St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Parable of the Two Sons

Sermon preached by Andrea Popa on Sunday, March 3, 2013

In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.  Amen.

Today is called the Sunday of the Prodigal Son but if you look at the Biblical passage for just a moment you'll see it starts the story by saying, "A certain man had two sons." Two sons.

This story appears in a series of parables told by Jesus:

  • The lost sheep
  • The lost coin
  • The two sons
  • The unjust steward

Each story was meant to illustrate, to reveal a new truth about the kingdom of God, to those who had ears to hear.

In this particular tale, we meet a younger son, who asks for his share of the inheritance while his father is still in life. He breaks the seal on his father's will, cashes in his father's 401(k), and withdraws accounts before they reach maturity. With his pockets full and bridges burned he ventures off to a faraway land and squanders his riches, leading a life of debauchery... And distance. 

While life is good for a while, his luck eventually runs dry and his money runs out. He finds himself without a dime and without food, feeding swine for some small pay.

For me as a parent reading this account, the tragedy of the tale that most resonates with me is not that the son traveled far or even that he made poor life decisions but that he turned his back on a father who so obviously loved him. He traded reward for relationship. When we dream of worldly success, or even, if we obsess over the streets of gold awaiting us in the afterlife, we are missing the point, missing the relational journey that should be heaven to us - not after death, but now and here.

At his lowest point, the younger son standing in the pig sty, reflects on his predicament and comes to his senses. I'm guessing smell was first.

He remembers his status, that he is the son of a rich and kind man. He remembers the abundance in his father's house and that he doesn't have to be living in squalor.

He returns home.

While he is still a long way off, his father sees him at a distance and runs to welcome him. The father orders his servants to dress his son in fine robes and to prepare the fatted calf in celebration of his son's homecoming. Fr. Calivas, Prof. (now Emeritus) of Liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, points out, “The reconciliation of the son to the father is immediate. The son is re-vested with his baptismal robe. By putting the ring on his finger his human dignity is restored...”

The older brother on hearing of this reception responds in jealousy and in anger. He has been here all along, he didn't spend his father's inheritance, and yet, no fatted calf was offered for him.

As we consider the older son's reaction, I would suggest that the older son is not an opposite of the younger son but the same. While he did not travel physical miles from home, he too has allowed distance to grow in his relationship with his father. While the younger brother recognizes his distance, the older brother, does not.

In Fr. Calivas’ words, “Though the elder son was in his father’s house, he was not like his father.” Had he made time to know his father's heart and feel his father's heartbreak, perhaps he too could have celebrated the day and rejoiced that his brother who was lost, was now found. While the older son did not pursue reward like his younger sibling, he allowed righteousness and routine to fragment his communion.

I was an English major in college. I remember once listening to a Chemistry major carefully consider the words "elements of communion." Elements. By definition elements are substances that cannot separated into simpler substances. The elements that comprise water are Hydrogen and Oxygen. The elements of communion? Bread and wine. Body and blood. My friend's epiphany moment so many years ago and what I have remembered all this time, is that the essential elements of the Eucharist, of our communion with Christ, are not about me. The body and the blood were both his.

Theologically speaking, I know that the Liturgy offers many avenues through which to commune with Christ and to participate in the Life of the Trinity - through the hearing of Scripture, Tradition, exchanging the Kiss of Peace, culminating with the Eucharist.

In each of these avenues, however, our key contribution is showing up. The family table is already set, the food is served. As sons and daughters of God we are invited to come receive the light, come drink and eat. Our communion with Christ, then, occurs as we accept his incarnation and his sacrifice, as we participate and partake, with humility and in relationship.

As we journey the next few weeks through Lent and into Pascha, I would challenge us each to consider, not if, but how we have allowed distance to grow in our spiritual life.

I have three brothers. When my brothers from DC or Philly come to town we clear our schedule, make up guest beds, plan menus and make time for talk and catch up. Between visits, though, our communication is limited to occasional phone calls and text messages. My youngest brother lives in the same town. Despite being geographically closer, he works evenings, I work days and sometimes days or weeks pass without seeing each other. While I mean to be close to all three of my brothers, space, time and logistics get in the way and I have to be purposeful in creating space.

As I stand here today I realize I am - literally - preaching to the choir, speaking to parishioners who have carved out this Sunday morning space for worship and community. As we toil to do what is “right,” the temptation is that we, like the older brother, will fail to recognize the distance and distraction that creeps in to our relationship with God.

In our day-to-day, how is it that we are purposeful in reflecting, in fostering a divine relationship, in creating sacred space at home, in our families and on our schedules? 

In reference to our relation to God, Father Antony spoke just last week about the sponge being permeated by the ocean around and within it, about the branch being the same as the vine.

As we create time and space for divine relationship, I pray we too will come to our senses, be daily aware of our status as children of God, and close the distances. In doing so, I pray we will become like our Father. In our everyday life, we will then taste and see the goodness of God, we will have ears to hear to truth of the kingdom.