The Prodigal Son
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the best known of the parables of the Lord. It has inspired literature, it has inspired the composing of operas and it has made an impact on the psyche of the culture. Yet all this familiarity, as I've said about other parables, can make us numb. This familiarity can make us become distant from the power of this parable.
There are three themes that are joined together are this brilliant, masterful parable of the Lord. They are the themes of life, exile, and rebirth. Here we need to remember that as we draw near to Great Lent we should not forget that it developed into a period of preparation for those catechumens who were to be baptized on Pascha. So these themes of life, exile, and rebirth are strongly connected to the theme of baptism. I want to stress to our catechumens that this morning's parable provides a clear commentary on the mystery of baptism as precisely a passover from exile - from darkness and death to light and life.
The father is Life. It is clear from this parable that he is the one who is not only the financial support of his sons but also the very source of their life. In fact, when we think of this parable, we easily overlook the fact that it is based on the father and not only on his two sons. It begins, “A father had two sons.” This is extremely important since St. Luke is conveying to us that the action that takes place in the parable flows from and returns to the father. He is the life and light of his sons. He is the one who loves his sons and embraces them, making all that is his theirs. All that is the father's is freely given to his sons. He is their life and they are his image and likeness. The father is life and yet his younger son wants to leave him. This son asks for his inheritance before the death of his father so he can cash it in and live on his own. This leads us to the theme of exile. It was not unusual for a father to divide his estate among his children before he died. However, it was unusual for a beneficiary, in this case the younger son, to cash in his inheritance and leave his benefactor. Liquidating his assets and leaving his home, the younger son treats his father as if he were already dead. By leaving his father this young son imposes upon himself exile - exile from light, exile from life.
Let us also not forget that there are two sons in this parable and both are prodigals. The older son who stays also sends himself into exile. How? The younger son takes his inheritance and leaves. The younger son treats the father as if his father were already dead. The older son stays with the father, yet he cannot see that what the father has is his. He cannot enjoy what the father has, and though he is obedient, though he listens to the command of his father as the text tells us, this son is also in exile. He distances himself from his father. He stands apart from light and life.
How else are these exiles revealed? Not only does the younger son leave his father, treating him as if he is dead, but he squanders the money he receives from his inheritance. He wastes what ultimately comes from his father. The older son, while he does not squander or deplete what the father has given him, is nevertheless unable to see that what belongs to the father also belongs to him. That which the father has establishes a union or communion with his sons. The younger son squanders his inheritance and therefore breaks communion with his father. And the older son, while keeping his inheritance, cannot enter into communion with his father even though they live under the same roof and share the same table.
Space is an important feature of this parable. The younger son is spatially removed from the father. He physically removes himself from light and life. The older son, while near to the father, is not able to enter into that light and life which the father freely, lovingly pours out upon him.
And what about rebirth? The younger son finds himself among swine. He would be happy to eat what they eat. No one gives him anything. He is alone with the beasts. As a Jew, there could be nothing worse than to be in the presence of swine and to have to care for them. He comes to himself, he comes to the point of repentance, and this repentance - this change of mind - leads this younger son back to life. Repentance is a change of mind, but not only the change of mind; it is also a change of direction. There are two words in Greek that express these ideas. The first, “metanoia”, is more commonly known. It refers to a change of mind. But there is another word, “epistrepho”, which refers to a physical change of direction. The young son not only changes his mind but also his physical orientation and makes his way back to the father, rehearsing how he would repent before the one who is his light and life.
The son returns, the father runs to him, and as I mention every time we speak about this parable, this action of running is the sign of the father’s indissoluble love for his son. A father who had been treated as if he were dead would not have run to his ungrateful son. A proud and powerful Semitic father would defend his name and his pride. This father, Our Father, God the Father, runs to his child and embraces him. And he who was in exile, he who was dead, the one who was apart from light and life, is given new life. That’s why the vesting of the son - putting a new robe on him, placing a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet - this vesting, just as the vesting in Baptism, is the sign that new life has been bestowed upon this son. New life has been given to the exiled. New life has been given to the one who treated his father as if he was dead.
Now what about he older son? Like the Pharisee of last week's parable, the older son did everything that was correct. But even while doing all that is correct, even while obeying the commandments of his father, he remains apart from his father. This older son remains distant. He has no connection with his father because he cannot enter the reality that the father offers him, although that reality of light and life is before him day after day. The love of the father is never withheld from him. The light of the father embraces him day after day, but this son who stays at home and obeys the commandments of his father remains removed. His exile from his father also leaves him isolated from his brother. Remember how he speaks to his father? "This son" - not "my brother" but rather "your son" - is being given a feast. “The one who has wasted everything that was yours now celebrates, while I, who have stayed here, who have worked for you, who have obeyed your commandments, never had such a feast.” The older son's hard heart prevented him from seeing that the feast he speaks about had always been his! It had always existed with the very presence of his father who is his light and life.
Now what about us? This parable has a connection not only to those who are preparing for baptism. It has also something to say to we who are already baptized. Here we are together in the house of our Father; here we are in the temple of the God who continually pours His light and life upon us. We are His children; we are the ones He has brought from non-existence into being. We have to ask ourselves, not only as we approach Lent, but also continuously, “do I treat my Father as if He were dead? Do I truly appreciate, do I truly apprehend, the gifts He has given me - the gift of new life, the gift of being grafted onto the death and the resurrection of His Son, the gift of participating in this banquet of immortality - gifts which have been freely given to us? Do I see with the eyes of faith the gifts I have received? Or am I like that older son who while being in the house of the father cannot assess, cannot apprehend, cannot rejoice, cannot celebrate, and finally, cannot be thankful for all that has been given to him? Thankfulness comes from love. The young son returns, and the father shows his love. The son’s love is expressed in his repentance. The tragedy of this parable is with the older son. Does he reach a point when he realizes that what he is saying to his father was foolishness? Does he come to see that in spite of obeying the commandments and being faithful to the tasks that have been given him he utters nonsense before the father? For the father has never abandoned him! He has never rejected his son nor has he ever withheld his love from him!
We are in the house of the Lord and are now being compelled by the words of the Lord to see what kind of relationship we have with our Father. We are compelled by this parable to see that even if we are distant, this distance can be overcome, for we are always being called by our Father to draw near to him! The younger son comes to himself, he repents, for he is able to repent, knowing that his father is for all eternity his father. Likewise with us, we can repent, we can change our minds and our direction and return to the One Who never ceases to love us. Exile is self-imposed, separation from God is self-imposed, being placed in darkness and death is self-imposed. The parable calls us to arise, to move toward the Father and to truly enter into that banquet of new and eternal life.
Copyright © 2003 by Father Robert M. Arida