Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
“I will arise and go to my Father”
Sunday of the Prodigal Son
31 January, 2010
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 ; Luke 15:11-32


[This audio file has been edited since audio and written styles are not the same but very different ways of communication.]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

From today’s Epistle reading of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, and also from our Lord’s Parable of the Prodigal Son, there is really too much to talk about in a homily. If I were to give a sermon in the manner of Saint John Chrysostom (although I would never be able to preach like he did), it would take a long time. It is not impossible for me to talk about some things for an hour or two, but you would fall asleep (unlike if you were hearing Saint John Chrysostom).

Today, I am going to try to speak as briefly as I can about the things that are important for us to remember. In the first place, we have to remember that the prodigal son, when he took his inheritance from his father, went away and lived a riotous life. The way our Lord describes it at the beginning is polite. When the prodigal comes back, the elder son makes it very clear what was going on in this young man’s life while he was away – in other words, he wasted all his money and his inheritance on having a good time (as it were). This probably meant gambling, drunkenness, and so forth, and in particular, spending time with prostitutes. That is why we have the reading from the Epistle to the Corinthians today. The Apostle Paul speaks about the importance of our attitude towards our bodies, and what is the consequence of being sexually indiscriminate and promiscuous.

In our day especially when “anything goes”, and it does not matter whom you sleep with, or under what circumstances, many people do not understand what is the consequence of all this. In the first place, the Apostle Paul says to you and to me : “You are not your own. For you were bought at a price”. We belong to the Lord. Everything about us belongs to the Lord. It is important that we live our lives with that understanding. Everything that we are, and everything that we have belongs to the Lord. He gives these things to us, and He gives us the responsibility of the stewardship of everything that we are and that we have. He is our Creator. We come from Him. He gives us life. We could not even be, or have anything, unless He blessed it. He blessed you and me into being in the first place. Even if it should somehow be sometimes irregular how we come into being, the Lord nevertheless blessed our coming into being. He created us in His image. He blesses our offering of our life to Him. He blesses everything about our lives.

Therefore, everything we have comes from the Lord. It is important for us to live our lives with the attitude of understanding that this is the case. Everything is from Him. Moreover, because we carry the image of God in us, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are given the Grace and the power of the Holy Spirit so that in co-operating with this gift, we may know Christ and live in Him. Thus, our bodies are not our own. They are temples of the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul reminds us, then, that when we are united in marriage (citing what our Lord, Himself, says, and what God said right at the beginning with Adam and Eve) : “‘The two shall become one flesh’” (1 Moses [Genesis] 2:24 ; Ephesians 5:31). Normally, when a couple are married, they become one. They are not two, separate, individual persons living distinct and separate lives. Their lives become one. They are physically one, and they are spiritually one. This is how the Lord made it to be when “He made them male and female, and blessed them” (1 Moses [Genesis] 5:2). He created us to live in this harmony and this community of man and woman, who, together, make a complementary whole. This is how He created us. When everything is in the right way, it is very life-giving. When everything is under the Lord’s blessing, there is great blessing in such a marriage, even though living in marriage is not ipso facto an easy thing. No doubt about it, living in marriage is its own martyrdom, but it is a life-giving martyrdom. I have seen many couples who have been married for fifty, sixty years (and some even get close to, and reach seventy years nowadays), living in deep harmony with each other so that they do not need necessarily to speak much. They only speak from time to time when they have to. Their love for each other, and their interior harmony is such that it is a very touching thing for me still to remember a couple who had been married for 55 years, sitting in the sunshine one day after I had gone to visit them. They were sitting in the sunshine on a bench outside their home, and they were holding hands like teenagers. It was a very sweet thing to see. Their love, their devotion to each other in Christ was pure, and it was beautiful, and it was holy. This is how the Lord created us to become.

This is why it is so serious, says the Apostle Paul, when people misbehave and misuse this sort of relationship. He says that when we have a sexual relationship with a prostitute, then we become one flesh and one spirit with that person. I have encountered many persons in my life who have had many such encounters, and they wonder why they feel all fragmented and disturbed in themselves. They do not know themselves very well. This has to do precisely with the words of the Apostle. They have become fragmented because they have become improperly united with very many people. There are consequences. When someone is united to another person like this (who is usually such a very broken person), one does not know what sort of spiritual baggage one inherits from that other person. That baggage infects every person who becomes spiritually united with that fragmented person, and it spreads spiritual poison. It takes a long time for people to be healed from these things, although it is possible to be healed from such behaviour, as this prodigal son is today. He had fallen to the absolute bottom, feeding pigs with food that he was not allowed to eat himself. As a Jew, feeding pigs was the worst thing one could think of. He had given himself as a slave to a foreigner, and was feeding pigs. He had nothing. He could eat nothing. He was starving. It took all that for him to come to himself.

It is important to remember these words : “when he came to himself”, because our Lord does not use words for nothing. Before that, he was “beside himself” (as we say in English). “Beside himself” actually means that he was crazy. He had gone insane. He had lost his sense of himself altogether, and he did not know who he was anymore. By this time, he was certainly living only on impulse and fear. Living in this horrible, degrading condition, finally he came to himself. He remembered what it was like to be a servant or a slave in his father’s house where every servant had more than enough bread to eat. As I would summarise, he said to himself : “I will go home, and maybe my father will let me serve him as a slave. At least I will be able to survive, because I remember what sort of a man he is”.

The scene that comes next is most moving because we see the son in his rags, in his very dirty and terrible condition, living on no food, probably as thin as a skeleton or “as skinny as a rail” (as we say). When he goes home to his father, and while he is yet a good distance away, his father sees him coming. His father runs to his son (which older men did not do in those days), and he embraces him. He could recognise his son, even though he is in such a terrible condition. It is important for us to remember the attitude of this father, who had been waiting for his son to return, and praying for him the whole time. I do not know any parents under such circumstances who would not be praying for their lost and rebellious child. It was because of the prayer of this father that his son was able to come to himself in his horrible condition, and to come to a true awareness of who he is.

When his father runs to him and embraces him, he welcomes him right back into the family. He does not put him with the slaves, and tell him off, saying (as it were) : “Let that be a lesson to you ! You can live like a slave with the rest of my household just as you asked to do !” No, not at all. The father can see that this young man has wakened up, and is again himself. He had come to himself, and he has the humility to say these things to his father. It was a very big lowering of his pride to do such a thing. He has the humility to come and to approach his father in this way. The father reunites him to the family. Putting a ring on the finger is important here, because this ring is a family ring that says that he is the son of this father, and that he has authority as a son of this father to act, and to enter into legal agreements on behalf of, and with his father. In other words, it is a signet ring (and not merely a decorative thing with a jewel on it). It is more than that, and it is very significant. It means that the son is welcomed back into the family.

The animal that they are killing – the fatted calf – is an animal that had been prepared for sacrifice. It is now sacrificed to the Lord for this son. In those days, people sometimes had altars at home, and the father, like a priest in the family, could make a sacrifice. This is what he is doing now. After the calf has been sacrificed, and the offering made, then the custom is to eat the remaining parts of the animal that had not been offered to the Lord (all through the Old Testament, this is how it is done). They eat, make merry and rejoice greatly, because this lost son, who “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found”, has come home. By the way, in our families, at our tables at home, we Orthodox inherited these behaviours, and all this consciousness of a father’s responsibility in a family, and the father’s priestly role in a family. It comes to us from ancient times.

Let us not forget that the Lord is precisely like this with you and with me. That is why our Saviour tells this parable. That is why this parable comes to us now, as we are approaching Great Lent, in order to remind us who is our Father, what He is like, and what His disposition is towards us — no matter how rebellious, and no matter how wayward we sometimes can be. This is who the Lord is to us. In our hymns, we equate Christ with this father in the parable.

The older brother hears all this, and goes into a pout and a sulk. He finds out that the father has welcomed back his “good-for-nothing” brother. He would not come into the house, and he says to his father : “You never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends”. (Perhaps we have heard this sort of accusation before from disappointed and envious children.) It is important to understand that the older son has not yet forgiven his brother. He is accusing his brother by saying to his father : “This son of yours”. He distances himself from his brother by that phrase “of yours”. He is still not prepared to forgive his brother, and he is very angry.

His father (who is still the loving father) says to him (as it were) : “Open your heart – everything that I have is yours. I cannot give you anything more, because everything that I have is already yours”. Because he is being selfish, the older son does not recognise that his father’s love is more important than anything else. The younger son has finally come to realise it. The older son still has to wake up. Nevertheless, in the exchange that we are given by our Saviour today, it is implied that this older son is going to wake up. The father’s love is so pure, so intense, so embracing, and life-giving, that even the stubborn, unforgiving older brother will not ultimately resist it. Later, he also will accept his father’s love, understand his father’s love, wake up, forgive his brother, and call him his brother again.

As we are nearing Great Lent now, it is very important for you and for me to remember that the Lord loves us. Our whole life is to be as He intended : a life in a relationship of love with Him. Our lives are to be responding to Him, working together with Him, even co-creating with Him. Our lives in Christ are supposed to be productive and life-giving. That is why I am particularly thankful to God that I have the possibility to come to serve together with you in this parish, because the Lord has given you the responsibility to shine with the light of His love. You have been showing that you are determined to do this. Glory to God that you have inherited from your parents and your grandparents this love for the Lord which propels you, and which keeps you together in this Temple, and glorifying our Saviour.

May the Lord, by the Grace of the All-Holy Spirit, enable you to continue to follow the Saviour, to be faithful to Him, and to shine for Him here. May the Lord enable you to help other people who are looking for Him who is the Truth, to find Him in His love amongst you in the middle of your warm hospitality. Together let us glorify our Saviour, Jesus Christ, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.