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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Welcoming the Prodigal Back

The parable of the prodigal son, the loving father, and the unforgiving brother (Luke 15:11-32)

Then Jesus 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.’ “

St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397AD) says of this parable of the kingdom:   

“The parable also teaches us that we should not be troubled when sinners repent and are received by God when we ourselves are struggling, with God’s help, to live a life of righteousness. We must not judge our neighbor’s life – that belongs to God alone – nor God’s bountiful mercy, but we must rejoice with Heaven when a sinner returns to the Father. Thus, as we continue through this preparatory period, the teachings on humility and repentance appropriately prepare us to proceed with a contrite spirit into the great season of compunction.

O Christ our God, through Your

unutterable love for mankind, have mercy

on us and save us. Amen

You can see that the divine patrimony is given to those who ask for it. We are not to think the father is at fault for giving his younger son the inheritance. In God’s kingdom no one is under age, and one’s faith is not measured by one’s years. He who asked certainly thought himself qualified. Indeed, if he had not left his father he would have been unaware of the handicap of his age. But after he left his fathers’ house and went off traveling he began to experience need. Certainly anyone who leaves the Church has squandered his Father’s inheritance. ‘He took his journey into a far country.’ What can be further off than to have withdrawn from oneself? You are separated not by borders, but by behavior; cut off not by lands, but by lusts; for you part company with the Saints and members of God’s household! We who were once far away are now brought close by the blood of Christ. Let us not be grudging towards those making their way back from faraway places.”

(The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, pps. 20-22)

The Prodigal Son (2012)

Luke 15:11-32

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.’ “

St. Basil the Great wrote concerning the Prodigal’s forgiving father:

“The Father stands and awaits your return from your wandering. Only come back, and while you are yet afar off, He will run and kiss your neck, and, now that you are cleansed by repentance, will enwrap you in embraces of love. He will clothe with the chief robe the soul that has put off the old man with all his works. He will put a ring on the hands that have washed off the blood of death, and will put shoes on the feet that have turned from the evil way to the path of the Gospel of peace.” (Saint Basil the Great on Sin, Suffering, and Salvation edited and compiled by George D. Zgourides, pg. 34)

Henri Nouwen wrote about how in his own life he was the Prodigal’s older sibling:

Parable of the Good Samaritan

“I was born, baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the same church and had always been obedient to my parents, my teachers, my bishops, and my God. I had never run away from home, never wasted my time and money on sensual pursuits, and had never gotten lost in ‘debauchery and drunkenness.’ For my entire life I had been quite responsible, traditional, and homebound. But, with all of that, I may, in fact, have been just as lost as the younger son. I suddenly saw myself in a completely new way. I saw my jealously, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness and sullenness, and most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden with resentment. For a time it became impossible to see how I could have ever thought of myself as the younger son. I was the elder son for sure, but just as lost as his younger brother, even though I had stayed ‘home’ all my life.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son,  pg. 20-21)