Brothers and sisters the gracious hands of the church are molding us as we approach Great Lent. We are coming to that season of wonders, that season of radical change for us. It is a holy time, the Holy Fathers of the church call Lent, a tithe of the year. It is approximately ten percent of the entire year and if we embrace Lent sincerely, it sanctifies the whole year that is how much grace exists in the season of Lent.
And to prepare us for this, the weeks that follow, that precede rather the beginning of Lent, are these incredible commemorations; Zacchaeus two weeks ago, teaching us to strive to climb our own trees to see Christ to bring him into our home, to do what is necessary to right the wrongs we have done. The Pharisee and the Publican last week, teaching us the power of humility before God and the great danger of pride and then today, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
We stand in bewilderment at the most striking character of this parable. The prodigal himself is an amazing man. His brother is even more complex but the wonder that we feel most about is the Father. Who could be like him? What father is there among us who could so graciously give, to his young overenthusiastic and overconfident son his inheritance early? Who could hear of him squandering it? Who could hear of him defiling the name of the family? Disregarding his gifts, ruining his life with harlots and immortality and ending up in such poverty and still the father’s disposition is one of constant love constant concern and it is expressed in the parable by the fact that the Father’s spends his days, gazing upon the road that he last saw his son on. He saw the back of his son’s head as his son was departing and that is the point that the father has fixed his gaze upon hoping to see his face return.
Though he no doubt had to leave that spot and work in the field, his mind’s eye was fixed there. What kind of father could receive his son back with such a deep resolve to say nothing to him? Not a single, “I told you so.” Not a single word of chastisement. No questions even to satisfy himself that his son had really repented.
What father could after just having this wound healed, what father could endure another son opening a raw wound? His son who had never left him in body but was miles from him in soul and yet the father bore with him with patience. “Son, what’s wrong? What have you lacked? Haven’t you always been with me?” Isn’t everything I have yours? This father is a picture of the Almighty God, the One God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. The father of us all and it is even a dim picture, it is the highest earthly picture but even that we must go far beyond. Even that we must say it is insufficient to depict for us the heart of the true God, he is more wonderful, even more bewildering in his mercy.
That is not my homily. That is what I was struck with listening to that Gospel. I had hoped to speak to you about the subject of abandonment and I think I still will in an abbreviated fashion. Abandonment because the Gospel is full of it. Though the Father never abandoned his sons, there is such a thing as being abandoned by God and I want to explain to you what that means.
This concept of Divine abandonment is found in the writings of many fathers and in the Scriptures themselves. Usually Divine abandonment comes when we have risen ourselves up high in our own thoughts or have treated someone with contempt or have placed judgement on someone for their sins. When that happens, usually the Lord God withdraws from us and He takes with Him the grace that sustains us in goodness, so for instance when we judge someone for being mean, what do we find ourselves doing within a day or two of that nasty judgment but doing the same thing. This is the mercy of God, He sees us become proud, so He takes a step back, He lets us fall onto our face to remember who we are, to recover our sense of dependency upon Him and then He picks us back up. In the words of the Scriptures, “He resists the proud but He gives grace to those who are humble.” This is Divine abandonment in the form of resistance and He doesn’t just do it when we are stupid. For those who are making excellent progress, He even does it to them as a reward for virtue.
Let me explain that to you. Sometimes when He sees us running hard and desiring Him, then particularly He sends upon us a dark night of the soul. Imagine it this way, as a Divine pedagogy for maturation, like when your child is learning to walk. Prior to that time when you judge that child is capable, you are so careful to make sure you keep that child protected and in your arms but when that time comes for your child to walk, and you have seen them stumbling around tables and taking a step here and there, eventually you put them down in front of you and what do you do but back away and you kneel down and you put your arms out and you take a risk, the risk that that child might fall on his or her face. But in your judgement, it is time to take that risk, to give them the chance to build the confidence that they can take those two or three or four steps.
When they get a little bit older, you do it in a more dangerous way when they learn to ride a bicycle for instance. Then you start by holding the back of that seat right? And it is going left and it is going right and you are holding it straight but eventually “whoosh” there they go, there they go. And more often than not they will come back crying and that’s okay, that’s okay. You are doing it on some safe sidewalk or in some parking lot where there are no cars and it’s all good. And it is a blessing even to help them move forward in their life and the Lord God does this. He does this especially to those who are exceedingly strong.
And often near the end of their day, many of our saints found in their last years, tremendous trials and this is because the Lord God in His mercy is preparing them for an explosion of maturation into the next life and He wants them to come to their last moments when the decisions of every human person are so packed with import.
What you say in your last moments and days and what you think and what you do have more consequence than all of the days and years that you lived already. There is no making up if you make mistakes. Because of this the Lord really drives you and gives you this challenge for our benefit. This is Divine abandonment but it is not the message of the Gospel as much as the reverse and that is human abandonment.
The Lord in His decision to abandon on occasion, his children, is an act of love. It is something that He does as a loving Father but there is such a thing as human abandonment of God that is not of love, it’s of weakness and we see it in the Gospel. The most obvious account in the Gospel is abandonment of the prodigal of his father. He was more interested in his father’s goods, in his things, in his resources than his father himself and this to see a child act this way is a great grief to any parent, a great sorrow because what does the parent want but the child and nothing from the child. Just the child.
Sometimes the flash and glitter of this life are too much for the young, particularly, and they fall in love with those things and they leave those that they love most until they taste the bitter dregs the world has to offer and then they with God’s help can remember what is of value.
This is abandonment by God indeed. It is not apostasy, you see what this man was doing, every church has this pain, every church has this experience and every family does. There are times when weakness prevails, when good faithful members of the church disappear, sometimes and sadly for a long period of time.
One of the, No, not one, the number one time of human abandonment is the time when young people leave home to go to the university. The percentage of abandonment by good, even Orthodox, Christian children when they go to university would stagger you. All the glit, all the flare, all the flash is just too much, just too much. It is a time for great care from the community and from parents to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
We can abandon God indeed, like the prodigal, and this is called weakness. The prodigal knew he was a son even when he was in the pit. When he came to his senses he said, I will return to my father.” He hadn’t ended the relationship and the father certainly hadn’t. He was excommunicated which meant ex-communio, he was out of communion with his dad but he wasn’t a cast off. He hadn’t been lopped off, he was a family member, a weak one. A messed up one and he had the possibility of recovering and he knew his father’s disposition and he knew at any moment, “I can go back. I’ll go back and I’ll say Father”, he knew that, and he did and he went back and he said “Father I am not worthy to be your son.” He had come 180 degrees.
But the real abandonment that had taken place was not the prodigal son and believe it or not brothers and sisters, this parable was not said for people primarily like him. All though of course, it had such a tremendous message and consolation for us who are wretched. The parable was primarily said, we know this because the verse before the parable says, “that Jesus said this parable because there was those there that thought themselves righteous and held other in contempt.” The real message is to the son who never left. Physically, he had abandoned his father just as much as the prodigal, in fact even more.
Not bodily, not in outward disposition, his own testimony is, “Father, I have always been with you and I have always kept your commandments.” We have no reason to doubt that but I promise you brothers and sisters, that son next to his father, never leaving his presence, always obeying his commandments, was farther away than the prodigal ever was in the pigpen.
Why? Because he had left his father in his heart and mind. He had given way to delusion and fantasy about who he was and what his relationship to his father was based on. He thought, standing in the presence and keeping it in an exterior fashion the commandment was the substance of his relationship with the father. This is a terrible temptation for religious people. Do we hear that voice? I do. I hear that demonic voice that says, “you go to church, you keep the commandments of God, you are close to God.”
If those things are born of the heart and of a mind that thinks the beautiful and humble thought of true sons and daughters of God, that is true. And there is no better way of life than to be near God, to live in the presence of His church and to keep His sacred commandments. This is the best way of life but all of those things if they are not born from the heart and they are not resting on the pillow of humility in the mind, they are worthless and we will end up like that overconfident and proud son who said, “That son of yours, who squandered his possessions with harlots.” He was another Pharisee, standing in the temple with exalted thoughts of himself. Tragedy.
So how do we avoid that? I want to encourage you with one thing. It’s a story from the life of St. Anthony the Great, because he faced this temptation in his own life. This is before 300. St. Anthony was born in 250. He died in, what?, 356, one hundred and six years old, something like that. He had lived in the desert when there were hardly any compatriots. We call him the Father of Monasticism because of his courage. He had dispossessed after his parents had died, he dispossessed himself and gave everything he had to the poor. He put his sister I the care of nuns and then he went to the desert.
After some time in the desert making great strides, keeping the Lord’s commandments like hardly anyone could. He prayed to the Lord God and he said, “Lord, show me how much have I progressed, where am I in your sight?” A good prayer. And the Lord God said, “You have not attained unto the rank of the shoemaker in Alexandria. You can imagine that was quite a shock to Anthony. The shoemaker in the city? So he, being a humble soul, went to find the shoemaker in Alexandria and he did find him and he said, “tell me brother about your way of life?”
He said, “There is not much to it. I make shoes, I give one third of my income to the church, I give one third of my income to the poor and I live on one third.” And we hearing that are amazed, Anthony was not amazed, he found that in no way extraordinary, he had himself sold everything, 100% so he thought to himself, “what am I supposed to learn from this man.”
So he told the man the truth, I am in your house because God sent me to you, to learn from you. Tell me more about your life.” He said, “There is nothing to tell. Except that I work every day and while I am working and the people pass by I look at each one and I think to myself, “they will all be saved and I alone will perish.” Anthony knew he had his answer, the man was a radiant son, a teacher of the father of the desert, though he lived in a little cobbler’s store because of where he was in his mind.
He was so humble that he considered every person he saw his superior and he considered that they all would inhabit the kingdom of God and the only person who would find himself outside was himself. That interaction has fertilized the teachings of our Fathers down to this present day. It has been passed from mouth to mouth and then from book to book, from monastery and church, to monastery and church till this very day. No one made that experience more powerful after Anthony than a twentieth century saint who is adorning our western wall, St. Silouan the Athonite. Who said the exact same thing. He became great before God, this peasant and son of a peasant from Russia. He became the “mighty man on the earth” because everyone he saw he said he learned to believe that they all would be saved, in his words, “that the whole world would be saved and I only will perish.”
If we have humble thoughts like that if we have humble thoughts like that we will never abandon God. We will be next to our father, in his presence and we will inherit not just our inheritance that he has put aside for us, all of that he has which will become ours but we will stay with him, near to him for all of eternity. This is my hope for you and for me, together when the kingdom comes soon. He will find us with those kinds of thoughts close to him.