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.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Woman of "Canine"

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

As we continue our pre-lenten preparation, today’s gospel lesson focuses on the faith of the Canaanite woman as described in Matthew 15, verses 21-28. This is a story that some people find rather disturbing because they have a hard time understanding why our Lord made such a harsh statement to the woman who came to Him seeking the healing of her severely demon-possessed daughter. As we heard, Christ actually referred to the woman as a “dog” in saying that it was not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. The “children” of which He spoke were of course the children of Israel, to whom He had come to bring the “bread” of salvation and the mercy of God. But why would He be so rude as to call this woman of Canaan a dog?

It is a sad truth that the Jews of Christ’s time customarily referred to the Gentile pagans as “dogs” because they had come to view them as unworthy of the grace and calling of God that had historically been bestowed upon themselves. This is of course a very common human problem. People of any given race or nationality or religion or even political affiliation may regard themselves as superior in one way or another to all others, and thus can readily justify mean, outrageous, or even cruel treatment of all who are seen as inferior.

I don’t believe that Jesus was simply perpetuating ancient Jewish bigotry here, but was in fact making a strong and necessary move to end it. Remember that it was His own disciples who had been asking Him to send this woman away because of her race, and the fact that she had been pestering them for help. Our Lord was possibly saddened by their closed-mindedness and lack of compassion, and so responded to the woman with exactly the same rude attitude that they were demonstrating. It makes me wonder if He didn’t actually embarrass them by doing this.

By calling this woman a dog right to her face and in front of all His disciples--a woman that He was just seconds away from praising for her great and exemplary faith--Christ was exposing the shameful, triumphalistic attitude they held in their hearts. It is a fact that Christ’s disciples would one day finally learn that the gospel is for all peoples, and not just for the Jews alone. But this was a tough concept for them to get their minds around, and needed a tough cure. We see perhaps the very beginning of that cure being applied here.

Strangely enough, the woman did not seem fazed by this insult. I imagine there are at least three reasons for this. First, it’s quite possible she had expected this sort of treatment from the Jews and had girded herself to face it. That demonstrates both remarkable humility and great determination on her part. Second, it is likely that the love of Christ was so obvious and apparent that the woman simply could not take His comment badly. Have you ever had someone who loved you very much say something that was hard to take, but because they loved you, it softened the blow? In this case, as repulsive as the words might have been, the love of Christ was so great that she was still drawn to Him in hope. She even adopted the insult, likening herself and her fellow Gentiles to the little puppies that gratefully lick up the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. I’m betting that the disciples were utterly astonished at the wisdom of her comeback, and when Christ joyously granted her request, there was not a peep of complaint out of any one of them. This woman had flat-out taken them to school and they knew it.

But I said that there were three reasons why the woman would not let herself be put off by Christ’s initial response and the third is really the main and most important reason. She desperately needed the mercy of Christ to heal her daughter, and because of this, she would not stop asking and pleading her case until she received her answer.

This is exactly the same way that Christ taught us to approach God with our needs. He told us to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Everyone who asks, receives. He who seeks, shall find. And to the one who keeps knocking, the door shall be opened. In other words, perseverance and persistence is needed in our prayers and in our requests to God. But we often lack this kind of determination and stick-to-it-tiveness. We may be reluctant to bring our prayers to God at all, and when we don’t receive an immediate and gratifying answer, we tend to lose heart and give up quickly. We might lack the faith and simple obedience to Christ that even this Canaanite woman showed. Now who’s taking who to school?

In addition to this, we often create artificial barriers between ourselves and our God. The scriptures tell us that God has broken down the dividing wall between us and Him, but we have a tendency to re-stack old bricks and lay new walls between us. We tell ourselves for example that we are not worthy of God’s mercy, and therefore it’s no wonder that He doesn’t listen to our prayers or heed our requests. It’s ironic that we might be so weak and feint of heart to believe in what God will do for us, but we have more than enough brass to decide what God won’t do for us. Isn’t that strange?

If ever there was a person who had reason to believe that Jesus would deny her request it was the Canaanite woman. She was after all a pagan, whose people historically worshipped such false gods as Baal and El, together with a bewildering array of many other household gods and goddesses. These are not exactly the best religious credentials to bring to the Jewish Messiah. Yet she boldly drew near to Jesus because she had heard of His great love and compassion for all, and was willing to put her complete trust in Him.

What can this teach us?

The story of the Canaanite woman can be described as a story of faith overcoming all human obstacles to gain its reward from Jesus Christ. Can we be so bold as to say in fact that any obstacles between ourselves and God are indeed human obstacles that we ourselves have placed there? Our lack of faith, our sense of guilt over our sins, our spiritual sloth or indifference, our unwillingness to change what needs to be changed in our lives, are all walls that we have built and must take down once again.

I think the most important thing that this story tells us is that it isn’t all about us and our limitations; it’s all about Jesus and His limitless mercy and love. As we prepare ourselves for Great Lent, we must do something that may prove to be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable for us: we must turn our attention away from ourselves for a few terrible weeks and place it upon God. Had the Canaanite woman focused on herself and all the good reasons why Jesus might likely deny her, she would never have found the courage to leave home to gain salvation and the healing of her daughter. It is the same for us. We can stay locked in our own misery, counting all the reasons why God shouldn’t help us, or we can dare to place our hope on Him, believing that He is both willing and able to help us. Will we choose hope or misery?

Yes, it’s really all about Jesus. Great Lent is a spiritual journey, a sort of Orthodox “walkabout” if you will. But it is no ego-centric, “new-agey” journey of self-discovery. Most of us have already discovered ourselves, and likely did not care for what we found. Lent, by contrast, is a journey to discover Jesus, and in discovering Him, finding our True Hope and the Savior of our souls. This is a journey well worth taking, and may God direct us in following it.

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