I was ordained to the priesthood 6 years ago, very appropriately on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. I count this day every year as my anniversary. Placing the Church’s calendar with its feast days and yearly opportunities to celebrate and enter into true eternal history is of great help in turning our focus from the world, and back towards the kingdom of God. If you knew me back in my late teenage years, you would marvel at God’s grace that I am even alive. He is truly a good and wonderful God who loves us, and stands ever waiting for us to return and run into His open and loving arms.
We can learn so much in this parable about God’s nature and His unconditional love towards both those who have lived a good God pleasing life (more or less) and those of us who strayed far from this path. Both the elder and the younger brother are loved equally and unconditionally and between them they represent these two diverse paths.
All through the scriptures, and for the last 2 previous Sundays leading up to the start of Great Lent; Zacchaeus Sunday and the Publican and the Pharisee Sunday, we have seen Christ’s great fondness and compassion for returning repentant sinners, as represented by the conversion of the hated tax collectors. In (Luke 5:30-32) we hear, “And the scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, ‘Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Again and again, the message the Church gives us is that God is always reaching out to us sinners. And in case you’re wondering which camp you might fall in, remember (Rom. 3:23) “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” or (Eccles.7:20) “For there is not a righteous man on the earth who does good and does not sin.” Or perhaps you prefer (1 John 1:8) “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Therefore Christ calls us all to repentance for we are all in need.
The Fathers say that “to truly seek God is to have already found Him” and that “if we lift but our little finger towards God, all of heaven comes to unite with us.” Blessed Augustine said, “He loves every one of us, as though there were but one of us to love.” God has done everything He possibly can to arrange for our homecoming; even to voluntarily going to His death on the cross for our sake, for the life of the world. To take away the sin of the world and enable us all to reunite with God. All is completed; it all rests on us, on our decision to return, to run into our Father’s arms. His will is clear, but we need to unite our free will to His great desire to have us return and stay and live with Him – to come home. The Prodigal Son’s father was always watching for his return and “when he was still a great ways off” ran to His son and welcomed him back fully into his family. God always responds to our desire to come back to Him.
Today’s gospel reading begins in Luke chapter 15:11. When we are reading scripture, it’s always good to read the verses before and after the passage to get the proper setting. Luke chapter 15 begins “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisee’s and scribes complained saying ‘this man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He spoke this parable to them…” Christ then tells them in the next 7 verses of the great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, symbolized by the shepherd finding his one straying sheep, lost out of the flock of 100, and of the joy of the angels of God over one sinner who repents, using the parable of the woman finding her lost silver coin. Then we hear the wonderful parable of the prodigal son.
Many of us are seduced in a similar manner to the younger son. We ignore the waiting arms of our dear heavenly Father as we pursue that which looks like “fun” or that which we think will bring satisfaction. We’ll have time for God later, once we’ve “made it” and achieved our dreams, or once we’re a little older. As long as we are fully occupied in our great pursuit, we can dream of the great reward and fulfillment success will bring, and that can keep us going. However, the fun gets old and messy, and if we do achieve a measure of our earthly goals, of wealth and success and power, we soon find they are false idols. Read the short 12-chapter book of Ecclesiastes sometime. King Solomon tasted and achieved everything imaginable and concludes as he begins his book, (Eccles1:2…) “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and chasing after wind.” We can have it all and still find our lives empty and unfulfilled, the God shaped hole within our very soul remains empty, crying out to be home with our dear Abba Father. The good news is that the Prodigal Son woke up and realized how far from sanity he had fallen while there was still time to run back to his father in repentance.
But waking up and realizing his condition, awakening to reality, to sanity was only half the battle. Becoming painfully aware of his broken life, of his isolation from home, he now had a crucial decision to make. Should he react like Adam, hiding in shame, making excuses for his behaviour and even blaming his Father for his nakedness and desperate situation – “It wasn’t my fault, it was the woman YOU gave me” The prodigal could have wallowed in self pity, “He shouldn’t have given me everything I asked for, He should have explained the consequences better, He should have been a better parent” But thankfully the prodigal son choose to accept responsibility, and in humility he repents and asks his Father to be a servant in his family. “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants.” The only way back home is through the path of humility and repentance.
What does it look like to be the returning prodigal, to turn back to God, changing our direction, “metanoia” in Greek? It means choosing to quit trying to run our own lives in prideful isolation. Choosing rather to always turn to God, giving thanks in all things as completely as possible. Choosing a new focus, new priorities, a new calendar. To make the sacrificial effort, be a connected corporate member of the body of Christ. We gather here for Liturgy for this very purpose, to join with the entire family of God. With our precious brothers and sisters visibly here with us in our little parish of Saint Aidan, and with those throughout the world who are united with us in eternity. United with the angels and saints gone before us, who are invisibly present and with us right here, right now. We all commune together at the chalice joined in the body of Christ, in His love, sharing the actual body and blood of Christ, uniting in prayer and the Holy Spirit. We are born as little babes into the kingdom at our baptism, and our purpose in life, the whole reason we are here on this brief visit to planet earth, is to learn to constantly choose to come to life and mature in Christ. Taking our place as members of His body. Our life is simply an opportunity to live in this reality. Whether we are successful at any given business deal or undertaking, win awards and accolades, or obtain any kind of worldly “success,” is much less important than how we act and treat people each and every moment; how we learn to love God and His precious people – all of mankind. We take none of our material gains with us, but only the fruit of our love, forgiveness, and generosity towards those we interact with. The Fathers tell us that when we depart this life, we can only take that which we have given away.
We also see the older brother who is striving to live a life pleasing to his Father, but complaining when the Father lavishes His love upon the returning younger son who was “dead and is now alive again, who was lost and now is found.” In essence the older brother says, “What about me? I’ve been living a good life, not transgressing your commandments at any time, and yet you seem to favour this reprobate brother of mine.”
The older brother wasn’t home to witness his spoiled kid brother’s arrival. He never witnessed his humility or heard him ask his father to just be considered one of the hired hands. Even if he had of been there, he probably would have been plenty suspicious that this repentance was all a show. His picture of his younger brother came from all of his previous dealings which were certainly not riddled with humility. The kid was going to have to prove himself in spades. The older brother was in a deadly battle with pride.
We’ve all been there to some degree, haven’t we? Feeling sorry for ourselves; “poor unappreciated me.” I do this and that and who even notices? We start with this way of thinking very young in our families – especially when we have brothers and sisters, who it often seems to us fare better than we do with mom and dad. What married person hasn’t had the occasional noble martyr thought take up residence? “Look at all I’ve been doing; did they even notice? What about my needs? A little appreciation might be warranted.” This is a very dangerous state of mind. Once we start down this path, we find a certain self-satisfying comfort in being hurt. If we choose to stay hurt, to continue to indulge and dwell on our woundedness, and isolate ourselves in our minds from our perceived wrongdoer – whether our spouse, our family, our boss or perhaps our priest… we then slowly start to become comfortable and justified in our thinking, and often sink into depression or worse self-righteous pride. So, let’s not be too hard on the older brother he’s just a struggling human like the rest of us.
The father immediately sees the great danger that his beloved and faithful older son has placed himself in, through his anger and resentment. The scripture says, “Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him” He carefully allowed his precious older son to vent, and then simply shows him the errors of his thinking saying “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.” He had nothing to prove to earn his Fathers love and his Father had more than enough love for them both.
“You are always with me.” Says the Father to His beloved son. God never cuts Himself off from us, He is everywhere present and fills all things. He is the very treasurery of blessings and the giver of life. Christ came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. We are always the cause when we feel cut off from God. We need to constantly ask God to show us where it is that we need to repent, to renew our relationship in God, growing deeper in His love. This Great Lent let us renew our efforts.
Glory to Jesus Christ!