According to Archimandrite Job Getcha, THE TYPIKON DECODED, this Gospel in a more ancient tradition was read on the second Sunday of Great Lent in Jerusalem. The Prodigal Son became a pre-Lenten Gospel lesson in Constantinople in the 9th-10th Century. It was mentioned as being used in Palestine by St. John of Damascus in the 8th Century.
I found a few of the hymns from the Saturday evening Vespers to contain interesting imagery, somewhat only tangential to the Gospel lesson. The first has a theme of planting and the harvest. The earth is portrayed as being “rich and fertile” – in other words, there is nothing wrong with the earth we live on. But all that we humans planted on earth were “the seeds of sin” and thus could harvest nothing but “the sheaves of evil.” In the hymn we humans fail to use sorrow/repentance to properly thresh the harvest, so now we have to beg God to allow His love to “become the breeze to winnow the straw of our worthless deeds.” God has to do the work that we should be doing for ourselves.
“RICH AND FERTILE WAS THE EARTH ALLOTTED TO US, BUT ALL WE PLANTED WERE THE SEEDS OF SIN. WE REAPED THE SHEAVES OF EVIL WITH THE SICKLE OF LAZINESS; WE FAILED TO PLACE THEM ON THE THRESHING‑FLOOR OF SORROW.
NOW WE BEG YOU, LORD, ETERNAL MASTER OF THE HARVEST: MAY YOUR LOVE BECOME THE BREEZE TO WINNOW THE STRAW OF OUR WORTHLESS DEEDS.
MAKE US LIKE PRECIOUS WHEAT TO BE STORED IN HEAVEN, AND SAVE US ALL!”
The hymn ties in the theme of Adam being cast out of the Garden of Eden by God and being sent to cultivate the ground of earth out of which Adam had originally been fashioned (Genesis 3:23). The earth is fertile but humans end up planting only the seeds of sin. But in the end of the hymn there is a prayer for God the Lord of the Harvest (Matthew 9:37) not to accept any offering we might make from the fruit of our labors, but rather to transform us humans so that we might be “like precious wheat to be stored in heaven.” (see Matthew 13:30). No longer is the fruit of our labor the issue, but rather we become the harvest which God is really concerned about and which He will store in heaven. The hymn is a metaphorical marvel with the most interesting images.
THAT GOOD MAN EMBRACED HIM AND WELCOMED HIM: HE KILLED THE FATTED CALF AND CELEBRATED WITH HEAVENLY JOY!
LET US LEARN FROM THIS EXAMPLE TO OFFER THANKS TO THE FATHER WHO LOVES ALL PEOPLE, AND TO THE VICTIM, THE GLORIOUS SAVIOR OF OUR SOULS!”
In the above hymn, it is interesting that the Prodigal’s father is referred to as “that good man” who celebrates “with heavenly joy” – obviously the Gospel lesson is being read more as a parable than as an allegory. For reading the father as a good man indicates he is not God the Father, an interpretation which is actually closer to the Gospel text itself. In the Gospel parable that Jesus teaches, the Prodigal says he has sinned both against heaven and against his father (Luke 15:18, 21) which would tend to indicate that his father is his earthly father and the sin against heaven (God) is an additional offense (the Prodigal has offended both his dad and God). We tend unthinkingly to slide into allegorical interpretation and assume the father of the parable is God the father. But the hymn calls upon us to imitate the Prodigal’s father and “to offer thanks to the Father who loves all people”. This is a surprising take on a Gospel lesson we have so totally allegorized that we never think of ourselves as imitating the father of the parable.
Indeed the father sacrificing the fatted calf in the parable is an offering of thanksgiving to God; thus the Prodigal’s dad does not represent God the Father but is the earthly father of the Prodigal and his older brother. The parable’s father, 2 sons and servants are all humans under the dominion of God. The hymn extracts from the Gospel a number of lessons we sometimes ignore. The hymn tells us to imitate the thanksgiving of the Prodigal’s father! We Orthodox almost exclusively these days think we are supposed to imitate the Prodigal’s repentance, but if the Gospel pericope is read as parable (and not pure allegory) we are being taught to imitate the thanksgiving of the parable’s father as well. We are to be thankful when lapsed parishioners and sinners return or turn to the Church. We are not to be like the older brother and judge them as fallen, but to be like the father and welcome them as full members of the family. We are to imitate the parable’s father and try to reconcile the faithful with the lapsed.
The hymn tradition in our Church has not so narrowly pigeon-holed the parable as we sometimes do by assuming it has only a (pre-)Lenten theme. For beyond the usual theme of personal repentance, the parable of the Prodigal Son and Forgiving Father also calls us to thanksgiving, to forgiveness and to reconciliation. If Lent is only about fasting, then it becomes very self-centered which is just the opposite of what Lent is about. For Lent is about learning to love God and love neighbor. We are to love as the prodigal’s father loved in order to be reconciled with those from whom we have become alienated – even family members and those who have offended us. This is the true story of Great Lent. We are to become thankful for those who repent, seek reconciliation, salvation and forgiveness. The Lord God reminds us about the true nature of fasting through the Holy Prophet Isaiah (58:6-7):
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Is not this the lesson of the parable of the Prodigal Son: loosing the bonds of wickedness of the Prodigal and of his older brother. It is a year of jubilee parable – forgiving debts, letting the oppressed go free rather than oppressing them, breaking the yokes that bind us, sharing our bread with the hungry even with a prodigal son and brother who squandered his riches. We are not to avoid our brothers and sisters who suffer as a result of their own sins, but we are to be reconciled with them should they ask. They may come back as hired servants and not children, but they are to be embraced even on those terms for wishing to be reconciled to God and neighbor.
The other surprise of the hymn is the unexpected reference in the last line of the hymn to Christ “the victim” to whom we are to direct our thanks just like the Prodigal’s father does to God. This very much ties in with the opening line of the above hymn which says the purpose of the parable is to help us learn the power of the goodness of God. It doesn’t focus on what today we assume the parable is about: the repentance of the prodigal child. Rather it directs our attention to the power of God’s goodness. We can return to God, not because of our repentance but because of the sacrifice of Christ. Christ has made reconciliation possible.
Finally, we take a look at the Ikos hymn from Matins for the Prodigal Son. In this hymn (below) we are reminded that when we listen to the Gospel lesson proclaimed in church we are hearing the very voice of the Savior. These are the words by which He chose to teach us. Christ Himself speaks to us through the Scriptures so we really need to listen, paying careful heed to what we hear.
“Every day our Savior teaches us with His own voice: so let us listen to the Scriptures on the Prodigal Son who regained wisdom, and let us follow the good example of his repentance with faith, and with humility of heart cry out to Him who knows all secrets:
We have sinned against You, merciful Father, and are not worthy ever again to be called Your children as before.
But since by nature You are the Lover of mankind, RECEIVE ME A PENITENT AND MAKE ME AS ONE OF YOUR HIRED SERVANTS.”
The hymn points to another theme of the parable: humility. We are not asking God to restore us as His children – our sins have proven we are not worthy to be called the children of God. Rather we can through repentance seek only to become like God’s hired servants. In other words we embarrassingly have to acknowledge we don’t do God’s will because we love Him, but only seek God because He rewards us – that is how hired servants behave! We are not God’s children loyal to Him for no other reason but love. NO, our true wish is to get paid for what we do – we want to get into heaven and avoid hell.
The parable calls us to be brutally honest about our motives! God does accept us even on those terms just as the forgiving father welcomed his prodigal son. We can even repent of this self-serving attitude and humbly teach ourselves to serve Him in love not for reward. We can imitate Christ and learn how to be His loving children by denying ourselves and taking up our crosses to follow Him.