Sunday of the Prodigal Son
If for some reason the entire Bible, every copy we had of the sacred Gospels, were to disappear, except for the parable of the Prodigal Son, the message of the Gospel would nonetheless remain in tact, because this parable summarises not only the entire history of man’s salvation, but also the Church’s teaching about the nature and character of God and the spiritual life of man.
The parable, just as the history of salvation itself, has two primary themes: love and freedom. These two are connected, because true love cannot exist without freedom, just as freedom cannot exist without choice.
God, then, is described in the parable, not as a king or the master of a house, but as father, and mankind are described, not as slaves or hired workers, but as sons, as children, because the Triune God created us out of love so that we too can be partakers of the love that exists between those three divine Persons, a love that we can only begin to describe with the unconditional love of a parent for their children.
This is why the gifts of God are described here as an inheritance, and when one of the sons asks his father to receive his share, the father gives it to him immediately without question. God wants to give; all that God is by nature, he wants to give us by grace.
The son, however, instead of cultivating those gifts with the help and participation of his father, thought he would have greater success alone, far away from his father’s house. He fell into that delusion of pride and the self-sufficiency of man that we spoke of last Sunday. However, the father doesn’t prevent him from leaving, nor does he run after him; he allows him to leave. God respects human freedom absolutely, even to the point of allowing the whole of creation to fall away. Were God to limit human freedom, if he didn’t give mankind the choice also to fall away, then he would undermine and hinder the very purpose of his creation; namely, love.
In a “faraway country” the prodigal wasted all that he had received from his father. We must be aware of the fact that, when we speak of the ‘passions’, we are not speaking of something evil that comes from without, but we are talking about the misuse, the perversion and the distortion of the natural gifts that God has given us. When we use these gifts properly, in communion with God, they become the means by which we can reach to the goal of every human being, namely to attain the likeness of God; to become by grace what God is by nature. When, however, we waste our inheritance, when we abuse these gifts in separation from God, then we distort and disfigure the image of God we were created with, and we become like the swine the prodigal ended up living with in the parable.
Whether or not one accepts the Theory of Evolution, it is a fact that the physical nature of man is no different from that of animals. What separates us from the animals is our spiritual nature, the soul which bears the image of God the Holy Trinity. Thus, when we disfigure this image, we become just like the animals. The difference, however, is that the animals live according to the way God made them, which is not true of a human being who has become like an animal. That’s why the parable says that the prodigal “would gladly have filled his belly with the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything”. The pigs were satisfied with the food they were given, since it was appropriate to their nature. However, man, who also has an immortal soul, will never be satisfied with worldly things: he will continue to suffer from this spiritual famine until he comes back to God.
Seeing his state, the prodigal decides to return to his father. He thinks of what he should say to his father in order for the father to receive him, but he doesn’t even get an opportunity to say anything before the father sees him from afar and comes running to embrace him. That he saw him from afar means that he was waiting for him, looking for him. Yes, the father had allowed him to go because of his complete respect for each person’s freedom, but as soon as he could see even the slightest movement of return, he runs to embrace him. Such is the love of God.
The father brings him home, and puts on him “the best robe” (in the Greek, literally “the first robe”), which is the robe of baptism, by which man gets back the first grace he lost when he fell from Paradise. A ring is placed on his finger, symbolising the “Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”, “and shoes on his feet”, signifying that God has “given [us] authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt [us]” (Luke 10:19). The fatted calf is Christ himself, who was sacrificed for the salvation of mankind, and the thanksgiving meal they all eat with rejoicing is his Body and Blood. In other words, man’s return to God takes place with self-knowledge, repentance, humility, but the holy sacraments of baptism, chrismation, confession and Holy Communion are also indispensable.
Except for the general message of repentance, which must be the goal of the fast of Great Lent, the end of the parable also issues us with a warning. Because the parable doesn’t only speak of one sinful son, but of two. The elder brother, who thought it was unfair that his father showed such love to his brother, was also a sinner. He hadn’t left the house, but he had the same selfish pride that his brother did.
His father tells him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”. For the spiritual person who loves God, there is absolutely nothing higher than this, than always to be with God and to be a partaker in all that is his. The prideful person, however, does not see what is in front of him, because his gaze is always turned inwards. He might worship God superficially and follow his commandments externally, but he does this not out of love but in order to gain something. And since he is not motivated by love for God, he cannot love his neighbour nor feel joy when another person finds happiness in God’s presence.
As we enter Great Lent, then, let us examine what it is that motivates us during this fast, which is the way of return to God. If it is not the love and presence of God that motivates us, then, whether we are far away living a prodigal life, or whether we are nearby in some superficial religiosity, we will remain entirely unfulfilled.
Fr Kristian Akselberg