Sermon on the Prodigal Son (Part Two) ( 29.02.2008 )
“And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And I am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father.”
To come to your senses means to see that without God you are nude and barefoot, and that without God you are cock and bull, and that without God you do not truly exist, in a spiritual, or in a material sense! That can happen in two ways: either when, by not fulfilling God’s commandments, that is, when with improper spiritual life man will completely denude himself from God’s grace; or when, with proper spiritual struggle man will achieve deification. The former is to see oneself dehumanized, whereas the latter is to see oneself (as much as one can) in comparison to God’s perfection. The former happened to the prodigal son.
But what it is it then that can save man in those moments? –Experience from the previously established relationship with God and the freedom of man, which, according to the holy Fathers, the demon can never preclude to the end. Let us recall what was said in the first part of the sermon: God only takes heed not to disrupt our freedom, and along with that our mutual relationship: Parent-child. Children, we have nothing more sacred than this relationship! This relationship is the only hope for our salvation! It is exactly this relationship, Father-child, that the prodigal son recalls during those moments of impasse and it is exactly that relationship which saves him, completely unscathed by his Father. How do we know all this? By becoming aware of the fact that it is exactly this relationship that has been infringed upon as well as that the son himself is culpable for the infringement of that relationship: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son!” Certainly, he was ‘reminded a bit’ of that relationship by his empty stomach, that is to say, the fullness of life which he had previously felt in the joy of the first grace.
It is up to us to have a good intention, to use the gift of freedom in order to build unity with God and to struggle in that direction, while everything else is an act of God’s grace, which partakes in us. Without God and God’s grace we cannot do anything! This is what the following words mean: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” (Let me just mention, that this is precisely what happens when one receives the gift of the mind-and-heart prayer.)
“And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” The younger son does not finish the previously envisaged plea: “make me as one of thy hired servants!” Why? Because it is pointless to say that, seeing the consistent parental behavior of his Father, which ascertains and dignifies him with the name “son”. The father, hence, as if there were no infidelity and infringement of the relationship, treats him like his son: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”
And how does the father also behave?
“But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.”
It happens: restoration of grace, validation of the relationship and illumination of the mind, receiving strength and awareness for a greater struggle which leads to perfection, participation in the holy Eucharist and communion with the Holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. God, as St. Gregory Palamas states, consecrates those who live in true repentance with such gifts that cause jealousy with those who improperly struggle.
“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.”
This is the reaction of those of the ‘Old Testament’, those who are at the first stage, and who do not take heed of their passions (the passion of the mind—pride), those who have high opinion of themselves, those who improperly struggle, those who abuse the first grace, namely, the fruits of seeing the first light, those who condemn the others and justify themselves, those who hate and envy. Regrettably, this all seems very familiar, does it not?
“Therefore his father went out and pleaded with him.”
What do we see? An unchanged and constant paternal relationship toward the elder son, meaning toward all His children that He created regardless of their relationship to Him.
Here is, first of all, the miserable image of self-justification: “And he answering said to his father: Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”. And here is the entire image of demonic possession after he finishes with condemnation: “and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”
Yes, we first condemn God inside us, before we condemn the person in question! Namely, in order to condemn the person in question, we first abuse the fruits of seeing the first light. And while we justify ourselves and want to present ourselves as righteous—“neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”—we already sin and transgress all the commandments “fulfilled” by then. Obviously, the elder son only formally fulfilled the Father’s commandments, while it suited his mercenary interests and relationship. Had he truly fulfilled all his commandments, surely would he have perfected himself spiritually in the personal relationship with his Father. Yet, there is not a trace of personal relationship whatsoever. Perhaps you notice, children, that the elder son did not once, in his address, call his parent “Father”. As he did not, in a single moment, condemn his younger brother for the infringement of the “Father-son” relationship, but for squandering of the property instead.
“My son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine; It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.'” (Luke 15:11-32).
In truth, man, with his own behavior, judges and condemns himself, and separates himself from unity with God, sinning against his neighbor. Instead of rejoicing with our neighbor, we envy him and hate him for his successes. I shouldn’t even mention the attempts to obstruct him and harm him. And we do this to our neighbor with whom the Godman Christ identifies. As we read in the Holy Gospel: “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the (Mine) least of these, ye did it not to Me!” (Matthew 25:45). We forget that in such way we become godfighters. While God, humbly and patiently, says unto all of us: “son… all that is mine is yours…”
Truly, children, this Gospel parable is magnificent and wondrous, and its interpretation and writing demand perhaps pages and pages. Only for the line “son… all that is mine is yours…”, a whole volume of Dogmatics is needed. Yet, I made an effort, to my strength, to convey to you something from my, such as it is, experience, as well as from the tradition of the holy Fathers. As you saw, the spiritual age of the two sons I find at the first stage of spiritual development, at the level of purification of the heart from the passions, at the receiving of the first grace, and seeing the first light. This spiritual age is more appropriate and more understandable for a Gospel parable because this is the age at which the largest portion of Orthodox Christians finds themselves. And while, on one hand, the fall helps the younger son to come to his senses, to see where he is, to truly repent (to alter his former way of life, not just to theoretically repent) and to receive the gift of illumination, on the other hand, the formal fulfillment of the commandments and the building of a mercenary (or conventional) relationship with God his Father only nourishes the vanity and the high opinion of the elder son for himself and causes his falling away.
One more thing: the spiritual father ought never leave his spiritual child without a blessing, even if it were forced—in case if the child wanted to leave him. That blessing can be given orally, or silently, or in act. That blessing can be given with an admonition and without it. That blessing, however, must be given, if the spiritual father is a true father. With that blessing, the spiritual father will suffer along with his spiritual child and will cover him and protect him with his love and prayer wherever the child may be and as much as the child may sin. With that sin the mutual bond will never break, for the spiritual child—in case he needs one day—will have where to return… Therefore, at times of disobedience and premature departure of the spiritual child from his spiritual father, the problem does not consist of dissuading and deterring the child from his intention; the problem, rather, is to provide the conditions for homecoming.
Yet, the story has no ending. Let us be careful then: for, if the falling away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? (Rom. 11:15)!? Forgive me and pray for me…!
Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica
(as recorded by the monastery sisterhood)