24 - Prodigal Son, Feb 15 09

I Corinthians 6:12-20

Luke 15:11-32

It says of the prodigal son that he spent all the wealth he had been given from the Father on loose living. The wealth of the Father is the divine qualities of love and freedom and the capacity to partake of the divine nature that are inherent to our nature made in the image and likeness of God. We are finite creatures made for the infinite God, and our desire is not satisfied until we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ who is divided yet not disunited, who is eaten yet never consumed but sanctifying those who partake of him in the mystery of Holy Communion. The prodigal spent his Father’s wealth on loose living. He freely chose to give his love to worldly pleasures that are finite and cannot satisfy the soul’s natural yearning for the infinite God. And so when a famine came – when the pleasures of the flesh were inevitably exhausted and replaced by boredom and emptiness, he was hungry. He was hungry for the infinite God but he was in a drunken stupor from freely giving his love to prostitutes, to sexual intimacy that is without affection, that is grounded not in the personal, spiritual commitment of the heart but in the self-centered lusts of the belly. They numbed his soul and he had forgotten his Father, and then become ignorant of him, and was on the way to becoming altogether indifferent to him. It says that he became hungry but no one gave him anything. Of course not; he had given his love to the society of this “far country”, the land of shadow, the entrance to Hades, where no one cares for anyone but themselves. It says he was so hungry he was glad to eat the pods fed to the swine. In his drunken stupor, he thought himself happy if he could escape the pain of emptiness and boredom by feeding on more empty pleasures. But indulging in more empty pleasures to escape the agony of depression only threw him into deeper depression, until he finally found himself sitting with the swine, as though he himself had become one.

When he came to himself, it says of him as he wallowed in the pigpen an indulgent sot, he resolved to rise up and go to his Father in repentance. Note that even though he had made himself into the image and likeness of a pig, the image and likeness of God was still imbedded in his soul. He was not helpless. He was still free to choose to give his love to the way of repentance. This is the Good News of the Gospel that shines in the darkness and which the darkness cannot comprehend. However enslaved we may be to the desires of the flesh, at the center of our will we are still in the image and likeness of God. We are free to give our love to the way of repentance, if we want to.

This moment of illumination that was the turning point in the life of the prodigal corresponds to baptism. In the waters of baptism, the dirty rags of sin with which we have clothed ourselves are washed away and we are stripped naked to reveal our fundamental humanity, our true selves. However perverted, misshapen, or imperfect we may be, we are still fundamentally human. And as human, we are still made in the image and likeness of God, and we are not helpless. We are still free to choose the way of repentance that leads to healing and wholeness and to the eternal joy of union with God.

And so he rose up, it says, and made his way to the Father. Baptism is not the end but the beginning of our repentance. Our baptism is not completed until we have made our way from the baptismal font to the Chalice to become partakers of the divine nature. This movement from the font to the Chalice captures the essence of the ascetic disciplines of the Church, and it is made incarnate in our daily lives through the practice of the ascetic disciplines of the Church. Through them, we act on our resolve to repent and to unite ourselves to Christ. By taking up the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting and the practice of charity to others – we are taking up our cross and setting out on the road of repentance that leads to the Father. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, says the Lord Jesus Christ; no one comes to the Father except by me. The road of repentance that leads to the Father is Christ himself. No one who repents and begins making his way back to the Father through the ascetic work of Christian Faith walks the road of repentance alone. He walks in Christ, for Christ is Himself the Way of repentance that leads to the Father. 

Following the prodigal’s reconciliation with the Father, the story shifts to become the story of the elder son. Like the Pharisee of last Sunday’s Gospel, the elder son is caught in self-righteous pride that closes him off to his brother; and we should be a bit troubled that this story of the elder son has no ending. We never learn how the elder son responds to the Father’s appeal to him to be reconciled to his brother. It’s as though the evangelist is saying to us that this story of the prodigal son isn’t the end. It opens straight onto another story, that of the elder son, which has no ending. It makes me wonder if at least on one level, the story means to say that every one of us is at once the younger prodigal son and the elder self-righteous son; and that the two sons in this morning’s Gospel actually do not represent two kinds of people, two kinds of “sinners” so much as two different stages on the road to union with God with a very specific danger lurking close on the heels of our repentance that we need to look out for: the danger of spiritual pride. Every one of us, even we who may identify ourselves with the prodigal son and who have turned away from loose living and who have experienced the merciful loving-kindness of the Father, may become the elder brother if we are not vigilant in our repentance. This is because closer to the heart than our gluttony and our lust lies the more subtle sin of spiritual pride that is so dangerous because it is so hard to see and confess. And it may be that the Evangelist Luke leaves the story of the elder son open because it is how we the readers, even we who identify with the prodigal, choose to deal with our spiritual pride that determines how this story of the elder son will end for each one of us.

Now, if we were to block this story of the two sons out on a stage, in the middle of the backdrop would stand the Father’s house; and one notes that we never see the elder son in the house of the Father. He doesn’t even enter the house out of curiosity to discover the cause of the music and dancing he hears. Instead, he calls out a servant to tell him what’s going on. And when he learns its cause, that his brother has returned, instead of gladness, he feels envy, and becomes so angry that he refuses to enter the house at all, so that the Father must come out to him.

The house of the Father where there is joy, music and dancing in the company of the Father puts me in mind of that part of the soul which the fathers identify with our deepest, most intimate self. They call it by various names: spirit or heart or intellect. In the liturgical language of Great Lent and Pascha, I think we could say that it is the bridal chamber. The Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae says of this inmost chamber of the soul that, in the beginning it is for us almost completely covered. It is closed for us as long as we live a life of hardness and sin.[1] 

The bridal chamber of our heart has become a tomb because like the prodigal, we have chosen to give the wealth of our freedom and our love to the gods of the far country in the land of Hades, or because like the elder son, we have retreated into envy and spiritual pride. Sin covers our heart like the large stone that sealed the entrance of Christ’s tomb, and we can’t get into our heart because the stone is too large and heavy for us to roll it away. How foolish is the sinner who says he doesn’t believe in God because he can’t see him! Of course you can’t see him. Not until you enter your heart can you hope to see him, and you cannot enter your heart apart from repentance.

This tomb of the heart, this inmost chamber of our soul that lies on the other side of the stone, is the goal of our Lenten journey. But, who will roll away the stone for us? This is why, in the freedom of the image of God in us that is never wholly obliterated, we choose to take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church and give the energy of our love to the ascetical work of crucifying the old man in us with its fleshly desires and spiritual pride in fulfillment of our baptismal vow to unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of his death. Death in Christ is death to death: it is death to sin, death to the gluttony and lust of the prodigal, death to the spiritual pride of the elder brother. As we die in Christ, our heart is opened to us. On the First Day of the week, the Day of Resurrection, in the mystery of Pascha, we come before the dawn to the tomb of our heart like the myrrh-bearing women coming to the tomb of Christ; and with them we discover that the stone has been rolled away. The innermost chamber of our heart has been opened to us and we may enter it like the disciples Peter and John, to discover that the tomb has become a bridal chamber bearing life, more fruitful than paradise, brighter than any royal chamber, the fountain of our resurrection in Christ from which Christ has gone forth like a Bridegroom in procession to lead us into the house of his heavenly Father. And in the joy of that Paschal celebration, we call “brother” even those who hate us, and in the resurrection, having died to lust and anger and pride, and having been united to Christ in his holy resurrection, we are able to forgive all things. Amen.

[1] Orthodox Spirituality, p. 99