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)

Revealing Sins in Confession for Healing

St. John of Kronstadt comments on the sacrament of Confession:

Bear the sufferings and painful smarts of the operation so that you may regain your health afterwards. It means that at confession you must declare all your shameful deeds to your confessor, without concealment, though to do so may be painful, shameful, ignominious, and humiliating. Otherwise the wound will remain unhealed, will ache and be painful, will undermine your spiritual health, and remain as a leaven for other spiritual infirmities, or sinful habits and passions. A priest is a spiritual physician. Show him your wounds, without being ashamed, sincerely, openly, with son-like trust and confidence; for the confessor is your spiritual father, who should love you more than your own father and mother; for Christ’s love is higher than any carnal, natural love. He must give an answer to God for you. Why has our life become so impure, so full of passions and sinful habits? Because a great many conceal their spiritual wounds and sores, owing to which they ache and become inflamed; and it is impossible to apply any remedy to them.”  (My Life in Christ, p. 170)

Unmercenary Healers

The Repentant Addict

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”  (Matthew 21:31)

Christos Yannaras writes:

In this sense the Church’s gospel “endorses” sin: it confirms that in the pursuit of true life the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the robbers – not those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Luke 18:9) – precede us, show us the way. It confirms that our precursors in freedom from nature are those who have really renounced any trust in nature, trust in their capabilities, the successes in exercising self-control, the psychological satisfactions of the ego. They are those who see theirself as so sinful that it does not allow them the slightest margin for placing any trust in it. All that remains for them is to surrender themselves to the relationship to abandon themselves to love. ( Against Religion: The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, p. 47)

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.    [Step 1 & 2 of The Twelve Steps]

In the desert fathers we encounter a story which shows the help of having a sponsor to talk to when one is being overwhelmed by one’s addiction.

And another brother also was engaged in a war against fornication, and he rose up by night, and came to one of the old men and told him his mind, and the old man persuaded him to endure, and he was helped, and went back to his cell. And again he came unto the old man, and again he helped him, and the brother went back to his cell; and the war came upon him the third time, and again he went back by night to the old man, and the old man did not cause him pain but spoke with him for his benefit, and said to him, “Give it no opportunity, but come here whenever the devil vexes you, and you will expose him, and when he has been exposed he will take to flight. For nothing goads the devil of fornication so much as that a man should hide his thoughts and not reveal them.”

Now that brother came to the old man eleven times and made accusations against his thoughts, for he wished to be helped; and when the old man spoke unto him that devil took to flight, but when he came back to his cell the war came upon him. At length the brother said unto the old man, “Do an act of grace, father, and tell me a word whereby I may live.” The old man said unto him, “Be of good courage, my son, and if God permits my thought it shall come to you, and you shall bear it no longer, but you shall depart being innocent.” He said this, and God did away the war of that temptation. (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 2237-47)

Now is the Time for Salvation

Repentance is powerful upon the earth; only in Hades is it powerless. Let us seek the Lord now while we have time. Let us do what is good so that we will be delivered from the future endless punishment of Gehenna, and will be made worthy of the Kingdom of the Heavens. By the grace and love toward man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the might, unto the ages of ages. Amen. (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 130)

Rich in Passions or Poor in Sin?

The Lord Jesus’s parable of the poor beggar Lazarus and the heartless rich man found in Luke 16:19-31 is well known.

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

How the Church has used the parable through the centuries is found in sermons and hymns written through the centuries.   Below is one hymn from the last Wednesday in Great Lent (Palm week) making reference to the parable and showing us what message was received by Orthodox monastics from the parable.   Because the beggar’s name is Lazarus, Orthodox hymns sometimes connect this beggar to Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11) which also explains why the hymn is sung on the Wednesday before Lazarus Saturday.

I am rich in passions and clothed in the deceitful robe of hypocrisy,

and I rejoice in the sins of self-indulgence.  

There is no limit to my lack of love.  

I neglect my spiritual understanding,

that lies at the gate of repentance,

starved of all good things, sick through want of care.  

O Lord, make me like Lazarus poor in sin,

that I be not tormented in the flame

that never shall be quenched,

and pray in vain for a finger to be dipped in water

and laid upon my tongue.  

But in Thy love for mankind

make me dwell with the Patriarch Abraham.

This Lenten hymn takes the parable, applying it to each of us personally – the hymn is spoken in the first person, “I“.  Significantly, “I” (each of us) is the rich man in the parable.  Our riches are the spiritual gifts which God has given us. The hymn removes any economic or class status message from the parable.    The hymn “spiritualizes” the parable turning the nameless rich man into a symbol of deceit, hypocrisy and self-indulgence – engaged in all the behavior of a sinner.  In the hymn, these sins are about me – how “I” behave.    Lazarus in the hymn is portrayed not as an indigent human but rather allegorized into “my spiritual understanding.”  The hymn is Orthodox spirituality, very Lenten and monastic, so everything is being turned into images of repentance for one’s sinful nature.  The parable in this interpretation is not contrasting two distinct people – a rich man and a poor man –  but is an allegory about “me”.   I am both the rich man (enriched by Christ’s spiritual gifts) and I am Lazarus (with impoverished spiritual understanding).   Lazarus is me, or in the hymn more precisely has become “my spiritual understanding” which lies at the rich man’s gate which is allegorized to be “the gate of repentance.”  It is my own heart and mind which are impoverished because I lack good deeds  and am not merciful and compassionate to others.

The hymn then switches its point of reference – I am to embrace Lazarus’s poverty by becoming poor in sin.  From an Orthodox point of view, worldly wealth does me no good if I’m also rich in sin.  I am to impoverish myself by abandoning all forms of sin in order to be spared the fires of hell.  This interpretation of the hymn avoids any judgment of the rich and also steers away from any class struggle.  The rich man is not being condemned because of his wealth, nor is Lazarus being praised just for his poverty.  The parable itself does not tell us anything about Lazarus being virtuous.  His poverty is not claimed to be voluntary.  The rich man is not accused of having obtained ill-gotten wealth through illicit or sinful means.

The hymn’s interpretation of the parable completely avoids any judgment of social status or rank.  It is not about class warfare.   The parable is allegorized in the hymn turning it into a monastic lesson about sin, not about showing compassion to the poor or giving charity to the needy.  The interpretation attempts to make the Gospel completely relevant to the monastics for whom the hymn was written – people who at least in theory had completely denied themselves all worldly wealth in order to follow Christ.  The parable is made relevant for those who have chosen poverty by reminding them that poverty is not about one’s social class nor is it about how much you really possess, but rather poverty and wealth are both about one’s spiritual condition.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit“, Jesus teaches.  Spiritual riches and spiritual poverty are not dependent on one’s wealth or possessions.  They are a matter of the heart.

Sin: Consenting to Temptation

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Many wonder what it is they should confess when they come to the sacrament of repentance.  Some are not clear about the difference between a sin and a mistake, or between sin and bad judgment.  The monk Evagrius Ponticus writing in the 4th Century gives us some clarification.  Many “warped” thoughts can run through our minds, some of them disgusting, some persistent and pernicious, some of them tempting.  Evagrius notes that we don’t always have control over what thoughts enter into our heads, or how we react to various stimuli from the world around us.  What we have control over is how we deal with those thoughts.  It is only the things that we can control that can actually turn into sin.  When we know something is wrong and do it, we are committing sin.  Thoughts and feelings in and of themselves are not necessarily sinful even though we might recognize them as being bad.  We may have no control over them. Our control begins with what we decide to do about the thoughts or feelings that enter into our minds.

Whether or not all these thoughts disturb the soul does not depend upon us. However, whether they linger or do not linger, arouse our passions or not, that depends on us.  What turns these “thoughts” into passions and then into sins is the voluntary consent of the human being, who gives way to evil within himself. Temptation in a monk is a thought that arises through the passionate part of the soul (that is, anger and desire) and darkens the intellect.  A sin for a monk is the [free] consent [of the will] to the forbidden pleasure of the thought. . .

In order to prevent consent we need the virtues, and, to be precise, above all we need these two, which keep a tight rein on the passionate part of the soul: love as a bridle for anger, and self-control as a rein on desire.  If both of these rule in the soul, the sensory impressions will not trigger the passions.  (Gabriel Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, Kindle Loc. 748-58, 765-68)

In confession we admit to those things we chose to do which we know are wrong, even if we feel we had little choice but to act in a particular way in a given situation.  Sin lies in knowing that one is doing is wrong or evil, but doing it anyway.  The cure for the soul, what we need to cultivate as a result of going to confession, according to Evagrius is love and self-control.  Fasting, self-denial, asceticism can be a way to learn self-control.  But that is not enough to follow Christ.  To be a Christian is to learn and study the Lord Jesus Christ’s love for us, and then to imitate Him.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

What Communion Has Light with Darkness?

For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? . . .  And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”  (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)

Coptic Pope Shenouda III  offers thoughts on what repentance really is:

If sin is separation from God, then repentance is returning to God. God says: “Return to me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:8). When the prodigal son repented, he returned to his father (Luke 15:18-20). True repentance is a human longing for the origin from which we were taken. It is the desire of a heart that strayed from God, and finally felt it could go no further away.

For just as sin is conflict with God, so repentance is reconciliation with God. This is what our teacher Saint Paul stated about his apostolic work, saying: “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading by us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). But repentance is not confined to reconciliation. Through repentance, God returns and dwells in the human heart, transforming it into a heaven. As for the unrepentant, how can God dwell in their hearts while the sin is dwelling therein? As the Bible says, “What communion has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

…Repentance is resurrection for the spirit, because the death of the spirit is separation from God. As Saint Augustine said: “Repentance is a new pure heart, which God gives to the sinners to love Him with.” It is a divine act performed by God inside the person…

…Not every forsaking of sin is considered repentance. Repentance is the forsaking of sin because of the love of God and the love of righteousness. Other reasons for forsaking sin include fear, embarrassment, inability, preoccupation (with the remainder of love for this sin in the heart), or the consequences of unsuitable situations. These reason are not considered repentance. True repentance is the discarding of sin practically, mentally, and from the heart, which springs out of love for God, His commandments, and His kingdom, and the care of the repentant person for his or her lot in eternity. (The Life of Repentance and Purity, pp. 17-18)

NOW is the Time for Salvation, Not in the Hereafter

Apostles (Byzantine ca 1000AD)

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.   (2 Corinthians 6:1-10)

St. Gregory Palamas exhorts us:

“Where did true death – the death that produces and induces in soul and body both temporal and eternal death – have its origin? Was it not in the realm of life? Thus was man, alas, at once banished from God’s paradise, for he had imbued his life with death and made it unfit for paradise. Consequently true life – the life that confers immortality and true life on both soul and body – will have its origin here, in this place of death. If you do not strive here to gain this life in your soul, do not deceive yourself with vain hopes about receiving it hereafter, or about God then being compassionate towards you. For then is the time of requital and retribution, not of sympathy and compassion: the time for the revealing of God’s wrath and anger and just judgement, for the manifestation of the mighty and sublime power that brings chastisement upon unbelievers. Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God (cf. Heb. 10:31)! Woe to him who hereafter experiences the Lord’s wrath, who has not acquired in this life the fear of God and so come to know the might of His anger, who has not through his actions gained a foretaste of God’s compassion!

For the time to do all this is the present life. That is the reason why God has accorded us this present life, giving us a place for repentance. Were this not the case a person who sinned would at once be deprived of this life. For otherwise of what use would it be to him?”  (“To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia”, The Philokalia, pp.298-299)

 

Called to the Abundant Light

“Whereas the old law proclaimed that God was the Maker and Lord of heaven, and laid down God-pleasing ordinances for those under the law, it did not give any promise of heavenly benefits, nor did it offer communion with God, or an eternal, heavenly, inheritance to those who obeyed it. But once Christ the King of all had visited us in the flesh ‘to call sinners,’ as He says Himself, ‘to repentance’ (Matt 9:13), there were greater rewards for those who obeyed and repented, and, through works of repentance, ordered their lives according to Christ’s gospel, keeping the holy commandments it contains.

Nor were these rewards simply greater, but also incomparably more excellent.

For what was promised was

the kingdom of heaven,

light without evening,

heavenly adoption as sons,

celestial dwellings,

and a divine and eternal way of life,

and even more than this:

for we shall be ‘heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17), and ‘I am come,’ says the Lord, ‘that ye might have life, and that ye might have it more abundantly’ (cf. John 10:10).

These are not resounding but empty phrases, nor just a litany of vain words, but an account of the unchanging things actually stored up as prizes for those who believe and live according to Christ.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 445)

Sins Which Entice Good Christians

St. Mark the Ascetic writes about sins that do overcome even good Christians and monks.  These are the kinds of sins we might commit daily, sins we assume everyone commits, sins which are part of human nature.  They are sins nevertheless from which we are to repent and to replace them with Christian virtues.  They are sins from which we are to abstain, especially during Great Lent.    St. Mark laments that:  

“They were secretly enticed and overcome by

malicious envy, by jealousy that hates everything good,

by strife, quarreling, hatred, anger,

bitterness, rancor, hypocrisy,

wrath, pride, self-esteem,

love of popularity, self-satisfaction,

avarice, listlessness,

 

by sensual desire which provokes images of self-indulgence,

by unbelief, irreverence, cowardice,

dejection, contentiousness, sluggishness, sleep,

presumption, self-justification, pomposity,

boastfulness, insatiateness, profligacy,

greed, by despair which is the most dangerous of all,

and by the subtle workings of vice”

(The Philokalia,  Kindle Loc. 4273-78).