What a son! He is unfeeling, selfish, grasping, self-centered; he dishonors his parents, he abandons his faith, and lives in total prodigality. Total prodigality! That’s how he comes to be called “The Prodigal Son.” So what does the word “prodigal” mean anyway? Why does this one word seem to sum-up what this young man became? Well, if we look in the dictionary, “prodigal” is said to mean “someone who spends money or resources freely and recklessly, wastefully, extravagantly. Is that what the son in the parable did? Absolutely. He took everything from his father and then blew it all. The Lord says he “squandered it all on riotous living!” That is, he threw it all away prodigally, foolishly; on sinful, godless, debauchery. He is the opposite of Mary the sister of Lazarus who chose “the one thing needful,” he chose absolutely nothing needful, nothing necessary for his salvation. He turned his back on God, he turned his back on his father, and he turned his back entirely on any semblance of righteous living. But does God give up on him? Does his father heap curses on him? Not at all! Of course the father in the parable represents God our Heavenly Father, and the reprobate son represents...you guessed it, US! What does the Lord say? Through Hosea the prophet the Lord says, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God; for the people have fallen because of your iniquities. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord your God: speak to him, that ye may not receive the reward of unrighteousness, but that ye may receive good things!” (Hosea 14: 1-2).
Return...that’s what God requires. Repentance, turning around, is the one thing needful for salvation, right? What were the first words that Jesus spoke when he began to preach the Gospel? “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. So repent (mετανοείτε), and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Repent, mετανοείτε! It means change your mind! Go in the opposite direction! Return to God and He will run to meet you. St Nikolai Velimirovich says: “the Lord does not abandon mercy but rather calls (evildoers) to repentance. Just as after terrible lightnings, a gentle rain falls. Such is the Lord, patient and full of mercy and ‘neither will He keep His anger forever’ (Psalm 102:9 LXX). And St. Isaac the Syrian says, “Do not fall into despair because of stumbling. I do not mean that you should not feel contrition for them, but that you should not think them incurable. For it is more expedient to be bruised than to be dead. There is, indeed, a Healer for the man who has stumbled, even He Who on the Cross asked that mercy be shown to His crucifiers, He Who pardoned His murderers while He hung on the Cross. ‘All manner of sin,’ He said, ‘and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men,’ that is, through repentance.”
Beloved don’t imagine even for one moment that our loving God will not accept you, will not embrace you, will not receive you back, even if your sins are many, even if your transgressions are very grievous. David in the Psalms says: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and who sins are covered...I acknowledged my sin and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and Thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart” (Psalm 31: 1,5 LXX). And in another place He says, “Come, let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool” (Isaiah 1:18 LXX).
When I’ve meditated on this wonderful parable that the Lord has given us, I’ve often thought that it should have a different title: the Forgiven Son, or maybe the Repentant Son. The point of the parable is that his repentance freed him from who he was before. The change in his heart and the change in his mind made him a new person. St. Paul says this about those Christians who have truly repented and made an effort to follow the Lord: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old has passed away; behold, the new has come to be” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Maybe that should be the title of the parable, “The Restored Son” or “The Renewed Son.” In any case, the parable today wants us to concentrate on the joy of the son’s restoration, not the sins of his past. This is the failure of the older son in the Gospel. He wants to stay mad at his brother. He wants to remain bitter and resentful. St Cyril says, “the God of all requires even him who is thoroughly steadfast, and firm, and who knows how to live a holy life, and has attained to the highest praise for sobriety of conduct, to be earnest in following His will, so that when any are called unto repentance, even if they were great sinners, he must rejoice rather, and not give way to an unloving annoyance on their account.”
Love, joy, restoration, renewal, these are the fruits of repentance. Why do you think that the Church provides so many fasting days and seasons throughout the year? To punish us? Not at all. They are given to bring us again and again to this happiness, this exaltation resulting from our return to our heavenly Father. They are given to bring us back to eat worthily of that symbol of the Eucharist, the fatted calf; to bring us again that robe of forgiveness and grace, and that precious ring signifying our re-incorporation into the family of God. I’ll end now with these words from last night’s Vespers service: “Brethren, our purpose is to know the power of God’s goodness. For when the Prodigal Son abandoned his sin, he hastened to the refuge of his father. That good man embraced him and welcomed him; he killed the fatted calf and celebrated with heavenly joy. Let us learn from this example to offer thanks to the Father, Who loves all mankind!” Amen.