23 - Prodigal Son, Feb 4, 2018

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I Corinthians 6:12-20

Luke 15:11-32

At the end of this morning’s parable, the prodigal is found in the Father’s house; the elder brother is not; even as in last Sunday’s Gospel, it is the publican, not the Pharisee who is found in his house.

The epistles for this Sunday and the next tell us that our bodies are the temple or the house of God. Now, it says this morning that the prodigal “came to himself”; this would mean his heart according to the prophet: “The heart is deep, and it is the man!” (Jer 17:5). When the prodigal came into (eis) himself, it says, he rose up and came, let’s say to the doors of (pros) his Father’s House. See how the heart comes into view as the entrance to the Father’s House. With this, let us note, then, that the elder brother is not found in the Father’s House because he never comes “into himself”, or into his “heart”.

Following a fourth century text from the ancient Syriac Christian Tradition (Liber Graduum), we see last Sunday’s publican and this Sunday’s prodigal in the “visible” Church: the publican is in the visible temple in Jerusalem, the prodigal in the pig-pen is, well, in his body, the temple of God, as St Paul tells us this morning. And, the one through humility, the other by fleeing sexual immorality comes into the inner, hidden “Church of the heart” that opens onto the Heavenly Church, the Father’s House; as it says, the one goes down to his house, the other comes “into himself”. See how our heart is the sanctuary of the Temple of our Body that opens onto the Father’s House, or the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us.

In her liturgical texts, the Church teaches us to identify with the prodigal; yet when we come to the end of this morning’s parable, we see the Father standing outside with His elder son, pleading with him to come into the house to embrace his younger brother in brotherly love and joy; but we aren’t given the elder brother’s answer, as though I am the elder brother and the end of the story waits for my answer to the Father’s plea.

Why would the elder brother not come into his Father’s House? Is it not clear that his sense of justice demanded that his younger brother not be welcomed into the Father’s House because he had wasted his inheritance on prostitutes?

Last Sunday’s Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee taught us to identify ourselves as the first of all sinners because that’s what Christ does on the Cross. But this morning’s parable opens last Sunday’s parable of the publican onto spiritual depths that cannot be seen outside the Holy Spirit. The lesson in this morning’s parable was hidden to me until I saw it in the light of the teaching of the holy fathers of the Church who speak not from their own theological speculations, but from having seen God. Listen to St Isaac of Nineveh (7th cent.): “Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching. How can we call God just when, for his son’s compunction alone, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? Where is God’s justice, for while we are sinners, Christ died for us!” (Hom 51 pp. 244, 250-251)

Archimandrite Sophrony (20th cent.), adds to St Isaac’s teaching.

“The Spirit of the love of Christ sees it as entirely natural to share the guilt of those we love, even to assume full responsibility for their wrongdoing. It is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the truth of love is revealed and grows to full awareness of itself. Love takes to itself the life of the loved one. The man who loves God is drawn into the life of the Godhead. He who loves his brother draws his brother’s life into his own hypostatic being [his heart that is deep, underneath all things].” (Monk of Mt Athos, pp. 63-64).

These sayings from the holy fathers hit me hard. I must say, until I came upon these inspired teachings of St Isaac and Archimandrite Sophrony, I did not see how I identify with the prodigal out of a feigned piety. The truth is, as I begin to see now, I am the elder brother and I begin to see that my elder-brotherly self-righteousness is deeply rooted in me; my soul is light years away from this divine, truly Christian mercy and compassion described by St Isaac and Archimandrite Sophrony. To my horror, I see I am more like Lucifer, I who hoped I was more like Christ. This Luciferian, elder-brotherly self-righteousness is the “evil” I pray the LORD to deliver me from: this evil I nurture and take delight in without knowing it, this self-righteous pride that makes me like Lucifer in spite of myself.

Is there any healing of the soul in the moral rectitude of the elder brother? Does not the elder brother’s demand for justice only produce self-righteousness, hurt, separation, fragmentation, isolation, anger, resentment, bitterness? Who of us really wants to be an elder brother, or a Pharisee? I don’t! Who of us does not long to be found healed, transfigured in the divine humility and mercy of the Father’s House? I do! But, how do I learn such a doctrine! I long to learn it, but, I don’t know how or even where to begin!

Two Sundays from now, at the Vespers of Forgiveness when Great Lent begins, the royal doors will be shut, the curtains drawn, and all of us will be found outside the gates, outside the Father’s House. Do any of us think we’re better, more moral than others? Maybe you are, but, guess what! You are standing outside, right next to those others!

Look who else is standing outside with you: the priest. He is standing outside the doors not just as himself but also as an icon of Christ. What does this mean? The priest is an icon of Christ. In the iconology of the priest, the Church is showing us that Christ is in our midst, He is standing with us outside. Look at the icons on the iconostasis. The faces of the Theotokos, St John the Baptist, and all the saints are toward us on this side; they are not turned away from us. Are they, in their union with Christ, bearing the guilt of the world? Are they assuming responsibility for my prodigality and my self-righteousness? Do you see? The closed doors of Lent are the firm judgment of God that is not condemning me. It is revealing to me the sins of my self-righteousness and prodigality that make me sick in my soul.

 The doors at Great Lent will be closed not to keep me out, but to direct me onto the path that would lead me into the closet of my soul to learn there, in the prayers of the Church, the humility and mercy of Christ, the Way into the Church of the heart, that I may be found on Pascha Night in the Father’s House.

So, in their embrace, dear brothers and sisters, we simply do as they direct us to do. We start where we are: here in the visible Church, here in the temple of our body. Listen to what the Church directs us to do this morning through St Paul: glorify God in your body. Flee sexual immorality, not just in your members, but with your eyes, your ears, your thoughts. Let’s bite our tongues and speak of others in the “mind” of Christ, not in the “mind” of the elder brother or the Pharisee. Pray in the Orthodox manner: with your body, making the sign of the Cross, making prostrations in front of an icon. Get ready to take up the fast with your stomach as you are able. And, in all of this, begin calling on the Name of the LORD as often as you can remember while, following last Sunday’s parable, you practice humility; and, following this morning’s parable, mercy.

We cannot forgive so-and-so from our heart? Of course we can’t! We are fallen, we are sick! And so, we offer ourselves to the LORD by coming to the Vespers of Forgiveness and forgiving in the “visible temple” of our body, simply by going through the external motions of the rite of forgiveness, with reverence, in the fear of God, with faith and love. This is how we begin making our way into the Church of the heart to Christ’s Holy Tomb and out into the Garden of Christ’s Holy Resurrection in the Father’s House, healed and transformed by the inexpressible humility and mercy of the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight! Amen!