Last Sunday, which in the Orthodox Church calendar is two Sunday's preceding the beginning of Great Lent, the designated gospel reading came from Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes these parables take on a vague familiarity in that we know the details of the story but somehow miss the essence of the message. This particular parable is a familiar one and tells of how the younger of two sons asks for his inheritance, leaves his father and wastes his inheritance on "prodigal living". As he hits rock bottom he decides to return to his father as a servant , for even his father's servants live better than he, in his current state. The story takes on a twist as the returning son is greeted by his father with celebration and a great feast. When the older son, who over the years had worked side by side with his father and stayed true, hears of this celebration he becomes angry, in that for all his loyalty he never was given a party or celebrated. The story ends with the father explaining to his older son the joy that he feels from the return of his "dead son".
What's the message we are to take from this? This parable, while a simple story, is multi-layered and offers several foci.It's interesting to note that the parable is read just as we are preparing to enter a period devoted to concentrated repentance and prayer, Great Lent. While we may not think that we are that Prodigal Son, evidence suggests that in so many ways we behave in exactly the same way as he does. We take our inheritance, God's adoption of us as his children and his call for us to inherit His Kingdom, and we "waste" it in pursuit of our own interests and the vanities of our worldly existence. Great Lent is an opportunity to come to our senses, just as the Prodigal Son did when he was in a foreign land, wasting away amongst the swine.
It is natural and easy upon a concentrated reading of this parable to go down many roads of contemplation. Sometimes it helps to keep things simple. In the verses just before this parable (Luke 15:1-10) Jesus shares two examples, the first a shepherd rejoicing over finding one lost sheep from his herd and the second of a woman rejoicing as she found a lost coin, to illustrate the joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner.
As we enter Great Lent, let's pray that we might emulate that younger, prodigal son, who "came to himself",repented and returned to his father, that similarly there might be that "joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents".
The Lord said this parable: "There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.' And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry. Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'"