Audio length: 21:07 minutes
Transcript published: May 01, 2011
A look at the prodigal son, the elder brother, and the forgiving father.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s reading, my brothers and sisters, is the story of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32). This reading was put here on this Sunday in the recent reform of the Orthodox lectionary in the seventh century. Anything that happened in the 600s for Orthodoxy is yesterday. Like last Sunday’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), today’s story is a studied contrast between two men who are brothers.
Today’s older brother, who is self-righteous and judgmental toward his younger sibling, corresponds to last week’s Pharisee who boasted of his righteousness and passed judgment on the publican. These two stories are from Luke, and that is virtually a leitmotif through the Gospel of Luke. Today’s younger brother, who is repentant and begs for forgiveness, corresponds to last Sunday’s publican who prayed for mercy in the temple. Now, most of us rather suspect which one the Church hopes that we will identify with, so we will all become good publicans and say, “thankfully we are not like that Pharisee there.” The church hopes that we will side with the younger brother.
There are three persons in today’s story, the father and the two sons. They provide the three points of our reflections. Now, because the idea of the Church is that we should hope to identify with the younger son and repent, this is known as the parable of the prodigal son. It could just as well be called something else. It could be known as the parable of the merciful father. The Gospel book, from which the deacon sang the Gospel this morning, puts that parable on two pages. One page is about the younger son and the other page is about the older son. The one who is in both pages is the father. It could also be known as the parable of the self-righteous son. But there are three ways of looking at it.
Let’s take first the younger brother, often known as the prodigal son, after whom the parable is commonly named. Now, when I think of this younger son, I am invariably reminded of Jacob’s older brother, Esau. Why am I invariably reminded of that? Because in the Western lectionary tradition, those two readings always go together. The story of Esau and Jacob is always read with the story of the older and younger sons in the Gospel of Luke in the Western tradition. Look at, say, Cardinal Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons. He wasn’t a cardinal when he preached these sermons, he was an Anglican. Cardinal Newman interprets this parable completely within the context of the story of Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:27-33).
Anyway I think of Jacob’s older brother Esau in connection with this parable inasmuch as both men were heedless of their inheritance. They both sold out what they were heir to. Both of these young men who enjoyed the fortune of having good fathers proved themselves to be utter fools. Both of them, I say, were careless about their inheritance. Esau sold his inheritance for a bowl of soup. Today’s younger brother spent his in riotous living in the far country.
In due course, both of these young fools came to regret their mistakes. It is in respect to their regrets that our comparison between Esau and today’s younger son must be modified into a significant contrast. Whereas Esau simply regretted his loss, this younger son actually repented of his sin, and they are very different things. The difference between these two men illustrates the difference between regret and repentance.
We see this difference well in two of Jesus’ apostles. This is portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 26:69-75) and (Matthew 27:3-10), and I have written an article about this in the April issue of Touchstone. Matthew does this contrast between Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot. He is the only one that brings the two of them together in order to make the contrast. Judas regrets what he has done whereas Simon Peter actually repents. The one hanged himself in despair. The other prayed for forgiveness.
Now, this same difference between regret and repentance is precisely what we see in the comparison between Esau and the younger son in today’s parable. I have not read that sermon of Cardinal Newman since the early sixties, so that is well over forty years ago. It stands out in my mind vividly because of the portrayal. Esau regretted the loss of his inheritance. He regretted it, whereas the prodigal son actually repented of his sin and begged forgiveness from his father.
You see, looking back on our lives and regretting something is not the same thing as repenting. It is not sufficient that I look back over my life and say, “Hmm, I made a mistake there.” Or, “Yes, about thirty years ago, I behaved inappropriately for about six months.” Esau never blames himself, you notice that?
Then Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright, and now look, he has taken away my blessing.” So he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”
Esau never blames himself. He throws the blame for his dilemma on his brother Jacob. “My brother did this to me. He is the one that sold me that soup for my birthright. It’s his fault, he sold me the soup.” The prodigal son blames no one but himself. The prodigal son is travelling in a far country. It is what is known in contemporary therapeutic disciplines as alienation. He is travelling in a far country. The Gospel story tells us:
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s servants have bread enough and to spare, and I will perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’”
He came to himself. That is the beginning of repentance, to come to one’s self. In coming to himself he realized that he was the one who had sinned, and the responsibility was entirely his own. His had been, moreover, a twofold sin, an offense against God and at that man whom God had given him to be his father. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
It is with these sentiments that the Church wants to fill our hearts during this time of the Triodion as we prepare for Lent. The chanters chanted again this morning after the reading of the Gospel and after the recitation of Psalm 51 of David, the Miserere, “Open unto me the door of repentance.”
Open to me the doors of repentance, O Lifegiver
For my soul goeth early to the temple of thy holiness, coming in the temple of my body, wholly polluted. But because thou art compassionate, purify me by the compassion of thy mercies.
Prepare for me the ways of salvation, O Theotokos
For I have profaned myself with coarse sins, and consumed my whole life with procrastination. But by thine intercessions purify thou me from all abomination.
Second, there is the older brother in today’s parable, the man who feels himself entirely righteous, and passes judgment on his younger brother. Now, this older brother puts me in mind of the prophet Jonah. I think of him in connection with the older brother. In fact, the story of Jonah, the book of Jonah, and this parable are uncomfortably similar. To begin, they both have the same theme. Both the book of Jonah and today’s parable are stories of divine mercy bestowed on the unworthy, the sinful.
Today’s younger brother repents of his sins as do the men of Nineveh. The men of Nineveh, you recall, took their lenten fast so seriously. It was a forty day fast. That’s where we get the forty day fast, right out of the book of Jonah. The men of Nineveh take their fast so seriously, they even make the cattle fast. The very last thing the Lord mentions in the book:
And shall I Myself not take pity upon Nineveh, the great city, in which dwell more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know either their right hand or their left—and many livestock?
Here we have these people who can’t tell their right hands from their left. They were dyslexic. “They can’t tell their right hands from their left”, and He says, “and all these cattle.” That’s the last thing God says, “All these cattle.” Both, in turn, the younger son and the Ninevites, are forgiven of their sins and reconciled to God.
But how do Jonah and the older brother react to this repentance and this divine mercy toward the sinner? The same word is used for both Jonah and today’s older son, the same word is used, anger, anger, they are upset.
But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time, and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
They are angry at the divine mercy because people are not getting what is coming to them. I hear this every once in awhile, and perhaps people feel safe telling me this. They shouldn’t. I hear this every once in awhile, “I’m been living my whole life trying to keep the commandments, coming to church regularly and doing everything the Lord expects of me, but so and so didn’t do any of that, and he repented on his deathbed and went to heaven.” An actual example of people that are actually upset that somebody’s soul was saved.
Now at the end of each story we find, therefore, a further call to repentance. This parable today ends with the older brother being called to repentance. The book of Jonah ends with Jonah being called to repentance. In the last line of the book of Jonah, God questions Jonah, “Should I not pity Nineveh?” This is how the book of Jonah ends, with that question, which summons Jonah to repentance. Likewise in today’s parable the father of the two sons calls his older son to come in and enjoy the banquet and celebrate the return of his wayward brother:
And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’
That’s the last line of today’s story. Both the book of Jonah, therefore, and the parable of the prodigal son end with a question. The question is put to each one of us who read it. When these stories are proclaimed as they were this morning here in church, the Gospel at least, every one of us is being summoned to repentance. Both stories tell us to stop judging others, to rejoice in the divine mercy, to foreswear an angry self-righteous attitude toward our fellow sinners. This is probably the most important thing to learn as one joins the Orthodox Church, never ever again to pass judgment on anybody. Probably the most damnable of offenses is eventually to pass judgment on the Church, which has never claimed to be anything but an assembly of sinners.
And finally, my beloved, let’s talk about the third person in today’s parable, the most important one, that is the father, the figure who represents God Himself. This father is portrayed as merciful and loving. This father is not a sort of projection of our own image of the father, our own experience of the father. For some of us, it’s pretty good, for some a mixed bag, for some, the experience is absolutely miserable. I have to tell you, I have never had any sympathy at all for that complaint. I have never felt any sympathy for someone who has come to me and said, “I can’t call God my father because my father was mean.” We are not talking about dear old Dad. We are talking about the father as he appears in this book.
This is where we get our notion of fatherhood, from this book. This father is portrayed as merciful and loving. The Gospel tells us that when the younger son was still far off, his father saw him and had compassion and he ran, the father ran, the father, the old man ran. Do you know what it’s like for an old man to run? The father ran and fell on his neck and began kissing him. Now this is that ancient Father from whom we have all become estranged, from whose house the human race departed even at the time of Adam.
In classical literature, this ancient father was symbolized with the character of Laertes in Homer’s Odyssey. The saga of Odysseus, who is a figure of a human being as a wanderer on this earth, comes to an end in the final book when Odysseus comes back to the home of his father Laertes. If the Odyssey were written today, of course, the book would end on the second to the last book, where Odysseus comes back and finds Penelope, man and woman, very romantic. That’s not the way antiquity saw it. The bigger problem was not the separation of the sexes. The bigger problem was the alienation of the generations. This great work ends when Odysseus comes back to the arms of Laertes.
Our Father’s home is the intended end place set for the life of every one of us when we have finished our wandering on the earth. Here, as we prepare for the holy season of lent, we are summoned to return to the Father from whom we have strayed. Today’s Gospel as we read it year by year on the threshold of lent forbids us to think of the father as harsh, demanding, uncompromising or unforgiving. This Father, on the contrary, longs for the return of His child. This is described so often in the books of Hosea and Jeremiah. We speak of the very entrails of God, agitated love and longing of those made in His own image and likeness. It is of Him that Jesus says to His apostles:
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.
“The Father Himself loves you.” It was of this father that St. Paul wrote:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?
Paul then goes on, in that eighth chapter of Romans to express the confidence we have in this eternal Father:
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We begin our repentance, then, by saying with the younger son, “I will arise and go to my father.” That is the line that governs the Triodion and Lent. “I will arise and go to my father.” Year by year, as each of us grows older and closer to life’s end, it may be that we become more aware of this return to the Father’s house. I believe that is one of the blessings of getting old. We take comfort from this parable of the prodigal son’s return, the story that strengthens hope in every heart that belongs to God.
Such a man, let me suggest, was the second Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius. As Ignatius journeyed to his martyrdom in the year 107, he wrote to the Church of Rome of his inner experience of the Holy Spirit. These are the words of Hieromartyr Ignatius:
For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die for the sake of Christ. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me that loves anything; but there is living water springing up in me, and which says to me inwardly, Come to the Father.
(Ignatius, Epistle to the Church of Rome)
Actually, it’s a free translation, it’s the living water, whispering within me, saying inside of me, “Come to the father.” This is the summons as well of today’s Gospel, Come to the father.
Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, published by The Fellowship of St. James, has archived feature articles by Very Rev. Patrick Reardon. The text of The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans is from Anti-Nicene Fathers volume 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, available online in multiple formats.