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TALK ON THE PARABLE OF

THE PRODIGAL SON

        21st February 2008

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W
ith the Sunday that just passed, the Church entered the period known as the Triodion. It is the service book that will take us up to the last service of Great and Holy Saturday. It takes its name from the odes sung during Mattins on weekdays of this period. At all other times of the year a collection of short hymns called the canons are made up of eight odes or canticles. Now instead of eight there are only three odes - thus trio for three plus odes make up the word Triodion. It is the book of Lent, but begins with four Sundays before the onset of Great lent with themes that will help us to prepare for that spiritual journey that will lead us to that feast of all feast, the Festival of Pascha. For each of the four Sundays before Lent, the themes are based on the Gospel readings of that Sunday. Thus, last Sunday the Gospel reading was the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee which teaches us to beware of the Pharisee’s pride and self assurance, and rather that we should embrace the humility of the Publican. The Kontakion of the day, as also all the hymns, speak clearly of this: “Let us flee from the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Saviour: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.”
The second Sunday is called the Sunday of the Prodigal Son again because the Gospel reading for this Sunday is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the Gospel reading we will hear on this coming Sunday. Appropriately our talk today will be on this very moving story which should help give us a clearer understanding to the deeper meanings of the Parable. We talked about this Parable at some length last year in our Talk on the preparation for Great Lent, so today I don’t want to repeat what has already been said. For those who have internet access and want a more traditional explanation on the Parable they can visit the Talks page on the website.
Before we begin our look at the Parable, we should say what parables are. A parable is a story told in a familiar and simple way with a moral lesson as a means to teach us that we need to change our current way of life. It is used as an analogy [comparison] so that one can understand a deeper meaning having a religious and spiritual significance. Jesus probably used parables to explain His teachings because there was less chance of people being offended than if he came straight out and told them the truth about their spiritual condition. Every parable requires that we change our behaviour, our thoughts, our beliefs, in fact our complete way of life if we want to be saved and live eternally with God.
Jesus’ parables teach a series of moral concepts using the culture of the times. They are just as relevant for us today as they were then, but for us to understand them we need to examine them in the light of the Jewish culture and customs of that time. For instance, in the story of the Prodigal son, the son demanded his share of the inheritance. Under Jewish law he was entitled to half of what the older brother was to receive. But more than this, did he have the right to ask for the inheritance while his father was still alive? To do so prematurely was to imply that he didn’t care if his father was alive or dead and can even be interpreted as though he wished his father’s death.
To understand all parables we must first identify ourselves with the characters, because one of them is me. Jesus is talking directly to me and he wants me to understand how distant my life is from God. This is probably more true in the parable of the Prodigal Son than in any other parable. Thus in today’s parable there are three characters: a father and two sons. We should identify and see ourselves in the younger of the two sons: He is you and me and in general all of humanity.
What I want to do is for us to look at two specific points of the Parable, the Prodigal Son’s sin and his repentance and with a little imagination try and identify these in ourselves and other people of today -. I’m sure you all know the parable, but just to refresh our memories here’s a quick summery of the story.
The Parable tells of a father and his two sons. The younger of the two asks from his father his share of the inheritance which he receives and then leaves home for a distant land. In this far away country he spends all his wealth living a wasteful and reckless life like there is no tomorrow, but a famine arose and he found himself without any money and starving. He finds work looking after a herd of swine but he was still so hungry that he could have eaten the pig’s food. Eventually he comes to his senses and realizes that at his father’s house even the servants have enough to eat. He decides to return home hoping that his father will receive him if only as a servant. His father sees him while still a long way off and runs to embrace him and kiss him. As the son begins to ask for forgiveness, his father orders the servants to dress him with the finest robe and shoes and also place a ring on his finger signifying that he receives him back as his long lost son and not as a servant. They then kill the fatted calf and celebrate his return. The older brother on hearing of his brother’s return is envious that his father should have received him with celebrations and even more so because he was reinstated as a son. In other words, equal with himself, who had always been a faithful son, living piously and always observing his father’s commandments.
The Prodigal Son’s sin and every sinner have two perspectives: the reckless squandering of one’s wealth and money and the eventual outcome of this recklessness. The Prodigal Son of the Parable was the younger of the two sons and as such is portrayed as most young people today: immature, spontaneous, reckless, rebellious, wanting money, freedom and independence and not thinking carefully on the outcome of their actions. The son asks and receives from his father his share of the inheritance and seeking to be free from the strict rules of home, sets out to find freedom and a good time. Every sinner, seeking to distance himself from God, is empty headed and foolish. The Prodigal continues on his journey and at every turn of the road checks to see if the money is still in his possession to confirm to himself that he still has his father’s wealth. The parable talks of material wealth, but as we said earlier everything in parables have a spiritual meaning. In this case the inherited wealth means the spiritual gifts and blessings we received at Baptism, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the spiritual virtues, the image and likeness of God, but also includes the bodily senses and organs we associate with being the members of our body that reflect our spiritual state of health: for example the tongue, the ears, the heart, mind and soul, and in fact our whole body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Distant from God, the sinner believes that these gifts are his and he wants to enjoy them without any strings attached to God and his divine protection.
The Prodigal Son reaches a distant and strange land far away from God and begins to enjoy life having a ball of a time. This onetime prince living in the seclusion and protection of the palace is dazzled by the bright lights, similar to a boy from a small village when he first encounters the night life in the great city and it draws him like a magnet. His money at first seems almost inexhaustible. He rents a great mansion, he hires servants, he dresses as the lord of the manor, visits the clubs and casinos. Soon he is surrounded by friends and girlfriends who have sprung up like mushrooms, ready to help him spend a little of his fortune. They introduce him to alcohol, drug abuse, and sexual indiscretion. He now has the flashiest cars and beautiful women by his side. No gift for them is too much for the cardinal pleasures they offer him. One by one his spiritual and bodily graces begin to disappear like a string of pearls that breaks and the precious pearls scatter in all directions. What has happened to the gifts he received from God? His ears no longer hear divine words, but foul language which also his tongue has accustomed to spurting out. His heart becomes the cradle for all kinds of evil and his soul becomes the devil’s playmate. His beautiful body reeks of carnal sins and his genius of mind has become refined in the ways of evil.
We can liken carnal pleasure and all sin with a barrel of wine. At the very bottom there is the sediment. Whoever drinks the wine of pleasure, when he is well drunk he will also drink the sediment. Having drunk the sediment in other words, having tried everything that is considered evil and reached rock bottom, the Prodigal son is indeed in a very sorrowful state. The great life the Prodigal son had, or imagined he had, could not last forever just as it cannot last for ever for every sinner. Sooner or later it will be cut short, either when the money dries out or health problem arise or both. For the Prodigal son his bags full of money became empty rags. His parasite friends disappeared and he found himself alone without money, without food and shelter. The great city that once flourished now suffered the consequences of a great famine. Everyone was looking out for their own interest, their own survival: who was going to pay any attention to this miserable poor lad who was now worst than a beggar, naked like a worm?
Where he was once rich and self-sufficient, he now has to find work to survive, but can only find work looking after swine. When Jesus says in the Parable that he looked after swine, he was trying to say that this occupation was the most humiliating of all professions. Firstly we must remember that the Jews were forbidden to eat pork, so for the Jewish nation there was no need for rearing swine. The Gospel story of the man that was possessed by a legion of demons again makes reference to swine. Before they were cast out from the man they asked if they could enter into the nearby herd of swine. Jesus allowed this because as Jews they had no right to rear swine. That is also why the people of that region asked Jesus to depart from them because they knew they had departed from the law and feared he would judge them accordingly. So for the average Jew, rearing a herd of swine was degrading. The Prodigal son did not become a shepherd of sheep like the Patriarchs of Israel were, but a shepherd of greedy, noisy and filthy pigs. No decent Jew would have even considered giving him his daughter in marriage; he was an outcast, unclean like a leper. We can even say that his employer was a gentile, an idol worshipper, who had no laws forbidding him eating juicy pork chops. This shows the Prodigal’s total abandonment of God, the result of his desire to live freely without any attachments to the life he once knew close to God.
How many sinners end up in the same state as the Prodigal son? They might preserve outwardly a good appearance, but internally they are wretched. As the Prodigal son found out, freedom from God means slavery, and every sinner who exercises his freedom without God becomes a slave. A slave to his passions and a slave to the Devil who is now the master the Prodigal son now serves. In a state of spiritual and bodily hunger, the Prodigal son tries to fill his belly with the husks the pigs fed on. If you remember our talk last year we said that in the Greek text, the word for husks is κερατίων which was in fact something we have a great deal of in Cyprus. Κερατίων were the carobs from the carob trees. Eating carobs begins with a sweet taste in the mouth but too much can be sickening. In a spiritual sense it is like saying that the sinner tries to fill his empty soul with sins and pleasures which taste sweet at first but sooner or later they lose their sweetness and turn bitter. The pleasure goes out of them and the soul yearns again for satisfaction but cannot be filled.
This is a very dangerous state to find oneself in. it is called despondency. It is the state which the fathers consider the greatest danger for the soul. Someone in this state cannot see anything good or positive and his thoughts become negative and pessimistic. It leads to disbelief in God and brings about a spiritual suicide, a death to the soul. It is at this moment that the Prodigal Son accepts the idea of returning to his father and the homeland. The idea probably came to him many times before but he always rejected it. How could he return in his wretched condition, to the house he left in contempt, to the father who he had wished was dead, to the father he knows must have suffered greatly on his departure, to the brother who he envied because he stayed at home and was victorious. How could he return broke without a cent in his pocket, without shoes, without clothing, without a ring on his finger, unrecognizable, changed from the slavery, the hunger, and the scorching sun and very dirty from the filthy swine. Wouldn’t it give opportunity for his brother and neighbours and even the servants to show their superiority, their righteousness? What would they all say? Would he not be an object to be ridiculed? How could he kneel before his ageing father who he didn’t even say goodbye to when he left? And he left like a prince but would be returning like a worm. How could he now drink of the water from the place he once spat? How could he return to the home to which he had now become a complete stranger?
Despondency is truly the worst condition a sinner could find himself in, it is a dark place of despair with no hope of light, a living hell. But there is a way out and the Prodigal son having reached the very pit of hell suddenly saw a flicker of light when he remembered how even the servants at his father’s house have more than enough to spare while he was perishing with hunger. He had left as a foolish inexperienced adolescent, looking to find his independence, but only found slavery. Now his experiences in the world have made him a mature man and he realises that with his father he had everything a person could hope for. Yes! He suddenly realizes that he was even happy there. What foolishness had made him leave such a place of paradise? And here at the very moment of his realization begins his repentance.
Repentance has two stages: the feeling of repentance and the return. For the Prodigal Son the Lord says that “When he came to himself” in other words “When he came to his senses”. Up to now the Prodigal and every sinner distant from God are actually outside of them selves, out of their minds. The Prodigal son begins to bend and repentance begins to show the first rays of hope. He remembers as the saying goes in Greek “that blood does not turn to water” or more well known in English “blood is thicker than water”. The Prodigal Son begins turning things over in his mind. His father no matter how much he was offended and hurt by his departure would surely not deny his own blood. If he doesn’t want me as his son then at least he will take me in as a servant. Instead of having the son of someone else as his servant, he can have his own son to serve him. I don’t expect, neither ask for his love because I lost that right long ago, all I ask for is a piece of bread from the kitchen. Thus the first sign of repentance is humility and this saving humility is what every repenting sinner should feel as he begins his journey of retuning to God. He should consider himself unworthy of the divine gifts. Thus now having come to his senses he realizes not only how wrong he was about his father, but also how foolish he had been, how naïve and gullible. He learnt that his friends with whom he squandered all his wealth didn’t love him for himself, but for the things that he had, thus earthy or worldly love is a false love that eventually fades and ceases to exist. He paid a heavy price to learn this truth, but it was not in vain because he learnt the meaning of humility which would now help him fight his way out the clutches of despondency.
This is true of every sinner: we all make mistakes, but our mistakes can teach us what is right from wrong. No matter how deep the feeling of despondency is before our repentance, the realization of our sins will lead to a equality deep feeling of humility at our time of repentance. But we cannot remain with just feelings: we must put these feelings into actions as did the Prodigal Son. He begins his return to his father’s house, which is our return to God, to the heavenly kingdom. This is not an easy journey. He is thousands of miles away from his destination. He doesn’t have the money to buy a ticket and take a quick plane ride and even if he had, the homeland doesn’t have an airport. There is no quick way to get there. The journey is on foot over many mountainous obstacles which at times seem almost impossible to pass. Naked, cold and hungry, his bodily strength is tested to its limit. As times he is driven to despair with feelings that he will never make it. At other times he stops to rest hoping that this will help him recuperate.
Occasionally he comes across an inn where he begs for a small piece of bread which he eats with the salt from his tears. This is similar to our Lenten journey which is our journey to return to the homeland and to God our Father. Many times during the fast we will feel that we have reached our limits and are tempted to abandon our journey. True fasting will lead to temptations, to weakness of the body, and many doubts will spring up in our minds questioning the existence of God. These are the mountainous obstacles that often seem impassable. But there are many inns on our journey where we can find nourishment. These are the many Church services during lent that offer us bread and shelter, spiritual food and sustenance to help us recuperate, to re-find our strength to continue.
The Prodigal Son continues his return journey unaware of how far he has actually travelled. In fact he is still a very long way off; he has hardly even come close. He feels as though he has been walking for ages, but in comparison to the whole journey he hasn’t even travelled 1% of the way. But what of the father; what has he been doing all this time? He too has been suffering greatly. He was aware of the rebellious character of his son and knew that it was a risk to give him the inheritance, but he also knew that he could not keep him chained at home against his wish. The only way to make his son understand what was good for him was to let him learn through his own experiences. So out of love he allowed him to live according to his own will. The father knew that one day his son would come to his senses and thus sat patiently waiting for his return. In fact he had kept track of his son all that time he was in that far away country. He was very well known in all the lands and was continually informed of his whereabouts. Thus he also knew the very moment of his son’s decision to return and even sent instructions to the inns on the way that they should secretly give his son food and shelter. In the condition his son was in, there was no way he would have made the journey without a lot of help.
Therefore being fully aware of his son’s struggle to return home, the father keeps watch and one day sees in the distance the tired and sad figure of what once was his princely son dressed in the finest clothes now almost naked in torn and dirty rags, but he is a loving father, full of compassion and never once did he stop loving his rebellious son who had wished him dead. He is so overcome with joy and love for his son that he doesn’t sit and wait for him to approach. He runs out to meet him and there face to face with his long lost son, he embraces him and smothers him with kisses. The son doesn’t know quite how to handle the situation. His heart is filled with tenderness and at the same time his mind is confused. He knows he is unworthy of such a reception and finds it impossible to respond to his fathers kisses. As soon as his father releases him from the smothering embraces, he falls to the ground in humility and as he had rehearsed in his mind from the moment of his return, he begins confessing, saying: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” The son humbles himself renouncing any claims he may have had to be called a son and would have continued with his plea for forgiveness by asking to be accepted back as a hired servant if his father hadn’t cut him short. The father’s joy was so great; his love was so overwhelming that he never once considered punishing his son further than what he had punished himself. He had been to hell and back and he came back a new person, a new son with knowledge of good and evil. This was a time for celebrating. He orders the servants to bring forth the best [first] robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And kill the fatted calf, let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
We said in the beginning that the Prodigal Son represents each and everyone of us, but here there is one significant difference between us. The Prodigal didn’t know how his father would receive him, but Christ has already told us the father’s response to him when he arrived in those rags. Before he even got the words out of his mouth, the elder father was running out to greet him. And this is God’s fundamental disposition towards us, his children. Unlike the Prodigal, we can be assured of the Father’s embrace. We know that God hears the prayers of us sinners, we know that God’s love for us is as inexhaustible as God is Himself.
But the Parable doesn’t end only with music and celebration, but also with a hidden warning with the image of the older son. We don’t usually identify ourselves with the older son, but identify “others” with him. Of course those “others” probably identify us as the older son. Now the older son represents all those who have never left home, in other words those who have always been close to the Church and who have never transgressed at any time the commandments. They keep the fasts and everything the Church requires of them, in other words they appear externally as good Christians, very much like the Pharisee who appeared as a good Jew. They believe that they are righteous and better than other people, but their true self, hidden until now, appears when they see a sinner, who they know has led a wicked life, return to the bosom of the Church and be accepted on an equal level as themselves. They see the grace of the Holy Spirit shine brighter in them than in themselves and are overcome with envy. They cannot understand why after all those years of devoting themselves to the Church with prayer and fastings, they shouldn’t shine brighter.

Thus Christ is now telling us, “If you have never left the house, always did what you were told, and stood fast by the father, don't be like the elder brother.” The kingdom of heaven is about love that surpasses all understanding and if we do not have the compassion and love of the Father then we have no place in our father’s house. If we have this Christ-like love then we would welcome and embrace every stranger, every returning prodigal who has sought to return to the bosom of the father. This should fill our hearts with joy and make us want to celebrate as did the father and the angels of heaven. It does not matter if someone was once a member of the house who left and committed the gravest sins, he has now repented and returned from a far county as a re-born person. It does not matter what race or colour they are, whether cradle or convert, rich or poor – what matters is that they have given up everything to find eternal salvation in the bosom of the father. Thus in an indirect way the parable says beware! Don’t come so far in your spiritual journey only to allow the sin of pride to hold you back.
The story of the Prodigal Son is an 'exact icon of repentance', inasmuch as through it we see the reality of repentance as it must be lived in our own lives. Before telling the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Christ mentioned the Parable of how the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep in the wilderness to go and look for the one which is lost and searches until he finds it. He tells us that the Good Shepherd, the God who we serve and love doesn’t remain idle when we have lost our way, but is out there searching for us, but now with this parable of the Prodigal Son he is telling us that we also must take a few steps in his direction. How will he find us if we keep silent? Let us cry like the sheep so that our cry will lead him to us.
As we approach Great lent, let us prepare for our long journey home, confessing in our hearts and on our lips that we “have sinned against Heaven and before the face” of our Father. Let us beg God to receive us not as we deserve, but according to the greatness of His love and the multitude of His mercies. Although we are no longer worthy to be called the sons and daughters of God, let us trust the words of Christ our Saviour, when he says “there will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). When our return trip from the “far country” comes to an end, may we too see our God and Father run to meet us, throw His arms around our shoulders, and kiss us, calling out to His holy angels: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf and kill it… for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!” Amen

As an afterthought I want to share with you a story I came across in a Greek article for the Prodigal Son. The story is about Leonardo da Vinci and his famous painting of The Last Supper. The story is probably not true because its says that he took more than 10 years to paint it whereas documentary evidence indicates that he finished it in 3 years. Nevertheless, it has often been used as a religious allegory or parable to warn of the spiritual decay that awaits those who turn their backs on God.
The story tells of how Leonardo da Vinci needed to find models so that he could paint the 13 faces of Christ and the Apostles. Each model had to have a face that expressed da Vinci’s vision of the particular man he would represent. One Sunday, as da Vinci was at the cathedral for mass, he saw a young man in the choir who looked like da Vinci’s idea of how Jesus must have looked. He had the features of love, tenderness, caring, innocence, compassion, and kindness. Arrangements were made for the young man, Pietri Bandinelli, to sit as the model for the Lord. Years went by, and the painting was still not complete. Da Vinci could not find just the right face for Judas Iscariot. He was looking for a man whose face was streaked with despair, wickedness, greed and sin. Ten years after starting the picture, he noticed a drunken man sitting in a corner of the square and begging for alms. With shoulders far bent toward the ground, having an expression of cold, hardened, rugged and evil, the man seemed to be the model da Vinci had been looking for. Leonardo worked feverishly for days, but as the work went on, he noticed certain changes taking place in the man. His face seemed filled with tension, and his bloodshot eyes were filled with horror as he gaped at the likeness of himself painted on the canvas. One day, Leonardo sensed the man’s uneasiness so greatly that he stopped painting and asked, “What seems to trouble you so much?” The man buried his face in his hands and started crying his eyes out. After a long time, he raised his head and inquired, “Don’t you remember me? I am Pietri Bandinelli and years ago I was your model for the Lord, Jesus.” This miserable man had turned his back on Christ and turned his life over to sin and the world sucked him down to its lowest levels of degradation. He no longer loved the things he had loved before. And those things that he at one time hated and despised, now he loved. Where once there was love, now there was misery and hate; where once there was hope, now there was despair; where once there was light, now there was darkness.