The Prodigal Son: a homily on Luke 15:11-32
What an incredibly powerful story! In only two weeks after hearing this in Church, we come to Lent that period of fasting and prayer that the Church puts before us. The next few weeks are a preparation for it.
Last week, our Church presented us with the story of humility (The Publican and the Pharisee), as only with humility can we come close to God. This week it presents us with repentance – we need repentance to come to God. Next week it will present us with judgement – the Gospel of the Second Coming of Christ.
Humility, repentance and then coming face to face with God. This is the journey that the Church takes us on before Lent. Today Jesus teaches us with symbols. Some people have got a problem with symbols in Christianity. “You Orthodox always use symbols.” Jesus used symbols – that’s why we Orthodox use symbols. Jesus used metaphors, Jesus used parables, and Jesus used symbols. We follow Jesus in using symbols – and those who accuse us of being too symbolic – let them read the scriptures and know what they’re talking about.
And so today Jesus uses symbols in this story. A father who symbolises God. Two sons who symbolise us. Property and wealth that symbolise everything that God has to give us. Inheritance which symbolise the grace of God that has been given to us.
And the younger of the two sons goes to the father, “Give me my inheritance.” Now I don’t know about you but if my son came to me, while I was still alive and asked for my inheritance, I’d be very upset.
You’d think “wouldn’t it be nice if you just waited till I died, at least, before you wanted to take whatever is yours anyway.”
And yet this father says “if you want it, here, have it,”
What was the younger brother’s problem? The inheritance was his, he was going to get it – everything the father had was for the two sons. But no, he wanted it NOW! He wanted it on his terms. He wanted it self-centredly. He wanted all the gifts without the relationship with the father. In fact, the ultimate insult to the father was that he asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive. Only hate could inspire a son to do this. The ultimate self-centredness! Yet the father in today’s Gospel reading gives it to him. And what does the son do? He squanders it, he goes to a foreign land and he spends all his money gambling, living hard, and on picking up girls and partying. Then guess what?… Hard times arrive to where he lives and there’s no food, and he’s got no money, and he’s a long way from home.
So he finds someone and this person says “hey, listen, mate, I need someone to feed my pigs.” It’s a job. So here he comes, from a mansion, from wealth, from where he had everything he wanted – and now he feeds pigs. And not only does he feed pigs, he lives like one. Why? Because he says “if only I could eat what these pigs eat”. That’s how hungry he was!
The parallels between this man and us are phenomenal.
What do Adam and Eve do? They want their inheritance. What is their inheritance? If God is the Father then everything that God has: immortality, love, harmony, peacefulness, even an identity. All of these things He gives to us. He will give to us. These are the things he wanted to give to Adam and Eve. These are the things He wanted to give to humanity – His own likeness; He wants people to become like Him.
This scandalises a lot of non-Orthodox Christians. If the biblical teaching is nothing less, then we are all to become partakers of the divine nature, as Peter says in his Epistle: “That we are created in the image of God to achieve His likeness” – to become gods, through grace as a gift from Him. And yet we want inheritance without the relationship. Adam and Eve took their inheritance and because of their spiritual immaturity, they squandered it. They took the gifts, they tried to live by the inheritance and made a mess of it. And so they were exiled from paradise and humanity has lived like pigs ever since. Humanity continues to steal, to rape, to murder, to exploit, to consume without thinking.
Humanity continues to crush all the gifts God gave it…and itself as well! That’s what it means to live like a pig. A pig in Jewish culture was unclean. That’s why Jesus in the parable, specifically chooses pigs. The prodigal son did the most unthinkable job for a Jew. He worked with swine, he worked with what was unclean so as to show how unclean he had become, to show that that’s how unclean humanity has become.
And yet this guy comes to his senses. He experiences an awakening. A conversion! Something happens within him. You see, he’s blessed. In the depth of his futile existence, he wakes up. After he’s been to the casino, after he’s slept with all the prostitutes, after he’s drank himself senseless, after he’s smoked every drug there is on earth and injected himself with whatever is available, he still woke up – others don’t. They die in that state.
He wakes up and says, “Hang on a minute! At Dad’s place the people who are the servants, the hired servants, the slaves of the household – these people have more than enough bread to fill their stomachs. And here I am living like a pig!”
And so he comes to his senses. What does this mean? When he starts thinking logically, when he starts thinking rationally, or when we start thinking rationally, when we start thinking logically, we turn to God. When we come to our senses, we come to our Father in heaven, and we too think “Hang on a minute! God promises all these things, bread – heavenly bread – the Eucharist. He promises safety, salvation. He promises eternal life, regardless of the suffering that we go through in this world – sometimes because of the suffering we go through in this world.” And the person that comes to his senses and the person who thinks rationally and logically goes to God the Father and says “Father I have sinned against you, I have sinned against heaven. I have sinned before my brothers and sisters – forgive me. If you have something in your mercy give it to me.”
And if you feel that it can’t be done for you, well, then let me tell you what this young man is called in Greek, because “prodigal” son doesn’t quite get it. O Asotos Yios – the un-saveable son!
So when we turn back to God and when we present God with our sins and we pray “Father, I too have sinned against heaven and before you”, His only response can be “Bring the fatted calf and kill it so that we can eat and rejoice,” Put a ring on his or her finger to show when we turn to God like that, He adopts us as sons, as daughters. Bring a robe which symbolises the gifts, or rather the fruits, of the Holy Spirit. And our inheritance is given to us on the way, through obedience and humility to the Father, who knows what to give us when to give it to us, for our salvation.
Rev. Dimitri Tsakas
Parish Priest of St. George – Brisbane (QLD)
The Publican and the Pharisee: a homily on Luke 18: 9-14
(16th Sunday of Luke)
As often happens in our society, people who big-note themselves are often the ones who suffer the greatest humiliation. There’s a very simple correlation between how far up you put yourself and how far down you come – simply as a result of being human; simply as a result of being a human being in a fallen world,
This Gospel reading compares and contrasts two different attitudes to prayer. It teaches us not to be self-righteous. But let’s look at something else.
Two men went up to pray; one was a Pharisee, a respected member of his religious community; one who did all the right things – externally. And yet, when he stands before God, he stands before a mirror. If you noticed, the Gospel says to us “and he prayed to himself thus”. So he wasn’t praying to God – he was justifying himself. He was justifying his own existence. He was trying to make himself look good, He was trying to convince himself that he was superior to others, and why did he do that?
Simply out of pride. Often we act like that because of low self-esteem. Often we try to convince ourselves that we are something beyond what we are, not only because of pride, but often because we don’t have what is good and fruitful self-esteem.
The other man in the parable is a tax collector. Now, a tax collector in first century Palestine collected taxes for the occupying power – the Roman oppressors. Being a Jew himself, you can imagine how this man was treated. He was an outcast. The Jewish community considered him a traitor. Often if the tax collectors the authority to collect fifty dollars for the Romans rulers, they would collect seventy from you and pocket the other twenty! So, not only did they collect for the enemy, not only did they collect from the people that oppressed your people, but they also stole from you as well!
Now, this tax collector goes up and prays; and he doesn’t stand at all close to the altar, He stands far away. (You see, this man has self-esteem, but we’ll talk about that later). Then he beats his breast and he wouldn’t even look toward the heavens. He doesn’t have to convince himself of anything because he knows who he is; and so he talks to God. And he asks God, out of the sincerity of his heart, a simple request that is intimately related to how he sees himself. He says, “Lord God, have mercy. I do these things. This is what I am. I’m fallen. I’m sinful. This is what I am.”
Yet the Pharisee looks at the tax collector and says, “Lord God, thank you that I’m not like all these other people: adulterers, murderers, etc.” As if this is not bad enough, he doesn’t leave it at that general level, but he has to personally attack the person praying behind him. “And thank you, Lord, that I’m not like that man over there – that tax collector.”
There’s a two-edged sword in this story.
People walk away and say, “See why I don’t go to Church? The Pharisee is like the people in Church. They fast, they pray, etc.” However, Jesus doesn’t say not to come to Church. He never said “do not pray”. He doesn’t say “don’t fast”. He orders those things. Jesus is talking about the attitude with which we do all these things. The other side of this, of course, is the people who don’t come to Church and are doing the same kind of things as the people who are. The attitude is the issue. “I don’t need to go to Church, I don’t lie, I don’t steal, I don’t do anything to anyone, I say my prayers”. You see, hypocrisy is within and without the community. Within the group that always goes to Church, and within the group that never goes to Church. Thus, nobody is justified.
Now, people like the Pharisee may say things like: “I’m not like this tax collector”, or “I’m not like the people that go to Church” or “I’m not like the people that don’t go to Church”,
One may wish to ask the Pharisee, what’s the difference between you and the tax collector? Have you got three legs instead of two? He has two hands, you have two hands, he has two legs, and you have two legs. He has a brain, you have a brain. He’s got emotions, you’ve got emotions. He’s got hardships, you’ve got hardships. Your life’s a mess, his life is a mess too.
But, do you know what the Pharisee’s real problem was? Beyond the fact that he is talking to himself; beyond the fact that he is trying to convince himself what a great Jew he is; even beyond the fact he’s judging another human being – there’s something deeper. There’s a raging subconscious river here.
“I’m Superhuman,” he thinks. He’s trying to convince himself that he’s something beyond the human. He’s trying to convince himself that he has self-esteem.
What is self-esteem? Self-esteem is to know what you are. Self-esteem is to be at peace with what you are, knowing that through prayer, through the grace of God, it is being transformed, it is being developed, it is being saved, and being made into something beautiful – and knowing that it is the grace of God that is performing this miracle in your life.
Thus, the tax collector has self-esteem – he knows what he is. He doesn’t pretend he’s anyone else. The Pharisee is the one with low self-esteem. Because, not only does he have to prove himself against everyone else, but he’s standing before God talking to himself, trying to prove something to himself, So, why does the tax collector have humility? Is humility walking around beating ourselves on the chest, throwing ashes over our heads, and putting ourselves down? Is that what humility is? No. If we look at the experience of the saints, none of them talked about putting yourself down. They talked about being what you are, they talked about being real. That’s the aim of Orthodox Christian life – to become a human being. What a paradox! We think that we are! But, we are not yet in the image and likeness of God. There’s a shadow of it there, but we should be aiming to become truly human. To become honest, sincere, and genuine human beings, that’s what our aim is. And what it means to have humility is simply to know what you are.
The word “humility” comes from humus, the Latin word for “soil”. “Human” is the creature that comes from the soil. Humility means to know that you are human – that you come from the soil. You don’t need humility to put yourself down. Your sins will do that for you, if you’re genuine.
So, to stand like the tax collector before God (but not to stand there trying to convince ourselves we’re something we’re not) is the hardest thing to do in life – it’s easy to say, but it’s the hardest thing to do. What should you say when you stand before God? Say what the prophets of the Old Testament always said to God who called them by name, “Here I am, Lord!”
Rev. Dimitri Tsakas
Parish Priest of St. George – Brisbane (QLD)