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The Prodigal Son: an image of us

Today is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This popular Lukan parable told by our Lord Jesus Christ is read once a year on the 2nd Sunday of Triodion. One week prior, on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, we heard about two men who went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee was boasting of his deeds before the Lord, very much with pride, while the humble Publican on the other hand beat his breast and exclaimed: God, be merciful to me a sinner. 
 
Similarly, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son we again see an antithesis of two men. The two men in this parable are brothers. The younger brother asks his father for his inheritance so he could go his own way. Shortly afterwards, he squanders all his inheritance in prodigal living and then turns hungry. He was so desperate that he took a job feeding swine, which for a Jew was taboo. At the point of starvation, he was delighted to even eat the pods that were used to feed the swine. He started thinking just how fortunate he was before he demanded his inheritance and left his father’s house. Even his father’s servants ate better, having bread even to spare. 
 
The younger son realizes that he must return to his father and ask for his forgiveness. He is even willing to serve his father as one of his hired servants.  It is at this point the transition from pride to humility occurs; a change of mind: μετανόηση. The Prodigal Son was initially prideful and ungrateful when he asked for his inheritance from his father and departed his own way. He thought he could do better than what he had living with his father. Yet, as soon as his situation became dire, he was humbled and became thankful for what he once had. 
 
The other man in this parable was the older brother who had always been a loyal and obedient son to his father. However, as soon as he saw the father welcome back his younger brother and throw him a feast with all his friends, he became resentful and envious. He started boasting of his good deeds and castigated his brother for his shortcomings. 
 
Clearly, the Prodigal Son was like the Publican and the older brother was like the Pharisee. However, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son we see a change of roles. In the beginning of the Parable, the older son is the righteous one and the younger son is unjust. However, at the end of the Parable, it is the Prodigal Son who becomes righteous, through his μετανόηση and humility, and the other brother becomes prideful with anger and unforgiving. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 14:11). 
 
A similar antithesis of two sons is found in a Matthean parable: But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? They said to him, ‘the first,’ Jesus said to them, Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you (21:28-31). 
 
The first son parallels that of the Prodigal Son, the second, the older son who was loyal to his father but overwhelmed with pride and contempt. It is also interesting how Jesus mentions tax collectors, a.k.a. publicans. In the Matthean parable, Jesus was speaking to the chief priests and elders who are similar to the Pharisees. The tax collectors and harlots will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before them because they are humble and repentful. 
 
The Prodigal Son is an image of us, since each and every one of us is a sinner. As we hear in one of the stichera at Saturday evening vespers: In a land that is sinless and living, You trusted me. I scattered my sins like seed, and when I put in the sickle, I harvested the fruits of my carelessness; and I bundled the sheaves of my actions, which I threshed not on the floor of repentance. So I entreat You, our pre-eternal God and husbandman, remove the chaff from my works with the wind of Your loving compassion, and as Landowner, provide forgiveness to my soul, and store me in Your heavenly granary, and save me. The hymn continuously uses the word “I” which refers to us. This is our dialogue, our repentance before the Lord. 
 
Sin deviates us away from God; it damages our relationship with Him. The way to restore our relationship with God is by repentance. When we confess we acknowledge of our sinfulness before God. Repentance, however, is when we have a “change of mind,” μετανόηση. We are sorrowful for our iniquities and change our mind to a road that leads us to Christ. 
 
The goal is not to return to the behavior or environment that is sinful.  In one of the prayers before Holy Communion we say: Receive me, O Lord, who that loves mankind, as you did receive the sinful woman, the thief, the publican and the prodigal son. Just as the father in the parable awaited his son’s return and embraced him with love, so does God await our return to Him when we repent. It is out of His infinite love for mankind that He forgives our sins. Although both the Publican and the Prodigal Son are not historic figures but rather subjects of a parable, they nevertheless serve as an example for us to follow. 
 
If we look closely, we see the Prodigal Son be an image of each of us because in our lives at some point or another we stray from God. The important thing is that we repent for our sins no matter how serious they may be and return back to the path towards salvation. 
 
The Prodigal Son is indeed the “patron saint” of us all, especially for those recovering from addictions. In the Twelve Step programs, an addict goes through a period of transition from dependency to sobriety. In Step One, addicts realize that they are powerless over their addiction and that it has completely destroyed their lives. In Step Two, they realize that there is a higher power [God] who can restore their lives. In Step Three, it is the commitment to turn their will and life over to the higher power [God], Who will restore them. There are nine more steps but in just these first three we see a transition from pride to humility.
 
When an addict acknowledges God as the “higher power” and has the willingness to turn to Him for salvation, he or she mimics the Prodigal Son, when he decided to return to his father. At the end of the Twelve Steps, the recovered addicts receive their reward: the fatted calf.
 
God is always willing to help us but are we allowing Him to do so?  What gets in the way and hinders us is our pride.  As we continue this period of Triodion in preparation for Great Lent, let us look to this Parable with assurance that the fatted calf, Jesus Christ, will soon be sacrificed for us all on Good Friday, to save us and usher us into His Heavenly Kingdom. 
 
-John Athanasatos 
 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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