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

4585313403_d64e340e57

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.

6610275955_be682b1052

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.

6061030520_1e51dea011

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.

14929745490_d83e78b8b7

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 Stages of Sin and Repentance

14929745490_d83e78b8b7

The Gospel lesson of Luke 15:11-32, the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father, has become in the Orthodox Church the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, used to help prepare us for keeping the season of Great Lent.   Below is the text of the Gospel Lesson itself interspersed with comments from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware taken from The Lenten Triodion (p 46).

Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. 

“The parable of the Prodigal forms and exact ikon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger.” 

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father.

“Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father’s house. But repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go…’ (Luke 15:18).” 

8516233338_16d1436edf_n

But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

“To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but to take a decision and to act upon it.” 

Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”

 

5445024975_2374e497dc_n

Interestingly in the parable, the older brother of the Prodigal plays as big a role as the Prodigal himself – at least in terms of the length of the text.  One can repent and seek reconciliation with our merciful and forgiving God.  Sin however is never just between the sinner and God, for it affects all of one’s relationships.  God may forgive, but we may find those around us unable or unwilling to be reconciled with us.  Repentance involves a tremendous amount of energy, working on our relationships, and learning to deal with how others judge us for what we have done.  Even the Father could not force his elder son to be reconciled to the younger brother and prodigal.  We can find our way back to God, but still find ourselves estranged from community.  This is because our sins cut us off from our brothers and sisters and cut into our relationship with them.   Repentance, our confession of sins, needs to acknowledge all of those whom we have hurt through our shallow, selfish and self-centered sinfulness.  We need to acknowledge not just that our sins cut us off from God, but that they also showed a callous disregard for our friends and family.  We are the cause of their hurt.  Our sins may have damaged permanently our relationships on earth, and we must humbly accept the consequence of that.  It may not be until the Kingdom comes that we find ourselves having in heaven the relationships we desired on earth when we repented.

25281077575_113a0292ae_n

Approaching God in the True Lenten Spirit

During the Matins for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we sing the following hymn which reminds us what keeping Lent and having a true lenten attitude means.

As the Thief I cry to You: Remember me!

As the Publican, with downcast eyes, I beat my breast and say: Be merciful!

As the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O King who pities all,

that I may sing the praises of Your boundless compassion.

Great Lent is given to us as a school to teach us the humility we need to serve God and our fellow Christians.  We need to embody in our spiritual lives the humility, repentance and honesty of the Wise Thief, the repentant Publican and the Prodigal Son.    The very purpose of any fasting, abstinence and self-denial in Lent is to bring us to the attitude of these three penitents.  If we don’t see ourselves in them, and learn to be them in our repentance, our fasting is of little value.  If we fast and then feel righteous, or fast and then criticize and condemn others, or fast but fail to be humbled or to repent, then we have fasted wrongly no matter how rigorously we kept every jot and tittle of the fasting rules.  Lent is about changing our hearts not our stomachs.

Here is another hymn from the Matins of the Prodigal Son:

SAVIOR, I SET OFF ON A FOOLISH JOURNEY;
I WASTED ALL YOUR PRECIOUS GIFTS OF GRACE.
I LIVED IN LUXURY, AND THE DEVILS WERE MY FRIENDS;
I RETURN TO YOU EMPTY HANDED, LOVING FATHER.
RECEIVE ME IN REPENTANCE, AS YOU ACCEPTED THE PRODIGAL;
RESTORE TO ME MY BAPTISMAL ROBE OF PURITY, AND SAVE ME!

We do not want to go through Lent, even with zeal and rigor, but then approach God with “empty hands” as the Prodigal did. He had nothing to show for his affluent life.  He could only approach his father with empty hands, revealing the wastefulness of his life choices.

For us, it is not the rigor of the fast which matters, but the spiritual fruit which it produces in our lives.  If we focus only on the foods, we lose sight of the fruits of our labor.  We fast in order to approach God bearing an offering of our spiritual labors.

“Then the King will say to those at his right hand,

‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

for I was hungry and you gave me food,

I was thirsty and you gave me drink,

I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

I was naked and you clothed me,

I was sick and you visited me,

I was in prison and you came to me.'”  (Matthew 25:34-36)

mercytoChrist

 

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)

Flee Sexual Immorality

On the second of the three Pre-Lenten Sundays (the Sunday of the Prodigal Son), we read the following Epistle from St. Paul, 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. 

Saint Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) comments:

The apostle urges us once more, brethren, to flee fornication (1 Cor. 6:18). If Samsom had fled from it, he would not have fallen into Delilah’s hands after being deprived of the hair of his head and his strength. He would not have been blinded nor lost his life in such an unfortunate way alongside his enemies (Judg. 14:1). If they who were led by Moses and to whom he had given the law had fled from fornication they would not have made sacrifices to Baal-peor (Num. 25:3), nor eaten sacrifices of the dead (Num. 25:2-3, and cf Ps. 106:28, Hosea 9:10), nor fallen as often as they did. If Solomon had fled from it he would not have deserted God who made him king and gave him wisdom, nor would he have erected temples for idols (1 Kgs. 11:2-4).

You will observe that the passion of fornication pushes a person towards ungodliness. Susanna’s beauty would not have beguiled the senior judges in Babylon, triumphed over them and resulted in their being stoned, if from the beginning they had fled from defilement and had not watched her every day lasciviously beforehand (Sus. 5-62). The wretched Holofernes would not have died with his neck severed if Judith’s sandal had not previously, according to the Scripture, caught his eye and her beauty ensnared his soul (Judith 16:9). Job says, ‘I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid’ (Job 31:1), how much less upon a corrupt woman either divorced or married. Practice the single life as dear to God, or the married life as God’s gift. Drink water from your own wells or rather, chastely from your one well. Keep away completely from the adulterated draught, which is the water of the Styx, the stream of the river Acheron. It is full of murderous venom and has poisonous powers, and invariably drags those who drink it down through the trapdoor of hell into its innermost recesses. Flee from the honeyed lips of prostitutes which are skilled in spreading shameful death, namely, separation from God.

David said on the subject, ‘They that wantonly desert thee shall perish’ (Ps. 72:27 Lxx). We, whose bodies have become the temple of God through the Spirit, and in whom the Spirit dwells, must be clean, or at least be in the process of being cleansed, and remain always undefiled, contenting ourselves with permissible pleasures. We must make haste to attain purity and chastity and avoid fornication and every uncleanness, in order to rejoice throughout all ages with the pure bridegroom in the unsullied bridechambers. By the prayers of the ever –virgin, most pure, all-glorious Mother who bore Him in virginity for our salvation, now and for ever and unto the ages or ages. Amen.” (The Homilies, pp 40-41)

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)