Sunday of the Prodigal Son
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, February 24, 2019
Good morning! I want to share with you the story of a growing community called the Witness Program led by our own Fr. Antony, Ioana Popa and Richard Robbat. You may have a heard a little about it already. Essentially, we have been meeting at Bishop John’s house on Thursday evenings, spending time together studying the parables, including the Prodigal Son this week, which we heard in this morning’s gospel. Some of us are from St. Mary’s but many others are from other parishes around the diocese, so it is real growing community. I have really come to love this group. As we have become more vulnerable to each other, we have built a safe place to share and be challenged by each other. Of course, you are welcome to join us, so come on down to Bishop John’s house on Thursday night or ask Ioana, Richard or Fr. Antony for more details.
When we meet, there is a little bit of a format. We’re encouraged to name “key words”, key characters, and themes in a parable, and then reflect on which characters we most relate to, or examples in our lives that parallel the story. We’re given the opportunity to rename the parable if we like, for example the Prodigal Son could be, “From Death to Life”, or “The Parable of the Loving Father.” “Pigs in a Blanket” was my favorite.
For me, the three key words that jumped out to me regarding the prodigal son were: dissolute, squandered, and dying. The prodigal son took his inheritance and resolved to live his own life. He wanted to be free. He ran away from his home, devoured his living with harlots (according to his brother), and by embracing the pursuit of pleasure, he sank into shame and he discovered death. So the main theme to me centers on repentance, the prodigal son’s realization that he is not worthy to eat the scraps from his master’s table, and his dawning hope that he might be received as a servant, certainly not a son. And so he rehearses his speech, “I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am not worthy to be called your son, please allow me to enter your house as a hired hand.” For the elder son, who despises his brother, the theme is jealousy, anger, realizing that he has spent his life working like a slave, and refusing to celebrate his brother’s return. The elder is as distant in spirit as the prodigal was distant in body. It is interesting to me that both brothers do not see themselves as sons, they are slaves and servants for different reasons. For the prodigal, his only hope was to be a servant, for the elder brother, his bitterness is living like a slave.
Like the prodigal son, we can begin with compassion on ourselves. The lost son finds himself dying with the pigs, but he doesn’t die. Instead, he confronts his wretchedness and remembers his true home. He realizes that he has to GET UP and MOVE. He has to EAT. Even though he is triggered by hunger, he recognizes his sinful life, and has the courage and humility to get up and try another way. Father Antony reminded us, if Abraham of Ur had never left the land of the Chaldeans, none of us would be here now. So sometimes, when things are bad, we simply have to use discernment and move.
Then Bishop John asked if the prodigal really repented or if he was just hungry and wanted food. He suggested that we might be reading in repentance more than the story warrants, but that the focus is really on the radical love of the father, running toward his unworthy sons.
And then we began to dig even deeper, how killing the fatted calf for the returning son could be a reference to the Eucharist. We talked about what it means to come to our senses in a radical moment of repentance versus small daily realizations and little moments of enlightenment.
Then Richard described the context of the Ancient Middle East, how the father would have been disgraced by his prodigal son, but how he broke cultural norms to run out and embrace him anyway. The elder son can clearly be seen in the Scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus is telling the parable. The Pharisees have the promise of the Covenant and the Mystery of the Holy Temple. Everything that God has to give is theirs already, but soon it will be given to the gentiles as well. Can they accept that the doors of repentance are open to everyone, or will be they be jealous and angry that they have suffered and slaved their whole lives to preserve the faith, only to find it given away?
For me, as the eldest in my family, with two siblings, I can certainly relate to the elder son, but I also recognize parts of me that are prodigal or compassionate. Ioana was really good at pointing out this interior interpretation. She said, “There are parts of me that likes to go to a party. And there are other parts that are more inclined to follow the rules. So, for most of us, we can identify with all the characters. At different seasons of our lives, our identification with a character may change, but our true self, created by God, perfectly reflects God’s constant love and His unconditional acceptance. It’s just that our response to his love is often buried beneath our perceived needs, fears, worry and anxieties.”
So what does God do with all of this? He allowed the famine which caused the son to come home, so that even “bad” events can have good consequences when we respond with an open heart. God’s justice is different from human justice, because the church responds to our hearts with an open door, admitting all who turn toward Him. The father recognizes his son, he forgives him and welcomes him home. Any debt that the son owes is canceled, and he is welcomed as the guest of honor. God’s forgiveness is not forgetting his son’s past but implies a fresh start and an ongoing relationship. And so in the end, the door is open to both sons. They are both welcome to enter into the master’s table. And we don’t know what happens next. It’s a cliffhanger. So what happens in the next chapter? That is our story to write.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.