St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Prodigal Son and His Brother

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 20, 2011

The story of the Prodigal Son reflects the same theme as that that of the Pharisee and Publican. The difference is that the character of the long-suffering and compassionate father and the intransigent elder son bring some deeper elements. The theme is repentance and forgiveness again, but in the context of exile and return. We see the obvious sin of the younger son contrasted with the more subtle sin of the elder brother along with the long-suffering compassion of the father who is the uniting figure in a house torn apart.

The younger son who leaves his father's house is like the unscrupulous tax collector in the Pharisee/Publican parable. Taking his inheritance early he wastes it becoming poor and destitute. His suffering, self-inflicted, finally breaks his rebellious spirit and he returns home to ask forgiveness. His is the easier repentance compared to his brother's. Jesus points in other places to more obvious sinners, like prostitutes and tax-collectors and tells us that they will get into heaven before the less obvious ones, like hypocrites and Pharisees, those who are deluded into believing that they are righteous. He tells us that those who sin much love much. The sin of the Prodigal is obvious to everyone around him and it gradually becomes obvious to him through suffering.

Better someone who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than a person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous.

- The Desert Fathers

The elder son is like the Pharisee. Everything his father had was his. The Pharisee boasted of his faithfulness to the Law, and the elder son boasted that he had remained in his father's house. Both men thought themselves righteous, but they would be proven wrong; the Pharisee because he condemned and judged another human being and the elder son because he did the same. Thinking themselves rich, they were actually poor. Enjoying wealth and security, knowledge of the law and a certain kind of self-serving obedience to it, neither of them was able to recognize their own sin and internal poverty. Pride and arrogance undermined all their so-called righteousness. Like a worm in an apple it ate away at their hearts until there was little left to draw on when the time for compassion came around.

Righteousness without compassion equals ignorance, ignorance of God, ignorance of the heart of the Law, ignorance of the truth that we are our brothers' keepers. Joseph the Hesycast writes that “ignorance of what is good is darkness of soul” and that “ignorance leads to arrogance.” The Pharisee and the elder brother cared only for themselves and thus broke the law which says “you shall love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” So it is with these two and with us when we abandon compassion for legalism.

There is a term coined by the psychologist John Welwood to describe how religion is used to avoid dealing with the issues of life. He calls it “spiritual bypassing”. To name an extreme example, it is like the drug-addict who finds God, leaves drugs behind, but who becomes fanatical and hyper-religious, claiming a magical liberation, but who never deals with the deep problem of addiction. It is a way to avoid the issues that caused the addiction, the pain of its consequences, and the responsibility to work through it all. Instead, a new “religious” persona is built over the rubble of the old one which is like building a house on sand. Eventually, the house will crumble.

The Pharisee and elder brother were blind to their ignorance and found themselves outside of the very kingdom they believed they knew, the kingdom of compassion, of love, of forgiveness, of self-denial. In the face of God's mercy and of the compassionate father's gaze their little, selfish kingdoms were revealed to be what they were, unstable, delusional, and godless.

Zeal is no substitute for compassion. In fact, St. Isaac of Syria tells us that zeal is a disease of the soul. “Zeal is not...a form of wisdom, but one of the illnesses of the soul, namely narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance.” The appearance of righteousness is no substitute for true righteousness which is revealed in how we treat the “least of our brethren”.

That is why those whose sins are obvious are closer to the kingdom than those who are good at hiding theirs, even and especially under the guise of religion. Legalism, zealotry, and extremism are always signs that spiritual-bypassing is taking place. Underneath them is always anger, denial, and very intense suffering. The word “passion” is often defined as “sin”, but that is not what it means. The word “passion” actually means “suffering”. So, the way to a real change of mind and a true repentance is also the path of the alleviation of our internal suffering. We must not avoid our pain if we want to heal our pain. There is no other way to heal it than to touch it, to go there armed with compassion and courage as God leads, and actually feel what it is we have so tried to forget and avoid. There is no other way. That is what the scripture means that says, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Eventually, we will have to deal honestly with what it is that is eating us up inside.

Great Lent is only two weeks away. The call is always to a deeper and deeper repentance, to a more all-inclusive, gut-wrenching change of mind. Transformation is not an easy process since it demands our cooperation as the searchlight of the Holy Spirit goes into the dark places where we do not wish to go. But, as the spiritual dictim tells, “the way in is the way out”.

That is why how we treat others is so important to Jesus. Our ability or inability to love is the only true sign of spiritual health and the only criterion on which we will be judged on the Great and Last Day. It begins when we learn to have compassion on our own suffering. Only those in touch with their own suffering, who have taken the path of repentance and are able to show compassion for others and will hear the words from Christ, “Well done good and faithful servant”.

St. Maximos the Confessor puts it simply. “Whoever is purified is illumined.” May God grant us the courage to allow a true repentance, a deep cleansing, a true purification of the heart, mind, and body to begin in us as we prepare to enter the Great Fast so that we will experience authentic illumination and nothing less.