25 - Prodigal Son, February 20, 2011

I Cor 6:12-20

Luke 15:11-32

Of the two sons in this parable of the prodigal, only the prodigal ends up in the father’s house. The elder brother draws near to the father’s house but refuses to go in when he learns that the reason for the feasting going on in the house is the return of his dissolute brother. The parable ends without ending. It ends without giving us the older son’s answer to his father’s plea to him to come into the house to join the celebration over the return home, indeed the resurrection and salvation, of his younger brother.

Having put the prodigal son’s return to the Father’s house in the foreground of the story, we are led to identify with the Prodigal. Then, the parable adds what seems to be a superfluous epilogue about the elder brother. But, the epilogue is constructed in such a way that it draws us into the story as the elder brother, so that its ending is made to be how we respond to the Father’s invitation as though we were the elder brother. We hear the elder brother’s angry response to the news that a feast had been prepared to celebrate the return of his dissolute brother.  We see the Father coming out to the elder brother. We hear the Father’s earnest plea to him to join in the feast celebrating his prodigal brother’s return; and with that, the parable ends, compelling us in our restlessness over a story with no ending to step into the story ourselves in order to answer the father’s plea on behalf of the elder brother, so that the story can have a proper ending. And, voila! In doing this, we find we have been drawn into the story as the elder brother.

Are you surprised to discover by this clever literary sleight of hand that you who thought you were the Prodigal Son in this story suddenly find yourself to be the elder brother? That means that the parable has pegged us as the self-righteous elder brother, which means by extension that we are also the self-righteous Pharisee of last Sunday’s Gospel.

But, the Church this morning is not through with us even yet. No doubt, in wanting to give this story a happy ending, we step into the story to accept the father’s plea on the elder brother’s behalf. So, as the elder brother now, we come into the house to join the celebration over the prodigal son’s return. From this vantage point, we now look back to see that, when we came into the Church this morning, we were acting out this morning’s Gospel, coming into the Church like the elder brother accepting the Father’s invitation to come into the father’s house to celebrate the return of his prodigal brother. But, having come into Church as the elder brother coming into the Father’s house, our holy Mother, the Church, put into our mouths to sing hymns like these drawn from the Vespers and Matins for this morning: “As the Prodigal Son I come to Thee, merciful Lord. O Jesus my God, I have departed far from Thee and lived as the Prodigal. I have departed far from Thy commandments and in utter wretchedness I am enslaved to the deceiver. But now I turn back as the Prodigal of old.”[1]

In this way, the Church leads us this morning to identify with both the elder brother and with the Prodigal. What lesson are we to learn from this?

I think the Church is teaching us that even we who appear righteous, like the Pharisee of last Sunday’s Gospel and the elder brother in this morning’s Gospel – because we come to Church regularly, we fast and pray and tithe, we do not waste our money on prostitutes and loose living – even we are no more righteous than the prodigal son. How is this? The words of Isaiah the prophet come to mind in answer: “This people draws near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” We who are more like the elder brother in our outward lives are directed by the Church this morning to consider if in our inner life we are really that much different from the prodigal.

 The Church directs us to consider our inner life, where our thoughts are and where the treasure of our heart is, by giving us to pray such words as these: “Ruled by corrupting thoughts, I am full of darkness and separated far from Thee. I have lost all possession of myself, O merciful Lord. Therefore save me as I fall before Thee in repentance.”[2] And so, by directing us inward to look on our mind and heart, the Church is addressing all of us. For, no one is righteous, no not one. No elder brother is righteous, but all of us have sinned and like sheep, we have all gone our own way like the prodigal. And so, having joined us elder brothers with the prodigals, the Church teaches all of us to pray as the prodigal, even as the thief and as the publican: “I have bowed down miserably to the pleasures of the body and I have become wholly enslaved to the demons that provoke the passions; and I have become a stranger to Thee who lovest mankind.” “As the Thief I cry to Thee, ‘Remember me’. As the Publican with eyes cast down to earth, I beat my breast and say, ‘Be merciful’. As the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O King who pities all.”[3]

This tells us, and the testimony of Holy Scripture and of the holy fathers confirm this, that the experience of the biblical God is marked by a vision of our sinfulness and unworthiness, not of our goodness; such that, even if we can boast of the Pharisee’s righteousness or of the elder brother’s goodness, when we stand before God we will find ourselves wanting to say with St Peter: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” or with the anaphora of St Basil, “We have done nothing good on the earth.” Even Moses, when he drew near the burning bush, took off his sandals in fear and trembling. And, Abraham, when he stood before the Lord, fell to the ground groveling and crying out: “I am but dust and ashes.”

From this, we need to understand that if we do not feel a certain fear and trembling, if we are not suddenly keenly conscious of our sinfulness, our darkness, our unworthiness, then we are not standing before God. Even if we can boast of the outward righteousness of the Pharisee or the elder brother, in our secret heart we all are the prodigal son living in a far country, even if with our bodies we are physically standing in the temple of God.

There is no difference between the Pharisee and the publican, or between the prodigal son and the elder son because both the publican and the prodigal are as immersed in themselves as are the Pharisee and the elder brother. For all of them, their center is their own ego. What distinguishes the prodigal son from the elder brother in this morning’s parable, and the publican from the Pharisee in last Sunday’s parable, is not that the one is a sinner and the other is righteous, for all of them are sinners. It is that the prodigal and the publican both “came to their senses” and saw that they were in a far country; and in this realization, they repented and stood before God as “the first of all sinners”.

Do you see how the Church in these pre-Lenten Gospels is shepherding us onto her better and changeless path that ascends to God? Like a shepherd’s sheep-dog, these Gospels are nipping at the heels of our pride and our self-satisfaction, the scorn of our ease, the contempt of our pride, to herd us away from the broad and easy paths of worldly pride and vanity that lead to destruction and onto the hard way of humility and repentance that leads to life in Christ’s Holy Resurrection through the narrow gates of Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha.

In this morning’s Gospel, the Father comes out to us as He came out to both the elder brother and to the prodigal son. This morning’s Gospel can end with our coming into the Father’s house not just outwardly but inwardly if we lay aside our self-justifications and our own righteousness and in the fear of God, in the sincere confession of our sins, pray to the Father as the prodigal son: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” I am a lost sheep. Call me O Savior and save me!” “Open to me the gates of repentance O Giver of Life; Lead me on the paths of salvation O Theotokos; for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins, and have wasted my life in laziness. But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity. Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great goodness and according Thy abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. O my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, trusting in Thy loving kindness, like David I cry to Thee: Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.” Amen.

[1] Lenten Triodion, pp. 113, 155

[2] LT p. 120

[3] Lenten Triodion, pp. 119 & 120.