A HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY OF THE PRODIGAL SON

 

About Self-imposed Exile, and Return

 

        Brothers and sisters!

 

        How does a person fall away from divine truth?  What are his thoughts and feelings as he is leading a sinful life?  How is it that he comes to repentance and returns to the house of God?  These are the questions the Saviour answers in today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the Prodigal Son.

        The Lord has delivered commandments to man -- the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the precepts of the Holy Gospel -- and by living according to these, man can enjoy a grace-filled life, a life which is the beginning of the eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  But, alas, most people fail to value as they should the wealth of that Kingdom, the wealth that fulfilling the commandments represents.  Instead, fulfilling God’s commandments seems to them to be only a burden.  And so it comes to pass that a man’s love for God, the Giver of the commandments, grows cold, and he begins to plan how to put more distance between himself and the Heavenly Father, and to make his own way for himself, so that he may live as he chooses.  He separates himself from the Lord, and sin takes him into its bosom.

        This is the beginning of a man’s fall from grace.  He says an eager goodbye to his Heavenly Father’s house and goes far away, not just distant from the house of God physically, but distant spiritually from the life God has commanded for His children.  Having thrown off the light and easy yoke of Christ, the man thinks he is free and will now be able to enjoy himself as he wishes forever.  Sin paints for him a picture of all the pleasures he can now enjoy, and he, blind to sin’s craftiness, fails to discern the deception here.  Little by little, his whole manner of life changes, and not just in the way he had envisioned.  For a time, some traces of his former piety may remain, but gradually these vanish, like the freshness of a branch cut off from a tree.  Finally, as a severed branch, he withers up.  Nothing remains of the grace-filled life he once led.  Instead, he is empty, and all that is left to him are illusions, mirages.  But since the human heart cannot long remain completely empty, and a person cannot forever live entirely without purpose, he must now settle upon something to fill his heart, for something with which to occupy himself.  It might be drink or drugs, it might be carnal pleasures, it might be entertainment.  Or it might be pride, envy, resentment, jealousy, or acquisitiveness.  It might be things inherently innocent or neutral, like family or work; which, however become anything but innocent if they occupy the central place that belongs only to God.

        Has not each of us, brothers and sisters, experienced this wretched falling away, to a greater or lesser degree?  For one person, it means a total apostasy; for another, only a fortunately brief change of inner disposition, lasting a few hours or even minutes.  But for all alike, the basic sequence is the same, even if the intensity and duration are not.

        Were it not for the Lord’s compassion, what would become of us, deceived by the snares of the enemy!  But, most fortunately, even when we turn away from Him, even when we abandon Him, the Good One does not abandon us.  In His loving providence, He has ordained many ways and means to lead us back to the true path.  Sometimes these may be bitter medicine:  difficult circumstances in life, sadness, disappointments, poverty, illnesses.  Through sorrows the Lord shakes up a man and warns him, “Awake!  Arise!  You are in danger, fool!”

        And how and when does foolish man awake and arise?  It says in today’s Gospel that when the Prodigal was perishing with hunger, he came to himself.  To come to oneself means to realize one’s perilous situation, one’s wretched condition.  God’s mercy opens the veil before the sinner’s spiritual eyes, and the sinner realizes that he is at the edge of the precipice; that one more step, and he will fall into the abyss and utterly perish. 

        When this happens, the person remembers his former grace-filled life in the Father’s house.  The divine commandments, which once seemed so grievous to him, now appear in an altogether different light.  They do not seem bitter, but very sweet.  His resolve to struggle returns, and he steps back from the abyss.  Then the grace of God begins to operate in him again.  He not only decides to go back to the Father’s house, but actually arises and sets off for it.  In other words, he escapes the exile and bondage to which he willingly subjected himself and, in a spirit of profound humility and repentance, returns to his true family, his ancestral home.

        This, dear Christians, is how saving repentance works for all of us and in every case, regardless whether our departure from the Father’s house entails a total apostasy, a brief lapse, or something in between.  But always, to be saving, repentance must be sincere, humble, and fervent.  Always, it must entail our crying with our whole heart, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son:  make me as one of Thy hired servants!

        Only then will the Father say to His servants, the holy angels:  Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring hither the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat, and be merry.

        This, brothers and sisters, is what the Saviour teaches by the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and this is what His Holy Church wishes us to learn by presenting it to us as we prepare for the season of repentance, Great Lent.  And so come, and with the Prophet David let us weep before the Lord Who made us.[1]  Let us awake, arise, repent, and be done with sin, with alienation from God and self-imposed exile from His holy house, that we may ever enjoy blessed eternal life, glorifying with our heart and lips the good Father Who is in heaven, unto ages of ages.  Amen.

 

[1] Ps. 94:6