Friday, February 25, 2011

Have I Ever Really 'Heard' the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As we move toward the pre-lenten Sunday and subsequent week of the Last Judgment (MATT. 25:31-46), perhaps we can look back at this week in which the Parable of the Prodigal Son from last Sunday was hopefully uppermost in our minds.

This parable is chosen at this particular time in order to draw us toward repentance (Gk. metanoia); to remind us that Great Lent is the “school of repentance;” and that without repentance, our other “lenten efforts” become rather meaningless – if not spiritually dangerous. What will it take to convince us that we, too, need that “change of mind” and return to our heavenly Father that is the truest expression of living according to the Gospel?

 As I ponder that question, I ask myself further: Have I ever really heard this parable in the way that Christ refers to “hearing?” And that would mean being shaken at the very core of my being. Am I only paying “lip service” to this greatest of the parables, as I listen to it as a wonderful short story that is exciting to analyze and discuss; but not quite capable of moving me any closer to genuine repentance? Again, these are the questions that came to my mind as I read this parable aloud in the Liturgy for about the thirtieth consecutive year. Does anyone else possibly share these questions with me?

Yet, if we have spent some time in analyzing the richness of this parable, then we realize that it is not only about the prodigal son, with the two other characters – the father and the older brother – acting in a clearly subordinate manner or for the sake of rounding out the story. They are both integral to the parable and hold equal weight as we try and grasp the parable as a whole. Without the father and the son, the parable would suffer from a certain one-sidedness or incompleteness.

This is absolutely true when it comes to the very core meaning of the parable - which is repentance. We are deeply moved by the movement of the prodigal son toward his return to his father’s home. We first read of his journey to a “faraway country” and rapid and total decline wherein he wastes his inheritance in “loose living.” An all too-familiar tale. This is followed by a spiraling descent that has him longing for the pods that serve as food for the pigs he has been hired to tend. His re-ascent begins with his “coming to himself” after what must have been a painfully honest self-assessment of his stricken condition of estrangement from even basic human fellowship. This culminates in the thought of returning to his father and begging for mercy and the actual movement of “arising” and doing it.

None of this would have born any fruit, however, without the compassion and love of the prodigal son’s father who embodies the forgiveness that completes his repentance. If the father had been stern, or absorbed with his own sense of being offended; if he had chastised his son with the predictable and perhaps satisfying retort, “I told you so;” then the parable would collapse with an all too-human reaction that would be plausible but unworthy of the Gospel that Jesus came to proclaim. For the father of the parable is a figure of our heavenly Father’s compassion, love and forgiveness that Christ came to offer to all and every sinner. The father remains unforgettable as a “character” precisely because he confounds our expectations in his boundless love fully revealed by running out to his son, falling on his neck and kissing him. This is how the Father “Who is without beginning” acts toward his wayward creatures who have spent their inheritance – the “image and likeness” of God – in the faraway country of self-autonomy and the “swinish” fulfillment of the most base desires. Our repentance results in a cosmic joy that God shares with the angels and the preparation of the “banquet of immortality.”

The older son represents precisely that all too-human response referred to above of hurt feeling and an offended sensibility that leaves him insensitive to his repentant brother’s return and salvation. No matter how justified such a response would seem from our human perspective, it remains outside of the Gospel’s “transvaluation of values.”

This is our “invitation” to Great Lent offered to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (MATT. 4:17) To help us understand the beauty of that movement of repentance, the Lord delivers what just may be his “parable of parables,” the one we usually name after the prodigal son. So before we get out our lenten cookbooks, we must first really “hear” this parable and pray to God that He will direct and guide us toward true repentance. The lenten cookbook will not save us – but repentance will.

Fr. Steven

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