How does one become a Christian?


Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

by Teva Regule, M.Div., Ph. D. on Sunday, March 3, 2024

Gospel: Lk. 15: 11–32

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit—one God. Amen.

How does one become a Christian?

At a fundamental level, one becomes a Christian by professing a belief in Jesus Christ, as we (or our Godparents) say before our baptism, “I believe in Him as King and God.”  However, in Orthodox thought, our baptism is only the beginning of our Christian life.  Becoming a Christian is a life-long process of growing in relationship with God to become more and more God-like (i.e. theosis).  Along the way, we may fall down or deviate from the path.  If so, the Church provides tools to help us get back up, set us aright, and continue our journey.

In antiquity, Lent was the period of preparation for one’s Christian journey.  During this time, those wishing to be baptized at the Paschal vigil would be instructed in the faith more intensely and encouraged to examine their lives.  In Jerusalem, the parables of the Lost Sheep Lk. 15:1­–10), the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11–32), the Publican and the Pharisee (Lk. 18:9–14), the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25–37) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19–31) were read during the Sunday liturgies to instruct the faithful and those preparing to be baptized into the Christian life.  Lent continues to prepare us similarly today.  In our received tradition, we now read two of those lessons—the Publican and the Pharisee (that we read last week) and the Prodigal Son which we read today—during the pre-Lenten (or Triodion) season along with a different, but somewhat similarly themed, set of readings and commemorations during the Sundays of Lent. 

For Antiochian Women’s Month this year, we will focus on the question of how one becomes a Christian and the themes of the pre-Lent and Lenten seasons that speak to this question.  We will explore the themes of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the readings prescribed for the next few Sundays.  We will also see that faith in Christ is manifest (and judged) by how we treat our neighbor.  We will look at the model that Mary the Theotokos set for all humanity.  Her “Yes” to God at the Annunciation not only allowed Jesus to take on our humanity, but, through her example, we are reminded that we are all called to bear Christ in our own lives. And lastly, we will explore the theology of St. Gregory of Palamas and our understanding that, by cooperating with the uncreated energies (or grace) of God, we can grow closer to both God and neighbor, deepening our understanding and experience of what it means to be a Christian.  Today, I would like to focus on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and how the lessons from that parable can guide us on our Christian journey.

The story of the Prodigal Son is one that is familiar to many of us.  Even the expression—the “Prodigal Son”—has entered into our cultural parlance.  In the narrative in the Gospel of Luke, the story is situated alongside Jesus’ own journey from his hometown area of Galilee to the center of the Jewish world, Jerusalem.  It is preceded by parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin—stories of loss, recovering that which was lost, and the joy of reconciliation.  The parable of the Prodigal Son continues these themes with both more nuance and depth.

As we heard earlier today, the story is of a father with two sons—the younger, who wishes to leave the nest and the older, who stays behind.  The younger son proceeds to squander his inheritance.  In desperation, he decides to repent, to return home, and is greeted by his father with open arms.  His father celebrates his return by throwing a party for him.  However, the older brother becomes angry at this gesture and does not join in the festivities.

What can we learn from this story? Any good parable can speak to us in many ways.  We can sympathize with the thoughts and feelings in them.  We might even empathize with the various characters that speak to our own lives.  So, what can we learn from the characters in this story? 

To begin, let’s look at the younger son. We first learn of his impatience and arrogance.  He wants to strike out on his own, so he demands an inheritance from his father, even though, according to the law of primogeniture that was something that only the elder son was due. Furthermore, by demanding an inheritance, he is expediting the death of his father; he is saying that his father is “dead to him.”  He then leaves for a “far country,” distancing himself from his family not only physically, but psychologically as well.  After a time of wild living, he finds himself destitute and hungry. He eventually gets a job feeding the swine—a detested and unclean animal in Middle East—but laments that no one will feed him.  One could say that he is brought to the depths of depravity.  From a spiritual point of view, we are reminded that we get nothing from sin.  However, instead of falling into total despair, he remembers… He remembers that the servants in his father’s house had enough to eat.  He then resolves to return, to repent, and to ask to be hired as one of the servants in his father’s house.  He is re-membering, recollecting himself, identifying with the family that he once rejected.  From a Christian perspective, it is a reminder that although the image of God in us might be distorted, is not destroyed.  We are people of hope.  No matter how far we have strayed in our own lives, we can always turn back to God and to our Christian family.

Now, let’s turn to the older son.  What can we learn from his character?  He is also presented as arrogant, but arrogance that is manifested as pride.  He has been the “good son,” working in his father’s house, presumably without asking for much in return.  When he hears that his younger brother has returned and that his father has thrown him a party, he is indignant. For him, justice is getting what one deserves and he doesn’t think that his younger brother deserves a party.  His brother has led a life of debauchery while he has stayed at his father’s side.  After all, his father never threw him a party!  We can see that although he was in his father’s house, he was not yet like his father. 

What about the father?  I think we can learn many things from his character.  He is a model of love, compassion, and mercy, qualities that we should strive to cultivate and show to others in our own Christian journey.  For him, justice is demonstrated as agape love—a love that seeks nothing in return, one that exists for the good of the other.  This love can defy convention and is sometimes exercised “outside of the box.”  For instance, although he does not owe his younger son any inheritance, he nonetheless gives him a portion of his goods to begin his journey.  And when he sees his son in the distance, he doesn’t wait for him to approach as the patriarch of a family would be expected to do.  He not only walks towards him, but runs to him and embraces him.  He accepts his son unconditionally, outfitting him with the best robe and welcoming him back into the family.

The father is a model of the unconditional love of God the Father. He shows us that even though we may stray from the more virtuous path during our Christian journey, God is always waiting for our return and ready to embrace us.  Our offer of repentance is accepted; our reconciliation is immediate.  We are re-vested in our baptismal robe, given the ring of our human dignity, and are invited to enter into the Messianic banquet where we can participate in communion with our Lord and His Body.  We are reminded that the reality of sin is death, but the reality of repentance and reconciliation is Life and communion with Him. [[1]]

Now, this parable is not just a story of three strangers.  It is a story of us.  At various times in our lives we may empathize with the younger son; we may have strayed from our “Father’s house,” tried to forge our own way, but have gotten lost.  For us as the younger brother, the Church gives us the sacrament of confession to free us from our sins and get back on the path towards God.  At other times, the experience of the older son may be something with which we resonate.  How often do we feel as though others are getting more than they deserve or we aren’t getting what we think we deserve?  For us as the older brother, the Church gives us the sacrament of Unction to heal what ails us—whether physical or, in this case, spiritual (e.g. hardheartedness).  At still other times, we may have been the one who was wronged and whose forgiveness is requested.  For us as the father in the parable, the Church gives us the opportunity to forgive others every Sunday with the Exchange of Peace and, as we approach Great Lent, with the rite of forgiveness at Forgiveness Vespers.  Most salutarily, the story encourages us to strive to be like God the Father.  Our process of becoming like the Father is not a linear one.  Our journey is not without its missteps.  We fall, but we get back up and continue our walk.  Our Father is always there to help us as we continue our journey in the Christian life—as we say in the Prayer of Thanksgiving at the end of liturgy of Chrysostom—he is there “to make straight our path, fortify us, guard our life and make secure our steps…” Amen.

 [1] I would like to thank Rev. Dr. Alkiviadis Calivas for bringing to my attention some of the spiritual dimensions of this parable.