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PROPER OF THE SEASON

SUNDAY OF THE PRODIGAL SON

H AV I N G foolishly abandoned Thy paternal glory, I squandered on vices the ealth which Thou gavest me. Wherefore, I cry unto Thee with the voice of the prodigal: I have sinned before Thee, O compassionate Father. Receive me as one repentant, and make me as one of Thy hired servants.

(1 Cor 6: 12-20, Luke 15: 11-32)

Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther

Great Lent is a time of fasting, almsgiving, repentance: a time when we say No to our will, and Yes to the will of God.  Fasting does not mean that the Church believes that the human body is evil.  Paul says in today’s epistle that ‘there are no forbidden things; maybe, but not everything does good. …  I am not going to let anything dominate me.  The Christian is in control; the Christian is not controlled by pleasures. 

Paul distinguishes the human body from the question of eating and drinking.  ‘Food is only meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food; yes, and God is going to do away with both of them.  But the body – this is not meant for fornication; it is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  God who raised the Lord from the dead, will by his power raise us up too.’ Food keeps the body going, but the purpose of a Christian’s life is union with Christ. 

The human body therefore has become holy.  Paul says that ‘a man who goes with a prostitute is one body with her, since the two, as it is said, become one flesh.  But anyone who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.’  Paul is making two serious points. First, every human relationship opens a person’s life to another person. Second, since even a degraded relationship unites the partners, our life in Christ unites Christians with God even more. 

Corinth was like present-day Hollywood: a town of selfishness and idolatry.  So Paul warns the Christians in Corinth: ‘Keep away from fornication… Your body… is the temple of the Holy Spirit…. You have been bought and paid for.  That is why you should use your body for the glory of God.’  Paul contrasts the redemption by Jesus of the sinner from the slavery of sin, with the purchase of a prostitute’s services. Paul is saying that everything has a price, including eternal life; but that price can only be paid by Christ, and he buys our freedom for us. 

The gospel completes the meaning of the epistle. Here we have two sons: one is like a Pharisee, the other is like the Publican or Tax Collector: a person who had polluted himself by working for the heathen Romans. We usually think of the prodigal son – the one who wasted everything – as the lost sinner.  But really God, the Father of both the sons, has lost both of them – and loves both of them with the same long-suffering.  The elder son who stays at home has been a dutiful son, but he has not become a loving son. The other, who has taken everything, and has wasted it – he has lost God through losing self-control.  He has been dominated by everything. But the elder son has been dominated by a desire to inherit the estate.  He is dead in spirit.  The prodigal son is also dead in spirit.  But he changes.  One day he wakes up. 

We can imagine someone who has entered the selfish fantasy world of drugs.  One day he wakes up in his spiritual prison: he wants to be free. ‘“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.’ 

The younger son had ‘left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.’  He had lived like the pagan Corinthians who were tempting the Christian Corinthians. The gospel tells us that after the money ran out a severe famine began, and this prodigal son had to work for a pig farmer.  This shows the extreme condition of the lost son’s sinfulness.  Pigs were unclean to Jews.  For a son to be almost a slave of a Gentile pig farmer was as terrible as it would be for a Christian to become addicted to crack.  The prodigal had the strength of will not to eat the pigs’ food – and the strength of faith in his father’s love.  He holds back, and he hangs on. 

The story tells us that ‘while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.  He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.’  The son admits how sinful he has been.  The father instead restores him to honour. ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast… because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.’  

This is genuine love: which suffers long and bears everything. And it is responding to genuine faith – the sinner’s faith in the Father’s love. But the first son, the one who has kept the farm going, with the regularity of a Pharisee, he is angry. He does not show love.  His father comes out of the house, pleading with him to enter to take part in the celebration.  He complains: ‘I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.’  The first son has been dominated by thoughts of his rights to property.  He now exaggerates his merits.  The second son admits that he has none.   But he had at least the strength of faith – the strength of faith which admits being wrong: like the Tax Collector.  It is the failing of the Pharisee and of the elder brother to assume that they are justified.  It is the strength of the sinner to admit failure. 

The gospel gives Jesus at this point words which say that even fornication can be forgiven.  ‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.  But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”'

This parable demands that we all think how terrible our own behaviour can be, and that we all attempt to come close to the true house of our spiritual life.  The main lesson of Great Lent is that we are lost in selfishness but found through love.  In the words of St John Chrysostom:

‘I believe, O Lord, and confess that Thou art verily the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who didst come into the world to save sinners of whom I am the chief.’ 

If we say that, we say the truth; and we will be heard, forgiven, and healed: 

‘Rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.’ 

 

© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.

21 February 2003

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