (John Chryssavgis in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p 160)