The Parable of the Prodigal Son: An Image of the Family

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The Lord’s Parable of the Prodigal Son has many familiar lessons related to repentance and Great Lent.

There is an obvious lesson about the person who wastes his/her life in sin and then for whatever reason comes to realize that life was good back at home, and so decides to humbly seeks to return to live with the father, but no longer in the exalted role of child but only as a servant.

It is family/home that gives sense to the parable.

The family in Judaism is a religious unit where holy days are kept (like Passover), where Torah is learned, where the stories of God’s salvation are read and absorbed into one’s own identity.   The Jewish family anywhere in the world could practice the faith at home.   God was never far from them no matter how far away from Jerusalem they lived.   The temple was the place for animal sacrifice, but in the family one lived the faith.  Family is a religious community preserving traditions and passing them on from one generation to the next by home worship and instruction.  Children learned the faith first and foremost at home, not by going to temple.

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One need only think about how much of the history of Israel involves and is centered on family, and family members who are even named.   It was in family that the people learned how to obey Go, how to keep the Law, developed a sense of sin, realized the power of God’s holiness and how to approach God in prayer. Noah is saved with his family.  Abraham is called in and through his family and descendants.  Even when the nation of Israel was in apostasy, families were able to remain faithful to God.

Jewish failure in their mission is often traced to failure in the family to be the holy unity of God.

All of this salvation history is the background for the parable of the Prodigal Son and his family.

Our families/homes are to become the center of our own spiritual lives.  In the home, in family, we are to learn repentance and forgiveness, humility and love, faithfulness and the fear of God.  We learn how to pray, we learn about God’s own love for us and our people, and we learn what God expects from us.

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It is not by accident that the parish is also framed in terms of family including the priest being viewed as “father.”  Chrysostom said that the family is a small church.    And we call God “Father” to show that we all are part of God’s family.  On all levels the imagery of family is present and works to help us understand our relationships with one another and with God.

As family and as parish we learn acceptance and forgiveness, repentance and prayer.  We experience joy, and we experience the pain of belonging to others.  We learn how to love as family members.  We learn to welcome new people into the family and we learn our own role and place in the family of our origin, of our parish and of the people of God.

We learn to see one another with the same eyes that the Parable’s Father views his two sons.  The Father’s eyes are ever hopeful for the return of the lost, for the healing of all divisions, for reuniting the separated, for even overcoming the hurt of sin.

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Finally, we see in this Parable how we are affected by our world around us.  Our society encourages consumption, exploring our every desire, increasing our appetites, affirming ourselves as individuals above and against every social unit.  Our 21st Century American view promotes all that the Prodigal was that led him to set off as an individual freed from the constraints of family and society.  We have so much but always are looking for more for ourselves, not willing to share with our families and parishes and neighbors.

The Prodigal turned his insatiable appetite for independence and self-indulgence into  a hunger for his father’s welcoming love.  Better to be a servant in a house of love than to be a slave to one’s own desires.

Of course, today some only see the negative side of families – that they are dysfunctional or broken.  All of the imagery of family works only if the family is working as a safe haven for growing up, making mistakes and seeking reconciliation.  It is something we have to work on making our families and homes to be the ideal.

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Reflection on the Christian Family

While in the Orthodox Tradition, the family is often considered to be “the little church” in which we live and practice our Orthodox Faith, the family as a social unit has not gotten the attention in our spiritual tradition that one can find for monks and nuns.

Be that as it may, most of us spend at least part of our lives in families and there we do have to consider how to be Christian.  In the modern age we see some attempts to write about the family from an Orthodox perspective, including trying to emphasize married saints of the Church.  This literature though gives witness to the dearth of writings on family in the mostly monastic spirituality of Orthodoxy.  Even in the New Testament, depending on what English translation you read, the word “family” only occurs 5-20 times, and even there gives almost no instruction on what Christian family might look like.

In addition to temptations from the evil one, Starets Macarius  [19th Century, Russian] gives several other important causes for family problems. To one correspondent he writes: ‘It is this growing indifference to His Word, and our consequent refusal to examine our hearts-where we could find both the peace He bequeathed us and the insight into our lack of love of Him and of our neighbor-which brings in its wake this punishment, this disruption of the home.’  He also says that this is due to our failure to see Christ in others. He reminds us that when we mistreat others, we are in a real sense mistreating Christ. So he tells us, ‘Remember that you are pupils of Christ-of Christ who teaches us to love not only our friends but even our enemies, and to …  forgive all who trespass against us. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses’”Matt. 6:15). What a frightful prospect!’

Along these same lines, he tells a correspondent that while it is good that she has a long prayer rule and often reads the Church Fathers, ‘remember that love of the neighbor is the first work you must strive for. And you do not even have to leave your house to find that neighbor: your husband is that neighbor; your mother is that neighbor; and so are your children.’ To another spiritual child, he says that the ‘poison’ in the family cannot be cast out of their home ‘unless you promptly cease condemning each other. You clearly think you are always in the right; she, of course thinks she is. You heap on her a multitude of grave or petty accusations. She does the same to you. Where will this all end?’  Then he points out that the chief things the husband accuses his wife are actually the same faults he has. The Elder concludes:

All this financial trouble between you comes of your having completely forgotten that yours is a Christian home, or should be. A home is a Christian one when all the members of the household bear each other’s burdens, and when each condemns only himself. You have forgotten this, both of you. And so every word of hers pieces you, like an arrow dipped in poison. And your words, likewise, pierce her.

Ponder the truth of Christian marriage: man and wife are one flesh! Does it not follow that they must share all their possessions? And yet you two haggle over this property! And why? Because of words!

Unless you promptly strive for and achieve a loving peace between you, it is hopeless to try to bring tidiness and fairness into your business dealings with one another. Humble yourself, not her. Love her, not yourself.”

 (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness, p. xlvi-xlvii).

Pledging and Stewardship As Spiritual Asceticism

Sometimes people ask why during our Lenten seasons is there such total emphasis on food fasting and little emphasis on loving others or giving to charity.   All the rules and the calendars seem to deal with food.  I will venture one opinion:  Our fasting rules for Lent were developed in monasteries.  Basically the Christian monastics already have given up all personal possessions in order to follow Christ.  As such they don’t possess disposable wealth any longer to give to the poor.   However, there is still one thing they have – a dependency on something other than God – that is  the need and appetite for food.  Since they have already given up claims to private property, they are free to struggle with their personal appetites.  Thus in monasteries there is not a reason to constantly push people to be charitable to the poor through giving material wealth, but rather there is much focus on fasting from food.

But those of us who aren’t monks and who have not renounced all claims to life in the world, who have families for whom we are responsible to feed, clothe and house, and income to meet these needs, we do have a responsibility not to limit Lent to rules about food fasting, but especially to apply ourselves to self denial in another way by giving to the poor – sharing our resources with those in need.  This is an essential part of Lent for us, but doesn’t much apply to monks who have no wealth or property to share with others in need.

St. Simeon the New Theologian once famously noted that if the Matthew 25 passage on the Last Judgment is literally true, monks will not fare well since they have no food, clothes, or shelter to share with the needy.  (I intend to deal with his comments in another blog).  From his comments we can see that the monastic way is decidedly a different way to follow Christ than it is for those of us who have food, clothes and shelter to share with the needy (the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters), and who can visit the sick and the imprisoned (the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters).

Elizabeth Theokritoff writes about this in her book:

“There is one sacramental service where we are reminded in a particular explicit way that whatever we have over and above our basic needs is actually given to us for the benefit of others. In the wedding service, the priest prays for the couple: ‘Fill their houses with wheat, wine and oil, and with ever beneficence, that they may bestow in turn upon the needy.’ In a certain sense, marriage may be thought of as an ordination to Christian life ‘in the world,’ as opposed to monastic life. Whereas the monastic has given up all possessions, the Christian in the world characteristically ‘owns’ money and material goods – in other words, he or she is not called to eschew these things altogether, but to administer them for the good of others. It is here that the overused notion of ‘stewardship’ has a legitimate place: it applies precisely to those things that in legal terms we ‘own’, and to the way we use ‘our’ money, goods, and land. Because financial stewardship is often associated with ideas such as tithing, it may be useful to remind ourselves that we are stewards primarily not of what we give away, but of what we keep to use for our own purposes.”  (Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, pg. 202)

A Christian Is Being A Member in the One Body of Christ

“Life ‘in Christ’ is clearly not just a one-to-one relationship, but one that binds individual believers together into a single community. Christians have been made members of a single family by their baptism in Christ. Because they are all ‘sons of God’, Paul tells the Galatians, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:26-8).   Elsewhere, he likens this community of believers to a body, whose welfare depends on the contribution made by individual members (Rom. 12:3-13; 1 Cor. 12:4-31).

He also refers to the Christian community as a temple, and since the temple was regarded as God’s earthly dwelling, the image is an apt one: they are God’s temple because God’s Spirit lives within them, and if God’s Spirit lives in them, they must be holy (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16-18). All these images – family, body, temple – imply life, fellowship and growth, rather than an organized structure.” (Morna D. Hooker, Paul: A Beginners Guide, pgs.  132-133)

Reading the Gospel, Learning to Hate?

Recently I was asked why in the Luke 14:25-35 Gospel lesson does Jesus teach “hate”:

“Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.'” (emphasis not in the orginal text)

Jesus teaching us to “hate” seems uncharacteristic of the Lord who not only taught us to love not only neighbor but enemy as well, but who died for us while we were still considered to be the enemies of God!

In answering the question about why Jesus said we are to “hate” other family members, I’m not going to address any issues about translating the Greek word for hate or its connotations.   Rather, I want to bring attention to the very way in which we read Scriptures as a key to dealing with the difficult sayings of Jesus. I won’t claim that my answer will address the question satisfactorily, but it raises an issue we should keep in mind as we read and try to comprehend the Bible .

There are the claims that Jesus in this passage is speaking with a certain form of speech referred to as Mideast or Mediterranean “exaggeration.”    I’ve also heard it said that Americans tend to prefer understatement when speaking and thus “exaggeration” seems even more magnified in our minds.   All of this possibly gives us some insight into  understanding Jesus in Luke 14.

There is the fact that Jesus at times confronts us in our thinking and tries to shake us out of our lethargy by making shocking statements.   He speaks from the point of view of the Kingdom of God whose values are often just the opposite of what we might expect say for example of justice which turns out to be forgiveness, or where the first are made last, and the least are made the greatest.

Jesus demands from us a radically new way of life, and if we listen to his words we really have to wrestle with what he could possibly have meant. What is He teaching us to do? This saying about “hating” parents is just the opposite of his teaching to “love your enemies.” It is the world of the up-side-down Kingdom of God. We are to examine our assumptions, loyalties, dependencies, and our worldly values in order to constantly question how it is possible for us to live in this world of the Fall and yet claim membership in the Body of Christ and thus claim membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, one possibility is that Jesus wanted to challenge us in our normal thinking and make us realize how different the values of the Kingdom of Heaven really are.

In that sense, His words cannot be taken out of the context of the Gospel. In other words, we cannot simply take one line out of the Gospel and try to create a way of life around it for Christ gives to us the values of the Kingdom of God to transform the world.   It can be a  dangerous thing (which we often do) to take one sentence of Christ’s teaching out of its Kingdom context and try to impose it on our lives in the world of the Fall.  This is very true of Jesus’ teaching on hating family (for He also said other things about family which tell us to love and respect the other members of our families, and when at His death He commends His own mother to the care of His disciple John, he also demonstrates something different than hate for His mother ).

Unfortunately, many Christians rely on single passages or sayings of Jesus as their only encounter with Christ.  There are countless books which “help” us by rearranging the Gospel lessons into neat collections of sayings, one liners, sound bytes, which are designed exactly to give full power to each sentence by taking them out of context so that each saying really stands out in our minds.  This form of Scripture reading when it becomes our only way of reading the Gospels, causes us to think of the Bible as an endless collection of quotable quotes, favorite sayings, and incantations to apply to any situation.   While it is a way to read the bible, it should not be our sole diet of Scripture reading.  Each text will be much more meaningful when also understood in its context.

The saying of Jesus about hating one’s parents or children are meant to shock us, to force us to take notice, and to actively pursue their meaning – but their meaning within the context of all the other things Jesus taught and commanded.  If we simply take one line out of the Gospel context and try to comprehend it separated from the rest of Christ’s discipline and from His body of disciples, we distort its meaning.

The same Christ who spoke to us about hating parents and children, tells us to love our neighbors and enemies. We cannot read each verse as if it is unconnected from all the other teachings of Jesus. We need to read them all within the context of the entire New Testament, and we need to read them within the Christian community in order to be able to search for their meaning.

When we try to treat the bible like a collection of one line pithy sayings, then we think we can just pull any one verse out of its context and use it as almost a magic saying to live by for the day.   In doing this, we begin to treat each line of Scripture almost as some magical spell if we say it correctly will exhibit magical powers.  Think for example of the fictional Harry Potter books and movies.  There the wizards and witches have to memorize one line formulas and each when spoken has magical power to do something.   That is not what Scripture reading is to be.  We are not engaged in magic, we are not invoking the elemental powers of this world.  Rather we are engaged in a process by which we ourselves become transformed by the teachings of Christ:  whether in imitating Him or obeying Him, we begin to conform our lives to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sometimes  taking individual passages out of their contexts reduces the passage to a magic spell formula.   But that is not what the Scriptures are nor do they ever tell us to use them in that way.  Every text of Scripture is to be kept in the context of the Bible.  When we read them contextually, we also make them the context in which we understand them and try to practice them!  Scripture is theology, not wizardry.

Every Scripture text has its context, and so reading any one of the difficult sayings of Jesus is meant to draw us back into the deep well of the Scriptures and to try to understand the saying in the light of all of Jesus’ other teachings and his own actions. Did He hate his mother or brothers? NO.  In fact He expands His definition of brother, sister mother to include all of His disciples including us (Mark 3:34-35).   Do we see Him showing respect for the 10 Commandments law to honor your mother and father? yes.

So obviously a mere literal reading of a single text taken out of context is not the best way to read the bible.  Memorizing certain passages has value to it, but we are not merely trying to inform our minds, we are trying to transform our hearts and lives.   This happens best when we keep each line of Scritpure in its context:  the rest of the bible and the Christian community.

We are to keep on reading the Scriptures, and wrestling with the text, and learning to understand them within the context of the people of God to whom God entrusted them.

St. John Chrysostom (B)

This is the 6th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (A).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

St. John Chrysostom strongly believed that it was primarily the responsibility of the Christian parent to raise the child as a disciple of Christ and so he directs his comments to parents.   He makes little mention of any type of “church school”, rather mentioning only the parents and perhaps a slave/tutor as the child’s teachers.  He strongly believed that parents could and should control both whom their children spoke with and to whom they listened.  Thus he believed parents could completely control the stories and language which their children heard and also what things their children saw.   Without a doubt such control today would be much more difficult considering the access that all families and children have to the culture through the mass media.   In general, he did not approve of the use of fables and stories from pagan sources as he thought they would only seduce the children into approving of a false world view and life-style.   Chrysostom felt it was possible for children to be influenced only by the righteous as presented by the parents and through the lives of God’s saints.  He strongly believed the creative use of Bible stories, presented to children in interesting or even entertaining ways, could counteract the effects of the pagan world or of peers.  He felt it even better if the children were simply kept away from such external influences.

St. John outlined specific issues which were to be addressed by parents in educating their children.  He chastised parents for failing to teach the essential issues.  “…no one takes thought for his children, no one discourses to them about virginity and sobriety or about contempt of wealth and fame, or of the precepts laid down in the Scriptures”  (M.L.W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire, p. 94).   Indeed, much the same criticism could be leveled at Christian education today.  Be that as it may, Chrysostom also advocates teaching children such things as proper and respectful speech and behavior, theology, humility, courteous behavior toward all including slaves, fairness, hymn singing, self control, control of idle speech, the rewards of the kingdom of heaven, patience, generosity, non-possessiveness, and godly wisdom.  In all of this we see a heavy emphasis on moral goodness, the fear and love of God, and the Divine Wisdom.  St. John also specifically mentions two things that must be directed to teenagers.  First, he saw children as rather tender souls.  Therefore he believed that teachings about hell should not be done until the child was fifteen years or older.  They could be taught the Old Testament stories of God’s judgment and anger after they were eight or ten years old, but no mention of the final and awesome judgment should be made until they were old enough to cope with this fearsome reality.   The other specifically teenage issue he mentions is the sexual passions.  He laments, “How shall we place a bridle on it?  I know none, save only the restraint of hell-fire”  ( Laistner, pp 109, 115).

St. John believed that if children were trained well from when they were young, they would keep to the path of salvation as they got older.  He believed the reason children abandoned the holy way was parents failed to persevere in teaching their children.  Chrysostom believed the formation of children was a work of art with the parent being the artist.  Like the sculptor or painter, parents must keep a clear vision of what they want to create in their child in order to achieve the goal of good parenting.  He also noted that whereas at one time he thought all should strive to make their children into monks, he eventually realized that this was neither possible nor desirable ( Laistner, pp 95-96).  Basically, Chrysostom saw the training of children as the means to help them overcome their self-centered tendencies, passions and behaviors – their anger, greed, desire for reprisals, judgmentalism and generally ego-centric behavior.

Next:   St. John Chrysostom (C)

Happy Father’s Day!

Happy Father’s Day to those of you who are fathers of any kind:

dads,

grandfathers,

godfathers,

step fathers,

adoptive fathers,

spiritual fathers

and all the rest.

I’ve confessed to taking more photos of nature than of people, and so realize my collection of father photos is limited.

So I have to put on my Father’s Day photo blog, Father Abraham, who is said to be FATHER to three major religions:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Some men are respected as dads, even if they weren’t the real father.  Even the bible says of the good man Joseph he was only “supposed” to be the father of Jesus.

Above is John Adams a founding FATHER of the United States of America.  He also was our second president.

In Orthodoxy we have the Patristic FATHERS to honor as well.

Some fathers, tend to be more behind the scenes type dads – they stay out of the limelight after fathering their offspring.  The antlers on the one above show this deer is also a king of the hill type guy.

Some dads are real family type men and spend a lot of time in the water with their kids.

Some dads are pretty demanding and they keep the rest of the family in line.  Age comes with certain rights of respect from the younger males.

Sometimes dads share wisdom with their grandchildren, and sometimes they share bad habits!   But today to all dads, happy Father’s Day.  May God grant you many years!