Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Prodigal Son

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

Today we continue our pre-lenten preparations with the story of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15:11-32]. In this story, a selfish young man grew weary of waiting for his father to die on order to gain his inheritance, and so demanded that the old man divide the family’s wealth with him at once. Despite the impudence of this request, the kind and patient father granted it to his son, who then took the money and fled his father’s house to occupy himself in a far country with what is graciously described as “loose living”. We can assume this means that he involved himself in activities that were both immoral and personally degrading; things that he had apparently lusted after for some time, but had been unable to satisfy in the godly environment of his father’s house.

Pursuing this new and wicked life, the young man soon squandered all the wealth that his father had given to him and found himself working for a foreign pig farmer, so destitute and hungry that his mouth watered for the disgusting slop he fed the hogs. The Hebrews regarded swine as unclean animals, and the fact that this once wealthy young man had been reduced to becoming a servant of pigs would have been recognized as a sign of his complete and utter degradation. The whole story up to this point portrays very well the spiritual reality that those who give themselves over to sin not only lose the wealth of God’s grace once entrusted to them, but become enslaved to the foul and unclean spirits behind those sins.

Such was the condition in which the Prodigal Son at last found himself. But though he had willfully rejected every good thing he had known from his youth, and had emptied himself of every visible trace of dignity and spiritual beauty as the result, the mercy of God had not yet abandoned him. There, in the midst of his abasement, God awakened him, and he came to his senses. Thinking back to the life he had once known in his father’s house, it occurred to him that even the servants there enjoyed a better situation than he was in at the moment. Perhaps if he could muster up enough contrition and the right words--with maybe a tear or two thrown in for good effect--he could convince his father to take him back and give him food.

Thus the Prodigal began his journey back to his father’s house, all the while rehearsing his “confession”. With pious-sounding words he would tell him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am not worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants”. Surely such a beautiful speech would tug his father’s heartstrings and move the old man to compassion.

Perhaps we can see that at this point in his life--even after all he had been through--the Prodigal Son was still terribly self-centered. It was all about him! He seemed oblivious to the pain he had caused his father, and scarcely concerned for the great inheritance he had so carelessly thrown away. He only cared about himself and about having the consequences of his sins taken away. He was hungry and miserable and wanted his father to make it all better.

This is not a story of a deep and mature repentance such as that shown by St. Mary of Egypt for example. But when you think about it, our repentance is often far from perfect as well, and not unlike that of the Prodigal Son. Are there not times when we come to confession with a rehearsed speech designed to cautiously reveal a few of our more excusable sins, without really opening up and exposing to God the deep and painful ugliness of our souls so in need of healing? Like the Prodigal, we may not be fully aware of our own inner darkness or the value of our lost inheritance, the spiritual beauty granted to us by God but squandered by a lifetime of selfish sins. And do we not sometimes come to confession only to gain what we want out of it, a release from those nagging feelings of guilt, and a quick spiritual band-aid to assure us that everything is going to be “all better”?

We need to understand that this is not repentance, but it is at least a beginning. It represents a movement back toward God--clumsy and imperfect perhaps--but one that at least returns us to our Father, where we can begin the true work of repentance.

What is the difference between confession and repentance? Confession reestablishes the communion with God that we have broken by our sins. Even on a strictly human level, confession is often needed to reestablish broken relationships. What if the Prodigal had taken a back-road to his father’s house and hopped the fence to avoid facing his father at the gate? Would we not think that he was a coward seeking to take the easy way out? The same is true for those who avoid the confessional or come at best only once a year by obligation. In that case are we not trying to live in our Father’s house without rebuilding the relationship that we have broken with Him? The sacrament of confession is also the place where we receive grace from God to take on the hard work of actually changing our lives once we are brought back into communion with Him.

To illustrate this difference, let us consider what life must have been like for the Prodigal Son after he returned to his father’s house. Would it not make sense that he spent the rest of his days working very, very hard to help his family recover some of the wealth he had caused them to lose? Along the way, he would learn to stop thinking only of himself, and put the needs and interests of others ahead of his own. He would also have to work very hard for years to combat the lusts in his heart for the “loose living” that had taken him away from his father, and struggle often to purge himself of the memories of the sins in which he had so wantonly engaged. He was damaged goods, and it would take time and effort for him to repair that damage and regain a pure heart. He would also need to discover a new love and respect for his father and learn from him, valuing him as wise and selfless man, and a person worthy of imitation. These kinds of things would represent a good and maturing repentance, gradually transforming the Prodigal from being a thoughtless young punk into a good and loving man, much like his own father.

And so we see that both confession and repentance are needed in our lives to continually renew our communion with God and to make us partakers of His divine life and love.

As painful as deep and therapeutic confessions may be, and as hard as the daily work of repentance truly is, we are not alone in this work, struggling as it were to regain God’s favor from a distance. The story of the Prodigal Son shows that God eagerly receives us back even at our worst, and grants us every blessing to enable us to resume our life as members of His family once again. Before the Prodigal even reached his home, while he was still afar off, his father saw him and joyously rushed to meet him on the road, showering the undeserving one with gifts and love, and ordering a great feast and celebration to be made in his honor.

See how good God is toward us sinners! Sometimes we stand in His House bored and ungrateful, sometimes wavering in faith, sometimes dreaming of that far country with its lure of an easier existence. But here in this place God bathes us in His love, clothes us in a robe of light, and feeds us at His Great Banquet. No matter how spiritually blind or sick we may be, God’s love is given to us, and is greatly needed by us. Can we see how deeply damaging it would be to our souls for us to turn away from this love of God in even the smallest way? Let us faithfully guard our hearts, labor hard at our repentance, and grow as members of God’s Household.

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

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Repentance of Zacchaeus

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

This morning, with the reading of the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), we begin our period of pre-lenten preparation which this year will run for four weeks until the start of Great Lent on February 15th. As always during this time, the Sunday gospel lessons will present us with selected themes pertaining to the major action of Great Lent, which is the action of repentance.

Many people misunderstand repentance. Some describe it as a feeling of regret for wrongs committed, others as the effort to put an end to those wrongs. Still others see it as an attempt to gain the forgiveness of God through religious means. None of these explanations offers an adequate description of the fuller meaning of repentance. They are like trying to describe the experience of flying in a luxury private jet as “not walking”. That may be partly true, but it hardly gives us the full understanding we might be after.

Repentance is better described as a turning away from death to embark upon the path leading to the fullness of life in the kingdom of God. It is primarily a positive action, and a lifelong one. Another way to describe repentance is to simply call it “the Christian life”. The Christian life certainly involves the steady and continuous putting to death of the deeds of the flesh, but also includes our active sharing in the life of God in Christ, a sharing which brings about our gradual transformation from glory to glory by the effects of His divine and spiritual life within us. Repentance must not be thought of only as a negative action, or an occasional one. It must be seen as a continuous, positive movement toward God, leading us toward the glorification of our humanity.

With that description in mind, we can see that calling Great Lent a special time of repentance is a bit of a concession to our weakness. For the Christian, all of life should involve this positive action of repentance, this steady progression toward God. But as we all know so well, we often slip comfortably back into our old ways of doing things, and do not focus as sharply as we should on the pursuit of God. Lent is therefore presented to us each year as the opportunity to renew our zeal, redouble our efforts, and enter more fervently into the Christian life. Our pre-lenten gospels lessons help us to prepare for this effort by presenting us with great stories of repentance from the holy scriptures. Today it’s the story of Zacchaeus, the little man who quite literally “rose above the crowd” in his great desire to see the Lord Jesus.

The streets of Jericho that day were filled with many curious onlookers who had turned out to catch a glimpse of this famous Jesus of Nazareth as He passed by. And pass them by He did, for the Lord has little interest in satisfying the needs of the merely curious. Those who had come out for nothing more than a moment’s entertainment however soon found it in the person of Zacchaeus, a wealthy and much-despised tax collector for the Roman government, who bolted ahead in all his fine and expensive apparel and scrambled up into the limbs of a sycamore tree because he was too short to see over the heads of the crowd.

No doubt those who witnessed this event were put somewhere between laughter and derision at the sight. But if Zacchaeus felt any shame over his loss of dignity, he neither showed it, nor did he allow it to keep him from what he sought. With a sudden and deep desire that perhaps he himself did not anticipate, Zacchaeus wanted with all his heart to see the Lord, and would let nothing stand in his way. Because Zacchaeus’ desire was genuine, the Lord took special notice of him, and soon entered into his household, bringing salvation to all who dwelt there.

The first lesson we can take from this story is the importance of desire in the heart of any who would draw near to Jesus. This is especially important as we anticipate the holy and saving season of Great Lent. People often characterize lent as a time of “giving things up” and of course our flesh resists that practice greatly. With all the extra services of prayer, together with the fasting and almsgiving that lent demands, we are indeed asked to give up more of our time, certain foods and drink we love, and more of our money as well. But like repentance itself, we must begin to think of Great Lent as a positive action, and look to all the wonderful things we stand to gain from it.

Lent offers us the opportunity to quiet our flesh a bit, together with that unreasoning desire for the things of this fallen world that our flesh can’t seem to shake. It offers us a much closer communion with God and a greater awareness of His presence in our lives. It helps weaken our addiction to this world a bit more, as begin to see ourselves truly as members of the kingdom of heaven. Fueled by our desire for the good things of God and our expectation that He will supply them, Great Lent can be a time of bringing the grace and healing of God into our lives and households in order that we might remember how life can be lived more consistently if we so desire and choose.

Besides the need for this true desire for God in the Christian’s heart, the story of Zacchaeus also shows us what proper repentance looks like and how important this is. As the Lord sat at table in the tax-collector’s house, the crowd outside complained that Jesus had gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner. Perhaps aware of this, and painfully aware of the truth of it, Zacchaeus exclaimed, “Behold Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold!” Please notice that it was only after Zacchaeus made this pledge of repentance that Jesus declared to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man also is a son of Abraham”.

There is no need to enter into the whole “faith vs. good works” debate that has so occupied Protestant/Catholic debate over the last 500 years. It is sufficient to demonstrate here that in the gospel Jesus preached, both faith and works were necessary to establish one as a child of Abraham and an inheritor of the promise of salvation. What if Zacchaeus had not made his pledge of repentance? What if he had merely enjoyed the Lord’s brief presence only to continue on with his life as before? Do we imagine that Jesus would have made the same joyous proclamation of salvation to such an unrepentant man?

Great Lent focuses our attention on repentance as a reminder that in the Christian life, faith without works is dead. It is also useful to observe that repentance seldom looks exactly the same for any two Christians. For one it was surrendering half his goods to the poor; for another it was “sell all that you possess and give to the poor”. Our needed repentance depends on whatever exists in our lives that we love more than God, and whatever it is that keeps us from following Christ with a good faith and a pure heart. Whatever our individual needs may be, Great Lent helps us find them and put them first in our lives once again. It can be a time of tremendous spiritual renewal and growth for us. May God help us to pursue it this year with all our hearts.

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