Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Prodigal Son

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Continuing our pre-lenten preparations, we come today to the story of the Prodigal Son. Many people consider this their favorite gospel lesson, because it reveals the great compassion and forgiveness of God the Father toward all straying people who repent and return to His love.

In his classic book, Great Lent, Journey to Pascha, Fr. Alexander Schmemann (OBM) described this parable as the story of man’s return from exile. In that sense, the Prodigal Son represents both mankind in general and each of us individually. As a race, mankind has certainly left God and found itself in exile in a far country, a fallen condition, distant and removed from communion with God, and broken and defiled because of it. Individually speaking, the hope is that each of us will “come to our senses” as the Prodigal did, awaken to whatever dismal state we may find ourselves in, and make our own return to God through repentance.

In both cases, the “far country” spoken of in the parable is not a matter of geographical distance, but of spiritual distance. A person need not be far from the Church to be a prodigal; he can equally be a professing Christian in apparent good standing, faithfully attending services each Sunday, and yet still be distant and removed from God in his heart. It is in fact this latter description that we should pay closer attention to, for there is a greater chance it could describe us.

I’m certain that the majority of us here this morning are people of good intent, who come to church because we genuinely want to, and have within us some urge to seek God. At the same time, because the work of repentance is so difficult and our resolve is often so weak, it may be that we soon find ourselves in a comfortable routine of minimal repentance, minimal participation, and minimal communion with our Heavenly Father...and fairly content with that. In such a case, we too may be living in exile, in a “far country” representing the distance we keep from God in our daily lives.

Perhaps we can’t exactly say that zeal for our Father’s house consumes us, or even singes us. At best it warms us somewhat. And I suppose that’s better than being completely cold toward God. But while most of us feel that we could certainly be more faithful in seeking God, at the same time there seems to be a kind of spiritual sleepiness that keeps us from embracing the Christian life as diligently and faithfully as we might wish. And this often leaves us--when we dare to think about it--feeling pretty bad about ourselves.

We essentially have two ways of dealing with this. The first is to just get used to feeling bad, and live with assumption that a nagging sense of guilt just goes along with being a Christian. Guilt in fact may be such a long-time companion for many of us that we can barely imagine living without it. But if you’ve lived with this, you know what a bad companion guilt is, and what a terrible motivator it is in getting us to live for God. Actually, guilt usually sends us in the opposite direction, doesn’t it? We feel that we can never do enough to please God and so we just sort of give up on being zealous Christians, and settle in at a comfortable distance from God. We can see this as the best that we can hope for, or perhaps as the best that we deserve.

But I’d like to suggest that there is another way.

Something I find interesting about today’s parable is that there is absolutely no mention of the Prodigal Son feeling guilty over his sins. When he “comes to his senses” amongst the swine and begins to realize he must return to his father’s house, guilt doesn’t appear to be his primary motivator. He didn’t say, “Oh my goodness, what have I done? I have squandered my beautiful inheritance and lost all that my father bestowed upon me! Dear me, my self-esteem is really low right now!” No, he didn’t say that and it’s a very good thing he did not, for in that case he probably wouldn’t have found any desire to return home. So what brought him back? Very simply, he was starving to death and knew that his good and kind father would feed him and restore him to life.

That’s it! That’s all there was to it! It may not sound very noble, but true repentance rarely is. The repentant person is generally one who has run out of pride and excuses and has finally come to the painful awareness that he must return to God or die. What ultimately brings us back to God and awakens faithfulness within us is not guilt, but the realization that we are dead without God, and cannot live another day without His mercy.

I suppose we all think that we already know this. After all, we are mature Christians, most of us, and quite wise. But is it possible that we may not quite be the tree-full of owls that we imagine ourselves to be, and in fact are focusing more on our own piety and faithfulness than on the mercy of our Heavenly Father? If so, we will never find joy in the Christian life.

In the parable, our Lord Jesus described the Prodigal as “coming to his senses”. This implies a kind of awakening; a flash of clear thought invading a confused and darkened mind not used to such light, but recognizing it immediately as truth. This awakening not only allowed him to finally see his terrible condition, but also and perhaps for the very first time in his life, to see how important his father and his father’s house was to his survival.

It could be that we very much need this same kind of awakening. Without it, the spiritual helps of Orthodoxy become so many “chores” that we leave undone, and feel guilty because of it. For example, we might focus on how hard it is to keep our rule of prayer and feel bad that we aren’t more “spiritual,” instead of seeing what that rule itself is trying to show us, namely that we are a broken and spiritually-dysfunctional people so in need of the mercy of God to transform us. The very fact that it’s so hard for us to keep a simple rule of prayer should demonstrate to us how removed we are from God and how much we need His life!

In the Psalms we often see the writers depicting themselves as broken and powerless, and surrounded by many enemies to boot! Their prayer was never “religious,” but a direct and fervent plea: “God save me! God deliver me from those that seek after my life! God hasten to my salvation!” In the gospels we often see the same thing. The blind man didn’t make some pious prayer, but fervently cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The Canaanite Woman, despite her utter alienation from the God of the Jews, begged Jesus to have mercy on her and her demon-possessed daughter.

When we see that our souls are sleepy and cannot persist in any sort of spiritual discipline, when our minds wander about in prayer or at church, when we are attacked by evil thoughts and temptations of every kind, this is not the time to be self-absorbed and feel guilty over our bad condition; this is the time to cry out to God and say, “Save me O Lord! Be merciful to me the work of Thy hands! Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

I’m not saying we need to become more emotional, maybe just more real. We need to ask God to awaken us to reality, so that when we stand before Him in prayer, when we undertake the spiritual disciplines of Lent, when we make the extra effort to come to the lenten services or whatever God has put before us to do, we will do so with one simple desire: that God would save us, that He would deliver us from our enemies, that He would restore us to life.

Let me offer one final reflection here in conclusion. It’s possible that Orthodoxy took many of us by surprise. When we first entered the Church, we may have had visions of becoming holy people pretty quickly, but found in just a short while that we only seemed to get worse. The spiritual disciplines of Orthodoxy, which at first seemed so wonderful, soon became impossibly difficult and we may have begun to wonder if Orthodoxy was right for us.

May I suggest to you that Orthodoxy was only doing in us what it was designed by God to do. It knocks down pride and false spirituality, and shows us our true human condition. This is a painful and difficult process but a necessary one, for only sinners come to God; the prideful, the vain-religious, the self-righteous never do. The people who become truly holy in the Church are the ones who first suffer the agony of seeing themselves as deeply sinful and in need of God’s mercy. Only then do we come to our senses, leave the swine-pen, and begin our return to God.

The bottom line is that we need our Heavenly Father. He is the reason for all that we do, and the reward of all that we seek. May He mercifully awaken each of us to this truth.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 2/27/2009 9:01 PM , Anonymous Tom M. said...

Well said, Fr. Michael. Many a time, I often can relate to being "near" to God as far as being in church, but far.


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