SUNDAY OF THE PRODIGAL SON 2017
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
I love music. Not all music, mind you, but I love what I consider to be “good” music. We heard, both at Vespers and in the Parish Hall last night, some magnificent music. Music is a gift of God to us. Even the Bible mentions that Jubal, a descendant of Cain, “was the father of all musicians” (Genesis 4:21). I love art too. I don’t have sophisticated tastes in art. I like art that looks like something recognizable. I DO love the great renaissance Masters – DaVinci, Michelangelo, Dürer. I like artists from other periods too. I like the Impressionists for sure. I also like a few of the Baroque artists, not all. You know, it’s said that just two years before he died, the great Dutch baroque artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), painted one of his most beautiful works, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” I was blessed to see the original in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia some years ago. Have some of you seen it there? Most of the painting is very dark. There are shadowy figures in the background, plunged in that darkness. With only slightly better lighting, the older brother is shown – his face looking stern and disgusted. His hands are folded in a gesture of judgment and disapproval. But in the lower left quadrant of the painting, we see intense light. The light is almost blinding by it’s brilliance. And in this light we see the figure of the returned son, kneeling before his father. His face is buried in the bosom of the father. The father is shown embracing his prodigal son with both hands – signifying the fulness of forgiveness and love. His face, beaming with almost blinding light, is full of caring compassion, deep relief, and gratitude to God.
This story, this amazing scene, is the subject of today’s Gospel. And it’s a marvelous Gospel story, isn’t it? I love this Gospel because it reminds us that God the Father absolutely never gives up on us. There is always hope for us sinners. The parable tells us clearly that no matter what we’ve done in life, we have a loving Father who will always take us back with compassion. This should give us all great comfort!
While there are many layers to this story, I want to focus today on the special aspect of reconciliation and forgiveness that forms the heart of it. We often think that the parable is only about the prodigal son. We even label it “The Prodigal Son” don’t we? But sometimes we focus on the older brother. As opposed to the “sinful” younger brother, the older brother has his own struggle with sinful passions: jealousy, judgment, complacency, lukewarmness, grumbling, and a number of others. He’s no prize either, is he? But I want to focus on the father-figure in the story, the father who represents our heavenly Father. Despite the numerous sins committed against him by the son, when he sees him coming from afar off he runs out to him; and in that moment sin and mercy meet. And the mercy of the father is so overwhelming that the son can barely finish the confession he has prepared. And I want you to consider this as well, when the father really has no idea what is going on in the mind of his son. He has no idea of ran out to meet his son, he had no idea about the condition of his soul, whether he was repentant or not, whether he was sorry or not. To the father, the only thing that mattered was that his estranged son was drawing near to him again. St Theophylact writes: “Behold now, the compassion of the father. He did not wait for his son to come to him, but he went and met him on the way and embraced him.” And that “drawing near” is the first motion toward repentance. It’s the same for us too. Even when we are struggling with our sins and passions, the devil tries everything to get us to stay away from the Church. But if we resist this temptation, if we come to the church, if we pray here in God’s House, we show Him our desire to draw near, to be close to Him. And what does He do? He runs to us and embraces us! He runs toward us, He pursues us to forgive us! As David sings in the Psalms: “Thy mercy, O Lord shall pursue me all the days of my life” (Psalm 22:6 LXX). And so He does. And what else? Not only does the father forgive, but he calls the servants to bring him new clothes, sandals, and a ring. He orders the slaughter of the fattened calf and a party breaks out. Why? Because the father wished to rejoice in the reconciliation he was now experiencing with his son.
Brothers and sisters: This is how our God deals with us. This is the God we worship! This is the God we believe in. Yet we cannot see in the father in the parable as only an image of our Father in heaven; we must also see in Him a model for us to follow in forgiving others. Appreciating the attributes of God is one thing; putting those same virtues into practice in our own lives is quite another. One of the more difficult parts of life in this world is learning how to handle the hurts and offenses that occasionally assail us in our dealings with others. Because we humans are flawed and sinful, we often hurt each other: sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. But regardless of whether the people who hurt us mean to do so or not, our duty as Christians is always to forgive. For the true Christian, there can be no conditions on forgiveness. We must be willing to forgive, even when the person who hurt us has no remorse or contrition, even when the person who hurt us doesn’t even want our forgiveness.
To harbor grudges, to remember wrongs, and to hold on to past slights is truly a very selfish act that will never do anything for us except make us miserable and at the same time, bar us from the heavenly Kingdom. We must always choose to forgive, even if our emotions have not caught up with our choice. We must always forgive, even though we may not forget. To forget the sins of others is truly an attribute of God, as the Prophet Micah said,
“Who is a God like thee, cancelling iniquities, and passing over the sins of the remnant of His inheritance? and He has not kept His anger for a testimony, for He delights in mercy. He will return and have mercy upon us; he will sink our iniquities, and they shall be cast into the depth of the sea, even all our sins.” (Micah 7: 18-19)
When we humble ourselves enough to forgive those who have hurt us, we are freed from the bondage caused by our negative emotions. Forgiveness makes us free. It increases charity within our hearts. And best of all, it makes us more like God. May He grant us this grace! Amen.