26 Prodigal Son - February 24, 2008

I Corinthians 6:12-20

Luke 15:11-32

Repentance is the underlying theme in all the Gospels of these pre-Lenten Sundays. Each Sunday treats repentance from a different perspective so that by the time we come to Great Lent to take up our cross of prayer and fasting and charity in order to follow Christ to his holy Pascha, we have before us a comprehensive understanding of repentance that can guide our Lenten effort to its spiritual goal.

I think there is a lesson from this parable of the Prodigal Son that is easily missed. It is, in fact, the same lesson as the story of the Canaanite woman. I have sinned not because of innocent mistakes, not because others influenced me, not because I just didn’t know better; but because I have chosen in my heart, in that center of my being where I choose what thoughts I will think, what feelings I will feel, what words I will say, what deeds I will do – I have willfully and freely chosen sin; I have willfully and freely chosen to turn away from God. I have freely turned away from the path that is narrow and hard, the path that leads to the Tree of Life; and chosen the path that is broad and easy, the path that leads away from the Tree of Life and toward the serpent’s tree, and I have willfully and with pleasure eaten the sweet fruits of greed, anger, envy, vanity and pride. I have chosen to indulge myself in laziness; I have chosen to be self-centered, I have chosen hate; I have chosen to nurse grudges; I have loved self-pity and blamed others for my own sins.

Close meditation on this parable of the Prodigal Son, and close reading of the Church’s meditation on its spiritual meaning, which we find in the Lenten Triodion, has the effect of driving us beyond our habitual inclination to justify ourselves, to blame others and into the seat of our heart where we have freely and willfully chosen to take the riches that God gave to us at our creation, and then again at our baptism – these are the riches of life itself, of intelligence, of feeling, of love – and we have wasted them, because we have taken them and willfully chosen to pursue our own lusts and pride and not the will of God, which is our eternal salvation and that we should become partakers of the divine nature, communicants of life eternal.

You see this in the parable when the younger son, by his own free decision, for whatever reason, comes to his Father and says, even demands: “Father, give me the portion of my inheritance that falls to me.” Then again, by his own free decision, he “gathers all these things together and journeys to a far country and there he wastes his possessions with reckless, dissolute and uncontrolled living.”

The heart of the parable is the moment when the prodigal son “comes to himself”. The Greek, as always, is far more descriptive. It says, literally that he came “into himself.” This suggests that the prodigal son, as he sat among the pigs, submitted himself to a rigorous self-examination, a deep introspection, as we are directed to do when preparing for the sacrament of confession. If he came “into himself,” this has to mean in spiritual terms that he penetrated beyond all self-justification, beyond self-pity, beyond every excuse and came to that center in his heart where he himself had freely chosen to leave his Father’s house and give himself over to a prodigal life; and that he had no one to blame but himself. In that moment, he saw the depth of his tragedy, fraught truly with cosmic and eternal consequences. He saw how inexplicable was his stupidity, how self-centered he had been such that he was altogether without excuse.

Reading the Church’s meditations on this parable in the Lenten Triodion prayerfully awakens in one’s soul the first glimmerings of a heavy, heavy sorrow as one begins to gain some sense that the tragedy of the Prodigal is our tragedy. It seems that the Church is wanting in her meditations on this parable to awaken in us a comprehensive sense of our loss and sorrow by placing us before the tragedy of the prodigal son as before a mirror in which we see a reflection of ourselves; for, the Church directs me to pray in the first person as myself being the Prodigal. In this way, the prayers of the Church drive me “into myself,” and open my eyes to see that I have chosen to give my erotic love to lust and pride; I have set myself up as my own teacher, my own spiritual guide, I have deified the wisdom of my own opinions, and in consequence, I have forgotten and become completely ignorant of God.

The Church’s meditations on this parable in the Lenten Triodion focus almost entirely on this moment in the parable when the Prodigal comes “into himself”. I believe the Church holds our meditation firmly on the bitter sorrow of the Prodigal because we will never, ever come upon the mercy of the Father until we come “into ourselves” in the bitter sorrow of the Prodigal, and see and confess that we are sinners, that we are “dogs” – or in the terms of this parable, we are “pigs” – and that we have sinned, we have fallen inexcusably into the company of pigs by our own stupidity and our own free choice. But let us note well that the Prodigal’s sorrow led him to repentance and not to despair, which is but the dark face of vanity wallowing in self-pity, because it was a sorrow born in him when he came “into himself,” when in other words he went beyond his vanity and into his heart, into that place in himself where he was beyond all vainglory and came upon his true nature that is created in the image and likeness of God our heavenly Father. The Church, the Bride and Mother of God, seeks to awaken in us this same sorrow that comes from seeing how we have thrown our lot in with the dogs and the pigs; but we are not dogs or pigs. We are images of God made in the Image of God, which is Christ.[1] This sorrow of the Prodigal, then, leads us away from the pigs, away from the vanity of self-pity and self-justification to repentance by teaching us how to pray as the Prodigal, so that we do as he did: we lay aside every excuse and we entrust ourselves no more to human protection, no more to our own righteousness – for, in fact, we are given to understand that we have done nothing good on the earth, as we pray in the Divine Liturgy of St Basil – but we entrust ourselves wholly and completely to the Father’s mercy.

“O Jesus my God, all my life I have lived in carelessness and provoked Thee to anger!”[2] is how the Church teaches us to pray. What Pharisee, what self-righteous Christian would ever say such a prayer! “Utterly beside myself, I have clung in madness to the sins suggested to me by the passions. With the words of the Prodigal I cry aloud: I have sinned, O Father; like him, receive me now in Thine embrace and reject me not. Open Thine arms, O Christ, and in loving-kindness receive me as I return from a far country of sin and passion.” “I have become enslaved to every evil and in my wretchedness I have bowed down before the demons that provoke the passions; through heedlessness I have lost possession of myself. O Savior, heavenly Father, take pity on me as I flee for refuge to Thy many mercies. I am filled with every shameful thing and dare not look up at the height of heaven, for I have foolishly bowed down to sin.” “I am enslaved to strangers, an exile in the land of corruption, and I am filled with shame. I have angered Thee beyond measure, O Christ, and I dare not look up at the height of heaven. I have sinned, be merciful to me and save me.”[3]

It will anger some who believe we must feel good about ourselves that the Church directs us to pray as the Prodigal that we have “angered God beyond measure.” But the proof that this sorrow of repentance is the only path to the deep healing that our soul craves is given in the experience of the prayer itself. When we pray as the Prodigal, when we lay aside every excuse, every effort at self-justification and pray, from the heart: “O Jesus my God, all my life I have lived in carelessness and provoked Thee to anger,” there is a ineffable sweetness that washes over the soul almost at once like a deep healing salve. It is of such an ineffable sweetness that one would pray never in this life to be without the Prodigal’s bitter sorrow of repentance. The holy fathers tell us from their own experience that the godly sorrow of repentance is ineffably deep and ineffably sweet. Its contrition produces a sweetness of spiritual joy that in turn produces an ardent desire to drink more fully from the sweet waters of a spiritual, godly sorrow that wells up from some font of godly joy deep in the heart.

How does one explain to those who have not tasted it how it can be that one can feel in the depths of one’s soul at one and the same time both profound sorrow and profound joy? Who can explain it except in the terms of this parable of the Prodigal Son? “We have sinned against Thee, merciful Father, and are not worthy ever again to be called Thy children as before. But since Thou art by nature full of love for man, accept me and make me as one of Thy hired servants.”[4] But, of course, we know from the parable, that the Father restored the Prodigal to his full inheritance. It is the experience of the Father’s immeasurable and absolutely unmerited mercy that renders godly sorrow so richly productive of joy and godly joy so richly productive of godly sorrow. In this godly sorrow of joy, let us begin to make ready to take up our cross in the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent that we may follow Christ under the guidance of the Church, which is his body, back to our Father’s house. Amen. 

[1] Col 1:15

[2] LT 115

[3] LT 116-117.

[4] LT 119