Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
"And He said, 'There was a man who had two sons'..."
This is how Christ begins what is perhaps the greatest of his parables, the one we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but which could easily be titled the "Parable of the Two Sons" or the "Parable of the Compassionate Father." With this parable, which we will hear at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, February 28, we are invited to prepare to enter the "school of repentance" -- Great Lent -- and sit at the feet of the Master, so that we can hear the words of eternal life and "keep them."
After receiving his portion of the inheritance, even before his father had died, the younger of the two sons "gathered all that he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living" [Luke 15:13]. This one sober understatement does not demand a great deal of imagination to yield its meaning. We know that loose living refers to a web of wrong choices, bad company, unrestrained satisfaction of "the passions," and forgetfulness of God. This spiritually suicidal combination leads to bankruptcy on a further series of interrelated levels: the material, moral/ethical and spiritual. In no time, the prodigal son is forced to feed "on the pods that the swine ate" [Luke 15:16].
Before succumbing to the temptation of trying my hand at an updated melodramatic script that would luridly describe the sins of the wayward young man of the parable -- replete with money, sex and drugs -- together with all of the didactic apparatus meant to strengthen our resolve to protect our children (since we are now too old for all of that), I would rather more modestly pause at the words about a journey "into a far country."
The far country of the parable is geographical, for the young man of the parable ventured far from his home. Yet, a "far country" can also refer to a hidden place in our interior landscape; a "place" in which we can distance ourselves from God and right living to a frightening degree, even if slowly and unintentionally. At first, that interior far country can prove to be appealing. It can appease our vanity, protect our pride and/or feed "the passions" that we can nurture with pleasure, even if hidden from the view and censure of others. This is initially stimulating and seems to promise endless delight -- perhaps like the endless freedom that an unsupervised dorm may offer to an innocent college student away from the sheltering, but seemingly restrictive, atmosphere of home.
When the emptiness of such a landscape becomes evident, we too can desperately desire to "feed on the pods that the swine ate." The self-serving (or "self-help!") philosophies on which we squandered our "inheritance" from God will no longer satisfy us, but in a restless and hungry search for something else to replace these, we can even fall to the level of "swinish delights" -- anything to relieve our boredom or frustrations. Without moving anywhere, and without changing the patterns of our lifestyle, we can still withdraw to a "far country" in that interior landscape that can prove to be as treacherous as any unknown environment of the exterior world.
It is said of the prodigal son of the parable, that when at "rock bottom," he "came to himself" [Luke 15:17]. This is certainly one of the key expressions found in this endlessly rich parable. The young man found his right mind, his sanity was restored, and basically he "got a grip on reality" — an undramatic, but meaningful, way to describe "conversion," or the process of turning back toward God and the warm embrace of our heavenly Father.
In effect, the prodigal son repented. This major character of the parable did exactly what Christ taught as the beginning of His public ministry: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." [Mk. 1:15] This call to repentance will allow me to again quote what I consider to be one of the best descriptions of repentance, at least among contemporary Orthodox writers, and that is from Archbishop Kallistos Ware's book The Orthodox Way:
"Repentance marks the starting-point of our journey. The Greek term metanoia, as we have noted, signifies primarily a "change of mind." Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Holy Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope - not downwards at our own shortcomings but upward at God's love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life." (p.113-114)
A certain clarity of thought is needed to find our way home when we drift off toward a far country. The short-lived rock band of the late 1960s, Blind Faith, had an intriguing song entitled "Can't Find My Way Home." Perhaps that was an honest and clear-sighted assessment of the band's state of mind at that time (money, sex and drugs?) and a poignant recognition of being in a "far country." Two other songs on the album, however -- "In the Presence of the Lord" and "Sea of Joy" -- may have pointed to more promising discoveries.
Every year, through the lectionary of the Church, especially in this pre-lenten season of preparation, we are powerfully reminded of just how far away from "home" we may actually be in mind and heart. If we have been equally prodigal with the gifts bestowed upon us by God, then we can equally "come to ourselves" and return home to the embrace of our compassionate Father.