Parable of the Prodigal Son
Sermon Preached by Christina Palis on Sunday, March 10, 2019.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I am grateful and honored to have the opportunity to speak about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a familiar and rich story that we heard just two weeks ago during the second Sunday of the Triodion. It is fitting that we should explore this story today as we find ourselves here on Forgiveness Sunday, poised to embark on our Lenten journeys to the Resurrection.
As Melissa shared last week, the theme for this Antiochian Women’s Month is faith in action, and we are reflecting on the parables of the Sundays of Lent from the Jerusalem Lectionary, the earliest set of liturgical readings known to us. In this set of readings, the second Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a story that appears in Luke’s Gospel in a series of parables told by Jesus to help his followers understand truths about the kingdom of God.
In this particular story, we meet a father who has two sons. The younger son asks for his portion of the inheritance while his father is still alive, essentially conveying that his father is dead to him. In this moment, the younger son rejects his father and denies him any hopes for mutuality or relationship. Despite this, the father, in his parental compassion and care, does not hesitate to give his son the money and soon after the son embarks on a journey to a distant country.
In this land far from home and his family, the young man wastes all of his money and eventually finds himself with nothing, destitute and hungry. The parable says that in the midst of his suffering, the son “came to himself,” and it is in this moment that he decides to make the journey home to approach his father in repentance and humility.
As the son nears his home, his father sees him from afar off and runs to meet him. He is overjoyed to receive his son back home and he embraces him with compassion and love, with immediate and unconditional forgiveness. However, the older brother who remained at home through his brother’s escapades resents his father’s generosity and mercy. He refuses to join in the joyful celebration, rather remaining outside of the house with his anger and self-righteousness.
This is one of my favorite parables in the Gospels. And when I reflect upon this story, I am first deeply compelled by the idea of home and return. I think about the many places that I have called home over the years. The light blue house in upstate New York where my parents still live. The little valley between the mountains where my grandmother’s village in Greece is tucked amongst the olive trees. The streets of Cambridge and this beautiful church right here where I stand now. Home, as the younger son experienced upon his joyful return, is a space of presence, of community, of unconditional love and acceptance.
And perhaps even more meaningful than home as a location is home as an emotional and spiritual experience. As Orthodox Christians, we are at home when we are in communion with God and with others in love. We are at home when we pray. We are at home when we partake in the Eucharist. We are at home when we each practice our vocation, serving God and others with our unique gifts.
This parable illustrates the ways in which distance from our true home in God and with God results in exhaustion, hunger, and emptiness. It results in estrangement from others and from ourselves. And while the younger son packed his bags and physically journeyed far from home and the loving embrace of his father, the older son has also distanced himself from his father even as he stands just outside the door of the house. He has broken communion with his father and his brother by refusing the way of relationship, humility, and love.
Just as my mother’s face lights up when I return to New York or my heart calms when I open the door here at St. Mary’s to begin my week, we can continually be coming to ourselves, picking ourselves up and returning home. We return home to ourselves and to God when we repent as the younger son does in this story, acknowledging when we have made mistakes and asking for forgiveness. We also return home to ourselves and to God when we forgive others and become like the father in this story, actively embracing those around us in compassion and acceptance.
Today we heard from the Gospel of Matthew about the power of forgiveness and we will gather tonight to embody the experience of forgiveness in community. The Church offers this ritual to usher us into the journey of Great Lent, a journey of spiritual renewal, reconciliation, and return to God.
We find this theme also in Psalm 137 which is read during the Orthros service on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son before Lent begins. This particular psalm refers to the Babylonian captivity, a period in the 6th century BCE when the Jews were forced from their home in Jerusalem, and the text is a beautiful and powerful lament of the experience of being in exile. The psalm begins, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”
In what aspects of our own lives do we find ourselves in foreign lands where we have intentionally or perhaps inadvertently journeyed far from God, others, and ourselves and lost what we have been so generously given? We are in exile by the shores in Babylon when we dismiss the needs of others or allow distance to form in our relationships, when we refuse to forgive, when we act out of self-righteousness or anger.
Through this parable, the Church reminds us of what we have abandoned and lost and beckons us to find the courage to rise up from our exile and separation and to remember our true identity, that we are made in the image and likeness of God. In repentance, humility, and vulnerability, we can return home where God is ready and waiting to receive us with loving forgiveness and a joyful embrace.
Sometimes that journey home is crossing a physical distance. In my work on a cancer unit at the hospital, I come home with each room that I enter, bringing my authentic presence and creating a space of acceptance and compassion for patients and their families as they adjust to new realities. Tonight many of us will begin our journey home by making physical prostrations towards each other, asking forgiveness from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Other times that journey of return is internal, as when we acknowledge where we have fallen short, when we spend time with God in prayer, or when we extend compassion to others and to ourselves.
There is a quote that I love from the Philokalia, a rich collection of spiritual texts in our tradition that also speaks to the idea of returning home to God. St Nikiphoros writes, “Strive to enter the shrine within you and you will see the shrine of heaven, for the one is the same as the other and a single entrance permits you to contemplate both. The ladder leading to that kingdom is hidden within you, that is, within your soul: cleanse yourself from sin and there you will find the steps by which to ascend.”
When we come to ourselves as the prodigal son did, we will find this ladder within. The path home is the path of mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love. May we travel this path together in Christ.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.