On the third Sunday of preparation for Lent, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son (LK. 15:11- 32). Together with the hymns on this day, the parable reveals to us the time of repentance as man's return from exile. The prodigal son, we are told, went to a far country and there spent all that he had. A far country! It is this unique definition of our human condition that we must assume and make ours as we begin our approach to God. A man who has never had that experience, be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly "at home" in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.
Repentance is often simply identified as a cool and "objective" enumeration of sins and transgressions, as the act of "pleading guilty" to a legal indictment. Confession and absolution are seen as being of a juridical nature. But something very essential is overlooked -- without which neither confession nor absolution have any real meaning or power. This "something" is precisely the feeling of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him, from the real life as created and given by God. It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home....
One liturgical peculiarity of this "Sunday of the Prodigal Son" must be especially mentioned here. At Sunday Matins, following the solemn and joyful Psalms of the Polyeleion, we sing the sad and nostalgic Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion... How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy...
It is the Psalm of exile. It was sung by the Jews in their Babylonian captivity as they thought of their holy city of Jerusalem. It has become forever the song of man as he realizes his exile form God, and realizing it, becomes man again: the one who can never be fully satisfied by anything in this fallen world, for by nature and vocation he is a pilgrim of the Absolute. This Psalm will be sung twice more: on the last two Sundays before Lent. It reveals Lent itself as pilgrimage and repentance -- as return.
I think we can look at this parable in two ways. The obvious one is described above - that of repentance and the need to repent of our own sins. But I also see forgiveness being taught here...do you?
As much as we are the prodigal sons of God who must look into our souls and see the sin there and repent of it - we must also look around at the prodigals around us - AND FORGIVE THEM. Just as the father took his son in and celebrated with a big feast- we must recognize the prodigals around us and take them in. They may not always be as recognizable as the prodigal son who came home, homeless, hungry and shamed. That doesn’t release us of our need to forgive them. It is not up to us to determine if someone is truly repentant or not. It is up to us to forgive them. For in our inability, or rather stubbornness, to do so, we are also being sinful. And then it goes around again- we must be repentant of our sinful nature to hold grudges, anger and resentment.
Reflections on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son
Jesus tells the parable of a man with two sons. The youngest son asks for his inheritance, leaves home and squanders it away. He is left with nothing and nowhere to go. Finding a job feeding swine and still finding himself hungry, he realizes that his father’s hired servants always had enough to eat. He decides to go home and ask his father for a job. But upon his arrival, his father welcomes him and chooses to celebrate saying, “For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vv. 20-24). They have a feast! The older son, coming in from working that day wonders what the celebration is for and becomes resentful upon learning it is for his brother. He has been ever faithful to his father and his father has never given him such a celebration. Yet this brother, who squandered all he was given is honored with a lavish feast! The father says to his angry son, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours,” but explains that his brother is cause for celebration as “your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (vv. 31-32)
The parable demonstrates that repentance is a man’s return from exile. Alexander Schme- mann writes in Great Lent: Journey to Pashca “A man who has never had that experience, be
it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly “at home” in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.” The prodigal son felt his exile. He was enslaved to strangers and hunger. He returned back, repentant, to his father’s home, admitting his sin.
This parable offers hope to those who have fallen into despair with their sinful ways. It allows us to see that we must recognize and admit to our own sinful ways and return to God through repentance. Just as the father of the prodigal son hoped and waited for the return of the prodigal son, our Heavenly Father is patiently waiting our return to Him.