The Prodigal Son, the Elder Brother, the Merciful Father
Fr. Thomas Hopko · February 13, 2009
In the first of two meditations on the story known as the Prodigal Son, Fr. Tom takes a look at the three characters in the drama.
The second Sunday in the Pre-Lenten Season in the Orthodox Church, which would be the third before the actual beginning of the great Lenten 40 days, is dedicated to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. On that particular Sunday at the Divine Liturgy, the Gospel Reading is the Gospel of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. During that Sunday as well as throughout that week at the Vesper Services and then Matin Services with the Canons at Matins and the hymns of those particular liturgical worship services, the parable returns, is sung about, commented on, brought before the attention of the faithful for their meditation as they prepare themselves to enter into the season of Lent, and then into the Holy Week and then into the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection.
All Christians certainly are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son which comes from St. Luke’s Gospel. Probably most educated people in the Western World, Europe and America are also familiar with this parable of Christ. It’s a very famous one. And we know basically how the parable goes. The Lord says that there was a man who had two sons, and the younger son came to the Father and asked him for his inheritance. He said “Give me what comes to me now and I would like to take it.” The father gives him his inheritance, the son leaves home and goes off into a far country and he behaves as a prodigal. A prodigal means someone who is wasteful, who is wasting his money, wasting his goods, wasting his very life. And in the parable, this younger son wastes everything that he has. And it says that he wasted it on riotous living. He wasted it with prostitutes and all kinds of corruption. And then it says that he ended up in very bad shape. He ended up actually in the pig pen. He tried to get employment feeding the pigs and he ended up basically eating what the pigs were eating and then not even being given that. So we have this image of this young boy who wasted all his substance in riotous living, sitting in absolute distress among the swine. And then according to the story, the young man remembers the house of the father and he thinks to himself. It says that he comes to himself. And remembering the house of the father, he remembers that his father’s servants has bread enough and are not hungry and he is perishing there in hunger having squandered all that he has in this riotous and loose prodigal living. And then it says, having come to himself, he said “I will arise and I will go back home. I will return to my father’s house and I will say ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m not worthy to be called your son. Treat me like a hired slave, like one of the servants.” And then of course the boy gets up and goes. That’s why we have that expression “Get up and go.” He comes to himself, he gets up and he goes back home.
Then according to the parable which could just as easily be called the Parable of the Merciful Father, the merciful father runs out, sees him, calls his servants, clothess him, takes off his rags, close his with the best robes, put sandals on his feet, a ring on his finger, kills the fatty calf, eats and drinks and make merry. And he explains why. He said, “Because my son was dead and he is alive again. He was lost and he is found.” And they began to make merry. This part of the parable, of course, is given to the faithful and is intended that faithful Christians would hear this and identify themselves with that prodigal son. They would try to look at their lives and see how much they have wasted their substance. The father would stand for God who gives His gifts to His people. They would understand how they have been living riotous living or whatever to one measure or another. But in any case, the intention would be to inspire people to remember the house of the father and to come back home to the house of the father and to be absolutely assured that if they repent, if they say that they’re sorry, if they admit that they have wasted their life, that the father will take them back. The father will receive them. This is of course what every human being, and certainly every sinner would count on, would hope for. That no matter what we have done, whatever it would be, if we return to the father, he runs out to meet us, he kisses us, he embraces us, he takes us home. He doesn’t want us to be lost. He doesn’t want us to be dead. The prophets of the Old Testament said, as Ezekiel said, has the Lord saying, “I desire not the death of a sinner but that he return from his wickedness and live.”
So the Lenten Season, as a season of repentance, is there for all to repent of our sins and to know as one of our Church Fathers said “The only mortal sin, the only sin on to death, is the sin that’s not repented of.” In fact, Jesus said that there’s only one unforgivable sin – the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. He said we can blaspheme God, blaspheme the Son of God, but if we blaspheme the Spirit then there’s no hope for us. Why? Because the blasphemy of the Spirit would mean that we don’t repent—that we don’t accept forgiveness. We don’t accept mercy. We think that our prodigality, our madness is greater than the mercy of God which is just the blasphemy. So we are called to trust in the mercy of God but to admit our own sin. We have to admit the sin like Publican in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, who knew that he had done wrong and to admit it.
Now, there’s another part of the parable that has to do with the older brother. The older brother doesn’t like the fact that the younger one has come back. He’s offended. He was with the father all the time. He is angry. He refuses to go into the celebration. And he says to the father, “I’ve served you all these years. I’ve never disobeyed your commandments, yet you never threw a party like this for me. But when this son of yours, (it’s an incredible formula), when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots and prostitutes, you accepted him back.”
The father says to the older brother, “Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” And that’s such an important phrase. God actually says to every one of us, “Everything that I have is yours.” Some Church Fathers even improved on that sentence. They kind of magnified it. They said, “God not only says to us ‘Everything that I have is yours’, He even says ‘Everything that I am is yours. My very being is yours. I have created you and saved you not only to have what I have but to be what I am by faith, by grace to be divine’. The Church Fathers dare even to say that “A human being is a creature made by God and saved by God, sanctified by God to be by grace everything that God himself by nature, by being God.” They dare to say that “The human being is a creature commanded to be divine, made to be divine, to be and to have all that God is and has.”
So this older son has to be convinced of this. It raises many, many questions about this parable. Who is that older son? Is it the self-righteous people who think that they are all selfish. Like the Pharisee in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the older brother didn’t sin. Just like the Pharisee, he kept the rules. The older brother kept the rules. But again, what seems to be at stake here is that the older brother doesn’t realize what he has. He doesn’t realize what’s there. He doesn’t realize that he has everything that the father has. And he wants to judge the others. He doesn’t want the other to have it. Just like the old story Under Communism in Eastern Europe where the fellow goes to the party chief and says “You know, my neighbor has a cow and they’re supposed to be collectivized and he’s not supposed to have that cow.” And when the Commissar says to the man “Oh, are you telling me this because you want a cow, too?” He said, “No. I’m telling you this because I don’t want him to have one.”
Now here, of course, the parable is hoping to tell us that if we are God-like, we’ll rejoice to be in the house of the father always and we’ll be terribly happy when someone who is dead and lost returns and comes back. We loose nothing of our own. We have it. It’s there all the time. But this inability to rejoice in the repentance of another… St John Chrysostomos, great saint of our church whom we quote very often, he said “Almost any noble person can weep with those who weep but very few of us can rejoice with those who rejoice.” Very few of us can really rejoice in the salvation of another. Yet the Holy Fathers, the Desert Fathers particularly, they tell us “How blessed is that man—makarios aner (Μακάριος Ανήρ)—How blessed is it that man, how happy who rejoices in his own salvation. But more happy is the man who can rejoice in the salvation of his brother, who rejoices in his brother’s repentance more than in his own well-being.”
Sometimes some of the interpreters of this parable even (I don’t know if this is accurate or not, I present it for your thought), they say that maybe these two brothers somehow indicate God’s people and the Gentiles; that the older brother symbolizes the people of Israel who were always with God, who had the oracles of God, who had the commandments. And the younger brother symbolizes the Gentiles who took what God gave and just wasted it and didn’t care about the house of the father and just worshipped the idols. Maybe that’s true. Maybe there is some truth to that type of interpretation because we do know from the New Testament that there was some offense always among God’s people that the Gentiles would be included. There was a movement that if they are to be include they have to become Jews. They have to be circumcised. They have to keep the law. They have to know that they are coming into our covenant. And as St. Paul said, “Yes, indeed. The Gentiles are grafted to the covenant of the people of Israel. But the people of Israel have to know that they exist for the sake of their salvation and they should rejoice in it.”
You know there is a text in scripture where God says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will punish whom I will punish, too.” And some Christians grossly misinterpret that by thinking that text simply means God can be merciful to whomever He wants to, He will save whomever He wants to, He is sovereignly powerful, if He sends us to hell we have no case against Him, but if He decides to save some of us, that’s His business and we have no case against Him; that we are the clay and He is the potter. He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. But to interpret it that way, at least in Eastern Orthodox tradition, is really not accurate. The interpretation rather is that God says to His people and to every single one of us, “You are not going to tell me upon whom I will have mercy. And I will have mercy on the Gentiles.” But the good news of the gospel, the glad tidings of the gospel is that the victory of Christ on the cross is for everyone. When God says I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, the gospel is He has mercy on absolutely everyone, without exception. As it says in the Scripture, first letter of John, that He is the Savior not only of the believers but of the whole world. And that the same is sure on that those who believe in him will be saved by Him especially those who believed. But He came for the salvation of all human beings. All people. It’s not just the salvation of some people. It’s the salvation of all without exception. That is the gospel. And the only judgment is whether or not we believe it and whether or not we want it. And those who consider themselves righteous should also know the living God - they should rejoice in that. They should be happy about that. They shouldn’t say “I struggle the whole day and look at this person who only worked a few hours and gets the same salvation.” He should be happy about it. And that it seems to me is an important part of this parable.
When I was a young priest, I had a parish where the people were fighting with each other and many people left. And when I came to that church as the pastor I tried to bring back the people who had gone away. And it worked pretty well, basically. But part of the big problem was those who have stayed and suffered through everything, they were offended that these people would just come back and become part of the church again. And I had to tell them “Listen, this is the house of the Father. If you were here the whole time, you should be happy. You always had it. But those people who left, perhaps they were lost and now they’re found again. Maybe they were even dead out there. Now they are alive again. Our door should be open and we should rejoice that they are returning.”
So as we begin this Lenten Season and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ, we should know that the Lenten Season isn’t just for this time of the year. It’s a time when we remind ourselves of the things we should be thinking about all the time. We should try to be the way we ought to be all the time. That we should be doing the things that we are called by God to do all the time, that give us life. In this parable there are certainly two things that we should know and see. One is however badly we have sinned, however far away we’ve gone from the house of the father, if we return the door is open, the food is set, the robes are ready and we will be received. And we also have to know that if we have been living in that house of the father, if we have been trying to be there, we have to know that it’s always been ours. God has been sharing everything with us all along. And how happy we should be. How joyful when we see anyone who was dead and is now alive again, who was lost and now is found.