|26 - Prodigal Son, March 3, 2013|
I Corinthians 6:12-20
“A certain man had two sons,” it says. St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) tells us that the certain man is the Lord Himself. In this, the parable of the Prodigal Son proclaims to us the Lord’s great and tender love for mankind; for, it points us to the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation, his becoming flesh and becoming obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the cross that He might save us and make us “children of God”, heirs of God’s own glory and virtue; in the words of our epistle this morning, that our very souls and bodies might become the temple of God, holy and blameless, pure and undefiled as members of Christ’s body, given to Him by the Blessed Virgin and which is the Temple of God that is full of the divine glory.
“And the younger of the two sons said to his father.” St Gregory says that it stands to reason that he was the younger son, for he makes a childish and very foolish request. “Give me the portion of good which legally belongs to me, my just share.” In the first place, St Gregory preaches, fathers and mothers are not in debt to their children. It is the children who are in debt to their parents. Even so, God in His goodness has divided the whole or creation equally to all, offering it to each to use as he pleases. Each of God’s children has the same sun, the same nature, the same world, but the “younger sons”, the foolish and childish sons, use it not with thanksgiving and love but in selfishness. As St Gregory says, one person says to God with the Psalmist, “All the day long I have stretched forth my hands to Thee,” (Psa 88:9); “Seven times a day do I praise Thee” (Ps 119:164); “At midnight I will rise to give thanks to Thee” (Psa 119:62); “I will rise early in the morning to destroy all the wicked in the land” (Psa 119:1). In other words, one person works to cut off all the longings of the flesh that lead to sensual pleasure. Another spends all day over his wine and looking for places to drink. His nights are passed in impure and lawless actions and he rushes headlong into concealed dangers, or obvious treacheries, robberies and evil projects.
“And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country.” St Gregory says that this represents the cunning seduction of the evil one. Little by little, he beguiles us to live on our own, away from the Church and the teachings of the Church. In this, he beguiles us to separate ourselves from the divine services of the Church and obedience to our holy teachers in the Church and from God’s vigilance; and so bit by bit, almost imperceptibly, we surround ourselves first with forgetfulness of God, and then ignorance of God, and then indifference to God and His Holy Church. This is the “far journey” that the “younger son” sets out on “not many days after,” a journey that leads him away from the Church and into the evil of the world.
It says that the younger son “dispersed his substance with riotous living.” St Gregory asks, “How did he disperse his substance?” St Gregory answers, “Above all it is our inborn mind that is our substance and our wealth. As long as we are faithful to the ways of salvation, our mind is at one with itself and with God, the first and highest Mind. Whenever we open the door to the passions (gluttony, lust, laziness, anger, greed, envy, vanity, pride, despair), immediately our mind is dispersed , wandering continually among fleshly and earthly things, all kinds of pleasures and passionate thoughts about them. The wealth of the mind,” St Gregory goes on to say, “is prudence, which stays with the mind, discerning between what is better and what is worse, for as long as the mind is obedient to the commandments and counsels of the heavenly Father. Once the mind rebels, prudence is dispersed in fornication (and in the mind dwelling on images of fornication) and foolishness.”
Our virtues and faculties, these are truly our wealth, says St Gregory. “Evil is always near at hand, and if they turn aside to it they are dispersed. Our mind itself stretches in longing towards the one God Who Is, the only Good, the only Desired, the only Bestower of pleasure unmixed with pain. But, once the mind has been enfeebled, the soul’s ability for real love falls away from what is truly desired, and, scattered among various longings for sensual pleasures, it is dispersed, pulled this way and that by desires for superfluous foods, dishonorable bodies, useless objects, and empty, inglorious glory. So, the wretched individual is cut to pieces and tortured by the cares these things bring, and cannot even enjoy breathing the air or seeing the sun, the riches we all share.”
“And when the younger son 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.”
Who are the citizens and rulers of that country far from God, asks St Gregory? They are, of course, the demons, the spirits of darkness that rule the air and work even now in the sons of disobedience. (Eph 2:1) The life of pigs, says St Gregory, because of its extreme filthiness, is symbolic of all the passions. Those who wallow in the mire of the passions are the pigs, those who live in self-indulgence. But, it says that he was in want; he could not eat his fill of the husks the pigs ate. This means that he could not find satisfaction for his desires.
Why? St Gregory asks. Because God was absent from him. He had removed himself far from God. And yet, God alone is able to satisfy our desires. The Psalmist says, “I shall be satisfied when I awake and behold Thy form,” I shall be satisfied simply “when I have beheld Thy Glory.” (Ps 16:15 LXX) And God has called us to become sharers of His own glory and virtue, which are eternal, even in His own nature (II Pt 1:4).
As soon as the son came to his senses, he wept, and said, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?” Who are the hired servants? St Gregory Palamas answers, Those who through the sweat of repentance and humility gain salvation as their reward. Sons, by contrast, are those who obey God’s commandments out of love.
So, the younger son passes judgment on himself. He humbles himself and repents, saying “I will go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee.’” He means that he has sinned against the saints, the citizens of heaven, and before God, His Creator. Brought to his senses by humility, he says rightly, “Make me as one of your hired servants.” For, St Gregory says, no one can manage the steps of virtue on his own, but also not without his own deliberate choice.
“And, while he was still a great way off, the Father came out to meet him.” He who repents in his soul, says St Gregory, reaches God by his good purpose and his rejection of sin. He is, however, still far from God, tyrannized mentally by habitual sins and failings, and he needs great compassion and help from above if he is to be saved.
The Father of Mercies came down to meet him. God the Son emptied Himself and was obedient to the point of death on the Cross that He might meet us in the tomb of our heart and save us and raise us to life in Himself.
The elder brother, however, was angry at the kindness shown by the father to the younger son. The elder brother, says St Gregory, represents the self-righteous whose hearts are hardened by their envy and vain-glory. They have not discovered God’s great love for them because they are rendered blind and deaf by their conceit and narcissism.
Hearing the Good News that God is a loving and merciful Father, who desires not the death of the wicked but that they turn from their sins and live, may we take hold of the Cross Christ commands us to take up – these are the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent now almost upon us – and in humility and repentance, make our way back to the house of our Father, the temple of the Living God. Let us purify our senses through the fast so that we may see Christ risen from the dead in glory. Amen.