One of the most referenced parables from the Gospels is the one we read before Great Lent concerning the Progidal Son. It is the perhaps the supreme example of how the love of God is manifested to us in understandable language. We should never forget that, even though we all may feel we grasp repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, it is never entirely completed in a single reading, or a single study, or a single homily. One of the reasons we revisit the Prodigal Son at this time of year, as we prepare for our Lenten journey, is exactly this: because each year is different for us, no matter how we may think we have not changed, or have changed, we need the reminder so we better contemplate our life and relationship to both Christ and each other.
So as we approach this great teaching of Christ this time, can we spend a little time in reflection on what, in its content, is the similar and familiar and what is different, and can we see anything new in it for ourselves?
Let us start with the familiar. Here is a loving father, with two sons. One is a dedicated and loyal man, the other an impatient man, anxious for his own future in his own way. When the son asks for his inheritance now, his father does not hesitate, or argue with him; he simply gives him what he asks for, knowing he is surely bound for a troubled future. When he has spent all his inheritance in a far country he comes to his senses and returns, hoping his father will let him live as a hired servant. Not only does the father welcome him gladly, he holds a great feast in his honor.
The other son, who never left his father’s side, now sees this and is distressed, angry that his father does such a thing to his brother who squandered his inheritance.
In both cases, it is the father who goes to each of them, in love, to reconcile them to himself and to each other. While it is sometimes hard to understand, the father’s rejoicing cannot be understood by the older and more loyal brother; and we, too, share in his frustration because we do not have the capacity to fully appreciate what has taken place. In the end, the father explains, your brother was lost and is found, was dead and is alive.
To think of ourselves as dead is hard to grasp. To be living the life of the Church, each in our own way, and to think of being lost is also difficult. Those two terms belong to the vagrants of society, the ones we “know” are true sinners, who only show up at services occasionally. The ones we “know” never do anything for anyone but themselves, or are avoiding church altogether. Yes, they are lost, they are dead, but not us, it can’t be us. We say our prayers, we come regularly to worship, go to confession, always kiss father’s hand out of respect, and so on. How could we be lost? We know the path and we’re on it, right?
This is precisely why we need to visit this parable every year. We get comfortable with who we are, and the trouble is all around us, but it is not in us, or so we think. We have never lived in an age with so many conflicting arguments for the truth going on at the same time. Whether we are speaking about political turmoil, or human dignity, or human relationships, it seems every particular group calls out for attention, citing the litany of reasons why they are right and cannot be wrong; and if you disagree with them, you are wrong, or a hater, or ignorant, or whatever catch phrase they may want to use. It all still boils down to one thing: no one is able to see the fulness of truth and therefore does not understand how we can live in relationship with each other.
By now you must think me pretty far afield of the purpose of the parable, but let me explain. In the beginning the young son was sure of his future and did not want to live any longer under his father’s guidance. He wanted what was his and he was going to go somewhere and enjoy it without being under his father’s or brother’s prying eyes. For that he needed a far country, and away he went. As long as his money lasted, he had friends aplenty. But once it was gone, they all forgot about him. He ends up doing a task he must have despised; and feeling sorry for himself, for the first time in his life he realized he had made a great deal of wrong decisions. He “came to himself,” as the Scripture says, and yearned to be a simple servant in his father’s house, for surely his father must despise him by now for what he has done. But deep down inside, he never forgot how loving his father was, and that is what gave him the strength to return.
Of course, now he comes onto an unexpected consequence of his actions as his father who had been waiting and longing for his return runs to greet him. He ignores his son’s words asking to be a hired servant and immediately calls for a celebration. How wonderful!
But there is a catch: there is another son who is not so pleased and says so to his father, not even being able to refer to him as his brother, but now only “your son”—who, by the way, spent his inheritance in a despicable way—must also be dealt with. The parable ends without us really knowing the outcome of that portion of the story, but we can hope that over time they were healed and reconciled. I believe the love of the father would have enabled that to happen.
Those of us who have children who are now grown have all lived this parable in one way or another. Whatever we may believe the “far country” to be, a fall into addiction, a fall into sexual immorality, or even simply apostasy, it is hard to accept and even harder to understand. If we truly love them, as our heavenly Father loves us, we must imitate Him. We must be watching and waiting for their return. As the Gospel says, that “while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him,” and he ran to him and embraced him. His love for his son never changed, but his joy was increased because he returned.
Then we have the other son, who was always “doing the right thing.” It is even hard to tell at whom he is more angry, the brother or the father? How could this squandering son be of more importance to him than I am? How sad that he cannot share in his father’s joy. How sad that he turns out to be the one who is “lost” if he cannot see the great love of his father. And we know that if he does not change his thinking, eventually he will be dead to his father, dead to love, and dead to the future in the Kingdom of God. How sad would that be?
So today, as we think on this parable, we need to remind ourselves that, in the “family” of the Church, there are perhaps wayward sons and daughter, some our own, some from others and some we hardly know. We may consider ourselves to be in that “far country” because of our life choices. But what we should always seek to emulate, the example we have been given, is to have a heart that will go out to them, even while they are afar off, and be ready to rejoice in their return. In whatever form that takes, in however many ways there are, let us not be like the elder son so full of pride and ridicule that he could no longer love his brother; but let us be willing to participate in the rejoicing over their return.
So no one remains lost or dead, but all are alive in Christ. Amen.
Bishop David (Mahaffey) is the Bishop of the Diocese of Alaska of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the oldest Orthodox episcopal see in North America.