The holy prophet Amos prophesied, “’Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). We live in an age when this prophecy could equally apply to us as a people. We live in a culture of unprecedented opportunity and opulence, coupled with negligence when it comes to the things of God and the desperate needs of the soul. We often prefer the far country, our worldly pursuits, the things that placate our bodies, entertainment, food, other comforts, so we don’t hear the hungering cry of our souls which can only be satisfied with God. As a people, a culture, we appear to take in little of the “words of the Lord,” preferring our own opinions to the revealed truth as we seek the gratification of our senses.
Such is also the case with the younger son in today’s parable—the prodigal—who demands his share of the inheritance prematurely, as if it is his by right, rather than a gracious gift: as if he has it coming to him even while his father is still alive! Imagine! We read in today’s Gospel, that he arrogantly commands his father, saying, “Give me the portion of goods that falls to me!”
One question we may ask is, Why does the father give in to the son’s command? The answer, as we will see, is to save him in the end. You see, the son’s heart is already in ‘exile.’ He’s already given himself over to the estrangement of the far off country roused by his sinful passions, life away from his true identity as his father’s son. Only repentance can cure this sickness of soul.
So, he goes off to the “far country,” squandering there the gracious gift of his inheritance—life with his father, his very identity—on riotous living. He gives himself over to his passions. In the end, he finds himself barren, hungry, in want. Feeding his passions leaves his soul empty.
So it is for us: there’s no sating the passions and their greedy want. The more we give in to them, the more they demand—until our soul is vacuous… dead. This is the poison for our souls inherent in a godless, secular-minded society. Compromise with the priorities and values of this culture: humanism, secularism and nihilism, obsession with material ‘security,’ will not save us or lead us to healing, deification, or salvation. Instead, it will lead our souls step by step further into exile away from our Heavenly Father, our true identity and inheritance in Him
St. Gregory Palamas rightly says, that the devil beguiles us little by little, whispering to us, “even if you live independently without going to God’s Church or listening to the Church teacher, you will still be able to see for yourself what your duty is and not depart from what is good” (Homily Three, On the Parable of the Prodigal). This is the lie he whispers to us to this day.
The reality is, if we’re too busy for church, daily prayer, regular confession, and the preparation to rightly receive the Sacraments, and still think our soul is healthy, we’re deceiving ourselves. If we compare ourselves to others who take and leave what they want from holy Church and pattern our lives the same way, thinking that’s all we need, then we’re deceiving ourselves. Luke-warmness will not grow us in Christ or heal our souls, but will keep us in exile.
If such is our thinking, then only one thing will save us: repentance! The heart of the parable, the ‘turning point,’ is when we hear the words, “when he came to himself’, that is, his right and sober mind and heart returns to him—and he realizes the depth of the mire—the pigs slop—that’s he’s spiritually sunk himself into. His physical hunger (he longs to fill his stomach with the pig’s slop), pales in comparison to the starvation of his soul, the hunger for the identity he gave up for sin, saying, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
This is a true image of repentance, metanoia, that is, “a change of heart and mind.” Repentance is a returning, a remembering, of who we really are, of who we’re called to be in Christ, of how unworthy we are to be God the Father’s adopted sons and daughters, but how great is His mercy and love for us that He so desires our communion with Him.
After the prodigal’s right spiritual mind is restored, he remembers who he is—one of his father’s sons, but he knows now that he cannot take that identity for granted; he’s squandered it, thrown it all away. In recognition of this greatest of sins, he repents with vigor, turning from his sins to his father, who is in this parable an image of God and His love and forgiveness for the penitent. In some of the icons of this parable, the Father is seen as an image of Christ Himself, Who receives our confessions, heals our souls through the Sacrament, and restores us to His Church.
It’s in this repentant spirit that the prodigal goes to beseech his father for forgiveness, prostrating himself before him. There’s no self-legitimizing pride left, no ‘rights’: the son has gained humility in his exile, necessary for repentance. He returns a repentant man, willing to be a true son—even a servant of his father—grateful for whatever forgiveness and mercy his father might give. The father, for his part, receives him, not as the prodigal who selfishly demanded his right to abuse his inheritance, to selfishly forsake his identity, but as the son who was lost but has now returned to his true self, his true identity, chastened and ready to be the true son he wasn’t before.
And this person—the repentant son with the humble heart, who realizes that the world cannot sate him, that his temporal lusts and exiled mind cannot satisfy, this son who has “come to himself”, returned from self-imposed exile—is re-established in the blessed life and inheritance with his father, that is his and our true identity, the truth of who we are and of who we are called to be as God’s adopted sons and daughters in Christ, vivified by the Holy Spirit.
It’s with this repentant, contrite and humble heart, that we too come to possess our inheritance in Christ and learn to prefer the joy of His Kingdom, in the near presence of Christ God, over life in the temporal and passing world and its mistaken priorities. But how easy it is to prefer exile, to compartmentalize our relationship and communion with God, to put Him on the margin of our everyday, material existence. So, recognizing this challenge of being a faithful Orthodox Christian in a society that’s largely pushed God from the public square, we have an opportunity today to examine where our communion with God is amidst all other priorities. If we desire communion with God, healing from our sin-sickness, and our inheritance as adopted sons of God, then our life in Him in His Church becomes our first priority. Now is the time we repent of our exiled minds and hearts, whatever passions still hold us in exile, enslaving us to this world.
Christ God desires so much more for us: He runs to meet us in our repentance as the father in the parable does as he first sees his son return. He runs to embrace us just as soon as we start to repent, to return to our divine calling, our true identity and inheritance in Him: striving to glorify God the Father and live for Him, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to be the adopted sons He’s created us to be. God showers us with His forgiveness and mercy even before we can prostrate ourselves before Him or muster anything close to a response to His graciousness and love.
When our hearts and minds are focused on Christ and His Kingdom, we know where we are headed, we journey as sons or daughters further up and further in the Kingdom. Life in the world only makes sense and is redemptive if we seek first the Kingdom of God and prefer it to the “far country,” exile. Life in the Kingdom, this inheritance, begins now manifesting itself in our daily lives; it’s made moment by moment as we work out our salvation in humility and repentance: as we attend the divine services in earnest, as we pray, as we prepare and partake of the Divine Sacraments, as we witness to the truth of Christ in the world around us. God receives us. He loves us. He embraces us. He makes us not into one of His hired servants, but instead restores us to sonship and communion with Him, the Life of the world. He feeds us with the fatted calf, that is, His Lamb, the Body and Blood of Christ, the Foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet of our inheritance with God in the Saints.
Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
Sunday of the Prodigal Son
February 12, 2017
Epistle: I Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15: 11-32