Reflections on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son

 

‘All to no purpose have I left my true home…’   

WRITTEN BY HIEROMONK IRENAEUS  | 08 FEBRUARY 2001

Reflections on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son

The second Sunday of the Triodion, the second Sunday before the Vespers of Forgiveness and the beginning of Great and Holy Lent, is dedicated to the recollection of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15.11-32). ‘A certain man had two sons’, both highly favoured, one of a more rebellious spirit than the other. The story, perhaps among the most well-loved of the Gospel parables, though it appears only in the Gospel of Luke, is familiar to most. The wealth of the young son is squandered by his raucous living, and from the mire of his agony (literally, from the mud of a pig-stall) he has a change of heart and returns home, humbled. His father, certainly justified in any anger he might choose to show, instead embraces his ‘prodigal’ with tears and sets a mighty feast. ‘For my son was lost, and now is found’.

 

Each year, as the cycle of the Great Fast begins, the preparatory season of weeks leading up to Lent as marked out in its centre by the reading of this great story. It is, as Bishop +KALLISTOS of Diokleia has stated, ‘an exact ikon of repentance in its different stages’,1 and so the authors and compilers of the Triodion have placed it at the start of the great season of repentance: an icon and image of the reality of the coming weeks.

 

Brethren, let us learn the meaning of this mystery. For when the Prodigal Son ran back from sin to his Father’s house, his loving Father came out to meet him and kissed him. He restored to the Prodigal tokens of his proper glory, and mystically He made glad on high, sacrificing the fatted calf. Let our lives, then, be worthy of the loving Father who has offered sacrifice, and of the glorious Victim who is the Saviour of our souls. (Sticheron at Vespers)

Firstly, the story of the Prodigal teaches us of the character of the Father, the God whom we worship at all times. The holy Apostle John proclaims ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4.8), and in this parable we have the ultimate image of that love. The Father gifts His son with uncalled-for blessings; He stands watch for the return of His lost child; His forgiveness is so swift and so great that the wayward son cannot even finish his pleas for mercy before the Father has embraced his return; He rejoices above due measure when the lost is once again found. The Father’s love is active, attentive.

 

Yet the parable teaches us also of ourselves. We know from the moment that the story begins, that the Prodigal Son is none other than our own selves, that the divine Jesus tells the story of our own sinfulness and error. So does the Triodion here, as elsewhere, move the narrative into the first-person.

 

I have wasted the wealth which the Father gave to me, and in my wretchedness I have fed with the dumb beasts. Yearning after their food, I remained hungry and could not eat my fill. But now I return to the compassionate Father and cry with tears: I fall down before Thy loving-kindness, receive me as a hired servant and save me! (Sticheron at the Lity)

We acknowledge the goodness of the Father and admit of the bare, evident reality of the ‘wealth’ He has given us: our lives, the beauty of the world, His truth, His salvation. None of these blessings can be denied, if only one opens his eyes to the reality of the world in which he lives. But even as we acknowledge our divine gifts, so too do we acknowledge the waste we have made of these treasures.

 

The divine wealth that once Thou gavest me I have sinfully wasted. I have departed far from Thee and lived as the Prodigal, O compassionate Father. Accept me now also as I return. (Troparion from Canticle One, Canon)

None has taken the good things of God from us: their absence is the result only of our turning away from the supply of divine blessings. We waste what we have received and we turn and ‘depart far from Thee’, running from the source of good as if we had somewhere more important to be. We can put the blame upon no one’s shoulders but our own. I have sinfully wasted the divine wealth that I was given. I have departed far from God. I have fed with dumb beasts and never eaten my fill. I, even as the prodigal, must come to realise my own hand at work in my spiritual ill-fortune and take responsibility for the state into which my own evil deeds have thrust me.

 

And what of this state? What is the reality of life when humanity turns from its Father? Exile. Exile, enslavement, and suffering.

 

I have become enslaved to every evil and in my wretchedness I have bowed down before the demons that provoke the passions; through heedlessness I have lost possession of myself. O Saviour, heavenly Father, take pity on me as I flee for refuge to Thy many mercies. (Troparion from Canticle Four, Canon)

The son becomes a slave, not because of any anger or vengefulness on the part of the Father, but because he has ‘lost possession of himself’ — he has turned from the support of divine love and ‘bowed down before the demons’. The passions of evil are taken on, voluntarily, as new masters, and with frightening agility they take control of our wills and minds and lead us far, far indeed, from our true home. This theme of ‘exile’, so often repeated during Great Lent, begins here.

 

I was enslaved to strangers, an exile in the land of corruption, and I was filled with shame. But now I return, merciful Lord, and cry to Thee: I have sinned! (Troparion from Canticle Five, Canon)

 

I am wasted with hunger, deprived of every blessing and an exile from Thy presence, O Christ supreme in loving-kindness. Take pity on me as I now return, and save me as I sing the praises of Thy love for mankind. (Troparion from Canticle Six, Canon)

 

Ruled by corrupting thoughts, I am full of darkness and separated far from Thee, and I have lost all possession of myself, O merciful Lord. Therefore save me as I fall before Thee in repentance. (Troparion from Canticle Eight, Canon)

It is not merely a coincidence that the haunting words of Psalm 136 (‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…’2) are sung for the first time during the Matins of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son: they are the words of a nation in exile, a nation dominated in a foreign land, weeping bitterly for the life which now stands afar off—a memory. So did the Prodigal weep from the stall of the swine, pondering the goodness of his Father’s love from the mud and filth into which had had cast himself. At that moment, as he lay among the pigs, he longed for nothing more than a return home.

 

This is the spirit of Lent. The whole journey into Pascha can become our own if we are able to stand in examination of our lives, see how far we have brought ourselves from the life God intends for us, and then long, truly long to return to our true home. Whatever our Babylon, wherever our pen filled with swine, we must turn with tears toward the home from which we have sinfully departed and resolutely start our journey back, begging God’s forgiveness in our return.

 

Our Saviour teaches us every day with His own voice: let us therefore hearken to the Scriptures concerning the Prodigal who became wise once more, and with faith let us follow the good example of his repentance. With humbleness of heart let us cry out to Him who knows all secrets: We have sinned against Thee, merciful Father, and are not worthy ever again to be called Thy children as before. But since Thou art by nature full of love for man, accept me and make me as one of Thy hired servants. (Ikos of the Canon)

True repentance begins with the acknowledgement of self-imposed exile. Such knowledge pains us, but it is a pain that leads to action, and action that leads to reform. And as Christ re-forms us into His heavenly life, we begin truly to live.

 

Behold, O Christ, the affliction of my heart; behold my turning back; behold my tears, O Saviour, and despise me not. But embrace me once again in Thy compassion and count me with the multitude of the saved, that with thanksgiving I may sing the praises of Thy mercy. (Troparion from Canticle Nine, Canon)

The story of the Prodigal Son is, indeed, an ‘exact icon of repentance’, inasmuch as through it we see the reality of repentance as it must be lived in our own lives. Bestowed with immeasurable blessings from the God of Love, we have in our wretchedness wasted what we have been given and wandered spitefully from the love of the Father. Eventually we must come to that place, that harsh moment, when in the stark reality of our sinful lives we realise, with the Prodigal, that ‘all to no purpose have I left my true home’. Apart from God, there is nothing. We have each experienced this ‘nothing’, for we have each turned from God. But now, as we prepare to enter into Great Lent, we long for the great ‘something’ that is God’s love and sanctification. Begging His mercy we strive for true repentance, that we may receive His salvation in all joy.

 

The wealth of grace that Thou hast given me, in my wretchedness I have wasted sinfully; all to no purpose have I left my true home, and as the Prodigal I have scattered my riches deceitfully among the demons. But now on my return accept me as the Prodigal, merciful Father, and save me. (First Exapostilarion of the Triodion)

Text by M.C. Steenberg, 2001

 

1. Ware, Kallistos. ‘The Inner Unity of the Triodion’ in The Lenten Triodion (St Tikhon’s Seminary Press: 1999), p. 44. [back]

2. This is Psalm 136 according to the LXX; Psalm 137 in the Hebrew Bible. [back]