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.

Chrysostom: Interpreting the Parable of the Prodigal

There were two brothers. Having divided the paternal inheritance between themselves, one remained at home, the other squandered all that was given to him and departed to a distant land because he could not bear the shame of poverty.

I wanted to speak of this parable from the outset so that you could learn that, if we are attentive, there is remission of sins even after baptism. I do not say this to put you in a state of inertia, but to distance you from discouragement, because discouragement produces worse evils among us than inertia. Therefore, this son bears the image of those who suffer the fall after the Laver. That he represents those who fell after baptism is obvious from the parable. He is called “son”; no one can be called a son without baptism. Furthermore, he inhabited the paternal house, and took his share from all the paternal substance. Before baptism no one has the right to receive paternal things, nor to obtain an inheritance, so that through all these events he speaks to us about the status of the faithful. He was a brother of the reputable one; he would not have become a brother without spiritual regeneration. Therefore, what does the one say who fell into the workst wickedness? “I will arise and return to my father.” His father did not hinder him from departing to the foreign land precisely for this reason: so that he could learn well from the experience how much beneficence he enjoyed while remaining at home.

Therefore, since the prodigal son departed for the foreign land and learned from his own experience how much evil it is for someone to be driven out of his paternal house, he returned, and his father did not remember the wrongs that he had committed against him, but accepted him with open arms. Why? Because he was a father and not a judge. Then, there took place dances, sumptuous feasts, and festivals; and the entire house was beaming with joy and exceeding gladness. What are you saying? These are rewards of wickedness? Not of wickedness, O man, but of the return. Not of sin, but of repentance. Not of cunningness, but of change toward the better.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, pp. 11-13)

God as the Prodigal’s Father

The Prodigal’s father watched for his son’s return and while the Prodigal was still a long way from home the father saw him and ran to meet him.  So too God is always watching for our repentance.  In Great Lent Christ calls us to confess our sins and return to God our Father.

“It is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. When God sees that we suffer grievously in multifarious trials, this gift penetrates into our thought, lest we should depart from life in the midst of all these calamities and afflictions, having reaped no profit from this world. Our lack of understanding is not due to the difficulty of temptations, but to our ignorance. Often it happens that while some are in the midst of these trials, they depart from the world laden with guilt, since they did not confess, but rather denied and blamed. But the merciful God waited with the hope that somehow they might be humbled, so that He might forgive them and make for them a way of escape. And He would not only have provided them with a way of escape from their temptations, but would have forgiven them their transgressions by reason of the brief confession of their hearts.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian: Homily 74, pp. 262-263).

Preparing for Confession: Consider the Prodigal Son

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.

St. Seraphim of Sarov
St. Seraphim of Sarov

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?

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)

The Prodigal Son: An Icon of Repentance

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus teaches us a parable we understand to be emblematic of God the Father’s forgiving mercy and of how we are to reproach God in repentance.

Then the Lord 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.  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.’ “

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“The parable of the Prodigal forms an exact ikon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger. 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’…[These two] Sundays spoke to us of God’s patience and limitless compassion, of His readiness to accept every sinner who returns to Him. On the third Sunday, we are powerfully reminded of a complementary truth; no one is so patient and so merciful as God, but even He does not forgive those who do not repent. The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, He will come as our judge…

The Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Savior, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come…Nor is the judgment merely in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts towards others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves….Before we enter the Lenten fast, we are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons…We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family.” (Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Bible and the Holy Fathers For Orthodox, pp 710-711)

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 Blessings of Being Forgiven

The Gospel lesson of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is not only a lesson about repentance, but also is a lesson about the love, mercy, patience and grace of the prodigal’s father.   The son comes to his senses and seeks out the mercy of his father – but the prodigal is not able to repay his father, he is not able to undo his prodigality, he cannot restore what was wasted nor take away the consequences of his selfish wastefulness.  He doesn’t come to the father after years of ascetical self-denial to show his father how much he has changed.  He simply acts on what he knows about his father – he is gracious, merciful and loving.   The father demands nothing from his son – not years of repentance, not recompense, retribution or servitude.  The father simply welcomes the son home because the son wishes to be there.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast writes of forgiveness:

“‘Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven, and whose sin is covered’ (Ps. 31:1). The great King David was well aware of the terrible situation of a sinner, and he himself described it. He felt great fear and trouble, weakness, and loneliness; he felt the arrows of men and of demons. But, being aware of his terrible state, David acknowledged his sin, prostrated in ashes before God, watered the ground with tears of repentance, with words of anguish which burned like fire, and besought the merciful God to forgive him.

When all was forgiven him, he felt an indescribable blessedness. This blessedness of the forgiven soul he could not find the words to express; he could only proclaim, point out, and confirm the elements of his experience of both states: ‘Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven, and whose sin is covered.’ What is this blessing? Freedom and courage and indescribable joy, strength and health, clarity of thought, and a quiet conscious, consecration and thanksgiving to God, love for one’s neighbor and a sense of life. In brief: light, joy, strength these are the blessings. They are the blessings that he whose sin is forgiven feels on earth. But what are the blessings that await him in heaven, that ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man.’

As soon as you realize that you have sinned against the Lord, add no more wounds to your bruises. But if as a human you fall again, do not become despondent, do not despair. For how will the loving Lord, Who told Peter to forgive seventy times seven in a day, not forgive us? ”

(The Pearl of Great Price, pps. 70-71)

Against God We Have Sinned, But to Him We Return

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (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.’ “

Archimandrite Zacharias writes about Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son:

“Remembering his father’s house, the prodigal son comes to himself and says, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s house have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!’ We all have buried memories of our Father’s house, for our soul will forever retain traces of the grace of being clothed with Christ in Holy Baptism. Moreover, each time we partake of the Holy Mysteries, our being is indelibly marked with God’s goodness. In the heart of the prodigal, now, another humble thought surfaces: ‘I will arise and go to my father…’ The process of inner regeneration has now begun, for he has resolved to rise from his fall. Having seen the reality of his perdition, he now returns within himself and towards God. His dynamic increase in God has begun. He is ready to be enlightened and cleansed, for he has begun to speak truthfully with God from the depth of his heart.

The prayers of a fragmented mind have neither clarity nor depth, but a mind that is reunited with the heart overflows with humble prayer and has such strength that it reaches the ears of the Lord of Sabbaoth. ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee.’ Man then discovers the power of humility, and sees that the only right attitude is to render all glory and honor to God, and to himself ‘the shame of face’ because of his sins. He now puts all his trust in the Father’s mercy, and no longer in his corrupt self, and this disposition of heart leads to true repentance. As we read in one of the great ‘kneeling prayers’ at Pentecost: ‘Against Thee we have sinned, but Thee only do we worship. ‘ We are sinful and unworthy of His mercy, but we have full confidence in Him Whom we worship. This ‘but’ cannot be said without faith, and this faith is the rock upon which we build our spiritual life.”  (Remember Thy First Love, pgs. 130-131)

See also my blog Images from the Prodigal Son

Images from the Prodigal Son

Typikon DecodedThe second of the Pre-Lenten Sundays is that of the Prodigal Son based on the Gospel Lesson of Luke 15:11-32. 

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.

“BRETHREN, OUR PURPOSE IS TO KNOW THE POWER OF GOD’S GOODNESS, FOR WHEN THE PRODIGAL SON ABANDONED HIS SIN, HE HASTENED TO THE REFUGE OF HIS FATHER.

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.