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The prodigal son
The parable of the prodigal son is known so well that some of its phrases have passed into ordinary spoken language. We all remember book illustrations relating to it from our childhood.
Christ's parable of the prodigal son replies to the reproaches of the Pharisees that "He receiveth sinners, and eateth with them" (Luke 15:2). Christ forgives them and calls sinners to repentance, saying "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth" (Luke 15:10). All three of these parables-the good shepherd, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son, stress forgiveness in the final time, are found in chapter 15 of the Gospel according to Luke:
"A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he 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. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it: and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:11-32).
This parable is inexhaustible; its themes, too many to count. Every man who studies it with reverence, finds consolation for his anxiety about his own soul.
The first theme of the parable is history - God's chosen people and the pagan nations. The elder son in the parable could be Israel, and the younger son, the pagans. According to Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, this parable may summarize the Old Testament period, when men committed the original sin and withdrew from God. "The Father grieves over the departure of the beloved son. But, not infringing upon his filial dignity and filial freedom, He waits until the son himself, on having come to know all the bitterness of evil, and having remembered his past life in the Father's home, begins to yearn for this home and opens his heart to the Father's love. Thus it was with the human race."
The second theme is guilt. The parable of the prodigal son is read at the Liturgy on the third preparatory Sunday before Great Lent, when the faithful prepare to cleanse themselves from sin through the endeavor [podvig] of repentance.
Its third theme is repentance: the gradual, inner process of the sinner's turning towards full repentance, which calls for awareness of his fall, his sincere remorse, and his humble conversion of spirit toward the Heavenly Father.
Its fourth theme is the Church and her Liturgy. According to the Synaxarion for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the best robe, in which the father arrays his son who has returned, is the Mystery of Baptism; the ring and seal of the Holy Spirit is the Mystery of Chrismation; the feast with the eating of the fatted calf is the Eucharist, the Mystery of Communion. The music and dancing are symbols of the Church celebration of her restored fullness and oneness.
The fifth theme is the Savior Himself, Who appears as the Eucharistic slaughtered calf, referred to in Scripture as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
The elder son represents envy, legalism and need for mutual, brotherly forgiveness. The younger, prodigal son is all fallen mankind as well as each individual sinner. His portion of goods, that is, the younger son's share of the property, are God's gifts to each man. According to Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, these are "the mind and heart, and especially the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to each Christian. The demand made to the father for the portion of goods falling to the son in order to use it arbitrarily is the striving of man to throw submissiveness to God off from himself and to follow his own thoughts and desires. The father's consent to hand over the property depicts the absolute authority with which God has honored man in the use of God's gifts."
One of Protopresbyter Alexander Men sermons for the "Sunday of the Prodigal Son," mentions some details of ancient economics: "In those times which the Lord is speaking about people would try to live as one family. Nowadays, it is more natural for children to separate from and leave their parents when they grow up. Then, men jointly owned the land, which they worked together, and the larger the family was, the more working hands there were, the greater the ability to labor was. Therefore, to divide the home, to divide the property and the household was considered a detriment, a loss. If the children acted thus, it was considered an offense to the parents."
Having taken his portion, the younger son departs to a far country, a foreign place of estrangement from God. There he stops thinking of his father and "lives riotously," in a life of sin that alienates him further from the Creator. He quickly squanders his property, his share of God's gifts of mind, heart, and body. His poverty is spiritual desolation. Such a man does not really control what brings him pleasure. It controls him. This is why Apostle Paul warns Christians: "I will not be brought under the power of any [thing]" (I Corinthians 6:12).
One Church thinker has written: "This far country, this foreign land reveals to us the profound essence of our life, of our condition. Only after having understood this, can we begin the return to real life. He, who has not felt this at least once in his life, who has never realized that he is spiritually in a foreign land, isolated, exiled, will not understand the essence of Christianity. And he, who is completely "at home" in this world, who has not experienced a yearning for another reality, will not comprehend what repentance and remorse are . . . Remorse and repentance are born out of the experience of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him . . . It necessarily includes in itself the profound desire to come back, to return, to find anew the lost home."
Before Great Lent, beginning with the Sunday of the prodigal son, the Church chants the psalm "By the waters of Babylon," to remind us of the captivity of the Jews in that far country. This same captivity in sin alienates the Christian from God. But this psalm likewise speaks of repentance, love, and return to the father's home.
Having lost his inheritance, the younger son begins to hunger. To survive, he herds pigs as a swineherd. And he would gladly eat the swine's food-"with the husks," but no one would give him any. A saving thought awakens in him: "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!"
The prodigal son could recall this fact because he had not dissipated his one remaining gift--memory of his father and his home, which amounts to his conscience (God's voice within us). And here, conscience life returns and he understands his terrible situation. Resolve comes to him, to forsake his sins and to repent his offences to the Lord. Finally, his humility, repentance, and awareness of his unworthiness bring the sinner back to the father.
When God allows calamities to sinners, He brings them to their senses. They are God's call to repentance.
Bishop Theophan the Recluse compares the typical sinner to a man in a deep sleep. In man's turning to God, the recluse finds three psychological moments that match the parable: (1) awakening from the sleep of sin (Luke 15:17); (2) the ripening of resolve to forsake sin and to dedicate himself to pleasing God (Luke 15:17-21); and (3) investing the sinner with power in the mysteries of repentance and communion.
The vivid parable image of this father of two sons stands for the Heavenly Father. The Father is the primary allegory of the parable, Whose goodness exceeds all human concepts, in His love for the sinner and His joy when the prodigal son's returns to Him. The Gospel says to us, "When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him." The waiting father has looked every day to see whether his son were returning. When He sees him, He has compassion, and runs and falls on his neck, and kisses him. The son starts his confession, but the father does not let him finish. The Father has already forgiven and forgotten everything, and he receives the dissolute and starving swineherd as a beloved son. The father does not require proofs of his son's repentance, because he sees that his son has overcome shame and fear to return home. He commands his servants to give him the best robe, shoes, and a ring on his hand. The ring is God's gift to the forgiven sinner, the gift of God's Grace. According to Blessed Theophilact, the ring restores the sinner's marriage to the earthly Church and the Church in Heaven.
Words cannot convey the fullness of God's love for fallen sinners. Perhaps Apostle Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians has it best: "Charity suffereth long and is kind . . . charity vaunteth not itself, . . . is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (I Corinthians 13:4-7). Because every sin is against love, repentance can be real only before God, the face of Perfect Love, for "God is love" (I John 4:8).
The Father's joy is there because "my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." The prodigal son was spiritually dead when he was living without God, and he come back to spiritual life by returning to life in God. Sacred Scripture often represents return to God as a resurrection from the dead (cf. Romans 6:13, Matthew 8:22, Revelation 3:1, Ephesians 2:1).
The elder son of the parable is also problematic. The return of his younger brother and his reconciliation to the father displeased the elder son. Here is how the parable sets it forth:
"Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf."
The elder son, Jesus Christ implies, is the Pharisee or Scribe whose legalism blocks him from coming to the Father. The elder son is all of us. The elder son was not much at fault until his brother returned and provoked the terrible sin of envy, which had led to the first murder and to the later murder of the Savior Himself. In the house of the Father (an image of the Church) angels feel joy and exultation over one sinner that repents, but this joy is sealed off from the elder son. The father invites the elder son to enter this joy, but he prefers to calculate legal considerations and contracts. Such cold, juridical attitudes prevail wherever love has dried up. The elder son does not really value his father's gifts. His soul holds a void more fearful than his brother's before repentance. The elder son has choked his conscience.
At some time, we all behave like the sons of the compassionate father. By our sins, we all alienate ourselves from His love. The service for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son describes our alienation from God: "I have wasted the riches which the Father gave me; I have spent them all and now am destitute, dwelling in the land of evil citizens." The prodigal son was in that state until the Gospel parable says, "he came to himself."
What does "he came to himself" mean? One Holy Father says that our salvation begins in self-knowledge. We may argue that self-knowledge is a cumulative lifetime pursuit, toward which a man always strives. But the Holy Fathers would say that until you have come to know who you are; until you have sensed the image of God in yourself; until you, living amidst earthly citizens, have felt that you are a citizen of heaven and have been enslaved to "foreign citizens"; until you, amid the filth of your soul, have come to know the image of God in yourself - until then you have not entered on the path of salvation at all.
Salvation begins when you come to know your own divine nature, as the prodigal son did. In one instant he saw that he was a slave to sin in a foreign land without genuine life. After a such self-recognition, a man may contrast himself with God's image in him, however bruised and calloused by habitual sin. Then a man begins to thirst for regeneration from sin and conversion back to being God's image.
Conversion may take a great change in perspective. A monk came to Venerable Antony and began to ask that he forgive and have mercy on him. Antony replied to him: "Neither I, nor God will have mercy on thee, if thou wilt not have mercy on thyself."
This rebuff from Saint Antony may seem strange to us. How is this so? Saint Antony asks us to understand that each of us must first discover the image of God in himself. Each of us must say "Have mercy on my inner man who, though brutalized by sin, possesses the image of God; until I myself have mercy on God's creation in myself; until in my conscience I have mercy on myself, who am sinful, defiled, and prodigal, until I take pity on my immortal soul - until then, God also will not have mercy on me. Until then, my entreaty will be in vain."
Patristic experience teaches that our requests for mercy will be in vain until we must sense in ourselves the image of God, the remnants of Divine beauty in us although distorted. The prodigal son saw how badly he was living and how well his father's servants lived. At that point, he had mercy on himself, and so went to God to beg for mercy from Him.
When we have mercy on ourselves and feel the contrast between ourselves in creation and ourselves in life, then we too can follow the path of the prodigal son toward God and can beg for mercy. Renewal of the image of God in ourselves is conversion, our sole business on earth. For us to keep God's creation - the image "of God's ineffable Glory" - constantly before our eyes, means we have more mercy on ourselves. We shall perceive the joy of life in God while we endure. Then we shall come to God and shall beg Him, as the prodigal son: "make me as one of Thy hired servants." And we shall be received by God.