The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (15:11-32)
As we continue our journey through the pre-lenten Sundays, we are reminded that last week we heard the message of the Pharisee and the Publican. We took from this message the foundational necessity for humility as a start to our spiritual lives. Yet we understand that the Church is a place where balance is necessary. If one were to go to an extreme in their self-condemnation and self-accusation it might lead to depression or even complete despair. We see an example of such despair in the person of Judas Iscariot. But the Church reflecting the mind of it’s master and Lord, teaches us that humility is only part of the story of our salvation.
We hear today this beautiful parable of the prodigal son. What a magnificent passage. I find that from year to year this is one of the texts that is very difficult to preach on, not because there isn’t enough to say about it, but because it has almost too much to say! The lessons are many and they are powerful. We begin with the young man, the son who was clearly not content with what he had in life. He desired more for himself. He went with boldness to his father and said “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” The father being both just and kind, agreed to this request and gave the young man his proper share of the inheritance. Do you know what this means? It is a symbol of the life that God has given each of us. God hasn’t given you a life in order that you should feel like His slave or like He controls you. He has given you life out of the abundance of His love for you. He wants you to have this love and to embrace it.
The younger son wanted to embrace life and he took all of the riches that were promised to him and he departed away from his father’s house and from all that he knew in order to experience independence and dictate his life according to his terms. We are told that the young man went to a far away country and that he squandered his wealth on loose living. Yet, things got worse. A famine arose. There was very little food and he was now very broke. So he went to work as a laborer for one of the citizens of that country. He was put to work right away. He was sent into the fields to feed swine. Those who would have heard this story from the lips of our Lord Jesus would have been disgusted since swine was considered unclean. But the young man in his desperation was so hungry. He had no choice but to work in this way in order to make some kind of a living to support himself. Hunger took hold of him. Hunger convinced him that he would gladly bend down and eat the pigs food if only someone cared enough to offer it to him, but no one gave him anything.
The young man had once had everything. But his rebellious spirit and his desire for the world caused him to squander every last cent. You know sin is never isolated. It pervades our mind and heart. It pervades our being. He ran away to sin and “experience the world.” But one thing built on another and he quickly lost his senses. He found himself working for a man who didn’t care for him. Had the man cared for him, he would have fed the young man, but he did not. So the young man in his desperation contemplated eating the swine’s food. This is how sin reduces the stature of a man and makes him like a slave. Yet, there was still hope. God used the young man’s troubles and trials to bring him to a deep hunger. Through this hunger, we are told that the young man “came to himself.”
One of the reasons that we fast for many days during Great and Holy Lent, is in fact the need for each of us to become hungry. This becomes increasingly difficult in a world of abundance. But the gospels teach us of the need to fast. The church fathers understood that physical hunger would help awaken our deeper and more profound spiritual hunger. This young man fasted involuntarily and through this involuntary fasting, his senses were awakened. He came to himself. He understood his reality. His heart was opened and he missed his father. He missed his father’s home and all that he once had taken for granted. My brothers and sisters, this is a symbol of the Church.
The young man is everyone who has ever left the safe harbor of their heavenly Father’s house, the Church, and tried to live independently as their own person with their own rules and their own ways. This is even true of some who never physically leave the Church, yet in their hearts and minds they left long ago. They aren’t interested in the things of God. They aren’t interested in prayer or speaking with God. They aren’t interested in living a godly life or obeying Christ’s commandments. And God, out of His deep sense of honor for our personhood and a deep sense of love for us, allows us to take the inheritance (the life that He has gifted us) and use it as we wish. He doesn’t force us to stay in His house miserable. He steps aside so that we may pursue our hearts desire. We are fortunate and blessed that in some of these cases, we reawaken and come to ourselves.
The Holy Orthodox Church all over the world from antiquity has built in a mechanism to assist us in coming to our senses and receiving the life-saving medicines of the soul. We fast together to help us to wake up and come to our senses. God wants us to hunger for Him. If we hunger for God and we see the depth of our own fall, then we might turn back towards home and run with haste towards the One who loves us unconditionally. That is precisely what the young man did. He decided that even the servants in his father’s house were in a far better position than the one in which he found himself.
So he turned back towards home. The Church is your home. By one degree or another, each of us has drifted away and is in need to start returning to Our Father’s home. Each of us is called to remember our inheritance and our status and to find the One who has shared all of it with us. As the young man began to draw near to the house, his father saw him and ran towards him. God is waiting like this for each of us. If we knew how much God loved us, we would be overwhelmed by it. I’m not sure we could really comprehend it. This love is shown to us in the image of the father who sees his son still at a distance and yet he comes running, not walking, running!
How God longs to see us come home! How God longs to embrace us and forgive us and restore us to a place of honor, to celebrate our return! How God longs to see those who are dead, restored back to life and health so that they might dwell with Him!
The whole universe of God’s mercy and forgiveness is open wide to receive those who will repent and return. May we do so without hesitation, as St. Tikon of Zadonsk writes,
“Sinners that repent are still saved; both publicans and fornicators cleansed by repentance enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The compassionate God still calls to Himself all that have turned away, and He awaits them and promises them mercy. The loving Father still receives His prodigal sons come back from a far country and He opens the doors of His house and clothes them in the best robe, and gives them each a ring on their hand and shoes on their feet and commands all the saints to rejoice in them.” + St. Tikhon of Zadonsk: Journey to Heaven Part II: The Way of Salvation