Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The Gospel. Lecture 3. The Prodigal Son

At the centre of the Gospel there is the meeting between God and man, and the meeting between man and man in the light of this new situation of God’s presence. At the centre of the Gospel there is also this fact, which is disturbing, which is painful, of sin. And I would like to begin with the story of the Prodigal Son, because it is not a story about a sinner, it is the story of sin, and it puts us face to face with the problem of sin in all its universality, and teaches us what we should do about it. I will read the passage to you, not because I doubt that you know it, but as I would like to refer specifically to this or that phrase, I would like you to have them in mind (Luke 15, 11-13): A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his Father, Father give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his subsistence with riotous living.

Let us stop at this for the moment. I think if we wish to feel acutely and clearly what this passage means, we should translate this smooth speech of the Gospel into phrases which are as sharp as those which we heard day after day, what does the discourse of the young man mean? — Give me the portion of good that falleth to me — Strictly speaking no portion of good falleth to him as long as his father is alive; so it means practically this: Father, you are living much too long, I have no patience to wait until you are dead; whether you are alive or not is of very secondary importance to me, but what really matters, is that you are sitting on goods that could so well be employed. I know that I can wait until you are dead, but the trouble is that by then I will be too old to enjoy your death; could you not for all instances and purposes die now? Of course he is a civilised young man and he does not simply kill his father physically, he may even be a wise young man and know that he would get into major troubles by doing this. So he simply wants to rule him out of life because his personal existence is completely irrelevant and that as long as he is there, he stands in the way. That is crudely and precisely what this young man says. This is very much what we feel about each other very often, in a major sense or in a minor sense. Teenagers very often feel that it would be so much more convenient if children were born without parents, or if parents, having done all they had to do, until they become a nuisance, had the good taste to disappear somehow. Of course neither does this young man nor the teenagers of our time, nor of all times, speak quite so clearly and say, your life is not only superfluous, it is an obstruction. It is your presence, it is your principles, it is your prejudices, it is your bad character, it is a variety of things, but one way or another, at the centre of things, there is this: the one who is next to me should be ruled out of life because without him life would at least be a feast every day. Now, when it applies to God what we find is that this young man does not only wish his father no longer to be there, he wants his father to disappear, to die in a useful way, he does not simply say, if you were not here I would follow the devices of my heart and mind and I will jolly well find ways of satisfying my desires; what he says is that what I want is your goods, you have lived long enough to gather them, you have now fulfilled your purposes, you have lived so far for me, for my sake, and now you have begin to live against me; as long as I was young, or perhaps I was not yet born, you were working hard and producing goods, your life was perfectly legitimate, it was aimed at me, it existed in function of me, but now it has lost its purposes, because you can of course gather more goods but by the time I can enjoy them, they will no longer be enjoyable to me.

This is the exemplary aspect of sin, not this or that particular sin but with regard to God, the basic fact that in our lives what we want is what God gives or can give, not Him. It is not the giver who is at the centre, it is the gift. This applies also of course to our human relationships, it is by-products that matter, not the person ; and this is the basic and the only sin, because all other sins are simply the expressions of this basic fundamental fact: goods matter, the person does not, whether it is God or someone, a father, a friend, and this is why I have taken this parable for a beginning because many other passages speak of concrete sins; one or another of the sins, this one speaks of sin as such. The Lord tells us that this discourse was delivered by the young man with all the hardness which the young may have, with all also, with all the possibilities which are ahead of the young, to discover something better or something different. You remember also probably in the 8th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, the story of the woman taken in adultery, it is the old ones who walk out first, leaving their stone lying because they can already distance themselves from their lives, they have many a time come back to their past, they have judged it, they have been sad and bitter about it, and therefore it does not take them so long to understand the words of Christ “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. But the young ones, no, they had to see others walk out, and probably with surprise they saw more than one man walk out, whom they had always respected and perhaps admired who walked out condemned by his own conscience — not by public condemnation — and only then did the ones discover that in their short lives they also were sinners and that they also had to drop their stone to walk out; less they fall under the same condemnation, because adultery and murder in a sense in Scripture are connected with one another: seeking after false gods, forsaking the bride-groom of Israel, turning away from God towards things which were adored instead of Him, all these things were the major sins of Israel, and they also are exemplary sins, one could put it side by side with the words of the young man. What happen next is simple in the sense that we know that day after day from experience ours and that of others, the father said no word, he divided his goods into two equal parts, the one he kept for the other son to possess when he would die his natural death, and half of it he gave to his younger son; he did not argue, he did not defend himself, he did not try to save his life because had his life had come to an end in the heart of his younger son and this life he could not retrieve, it had to come back in a process of spiritual resurrection; if the boy had become insensitive it meant that his love had grown very-very thin, or else to use the parable of the sower, that love was not pressed hard by the weeds, and the young man could in no way have access to the wheat, he could see only the richer efflorescence of the weeds. So he accepted death, his death sentence, he accepted to be dead for his younger son, and the boy went out of the house into the life he had chosen, a life which was built on the murder of his father and which was directed outwards. What happens next is simple as I said, as long as there was something to live on, he lived and he was surrounded richly by those who live on borrowed life, borrowed money, borrowed friendship, borrowed emotions, who live by reflection, in a reflected way of life, but who have no life of their own. This happens always, this is bound to happen to all the forms of richness, to all the aspects of goods, not only when they are spent in riotous living, even when they are spent in a quite different way; remember Cana in Galilee, this poor honest family, that had prepared a feast for the wedding of their son or daughter. Christ had been invited and He had not declined the invitation, His Mother was there, His Disciples too, and they had produced all they could possibly produced, all that their wealth allowed, and a moment came when the hearts were still hungry for joy and the lights were sinking, the feast, the earthly feast had come to an end, long before the hearts had been filled and this is the moment when we see the Mother of God tell the people: “whatever He shall tell you, do it”; because as long as life will continue in these two dimensions of time and of space, as long as it is earthly richness, even the richness of our souls and minds of our hearts which we will give each other, a moment will come when the feast will be worn, when the dearest gesture will have become stale, when everything which had the freshness of things new will have become waxed old. It is only if God enters into the situation that things can have the newness of primeval existence, day after day, moment after moment. And here we find the young man who gradually has spent everything he had, his goods, but also probably the resources of his soul, and when he had spent all, “there arouse a mighty famine in that land, and he began to be in want”, there was no one then to look after him, “and he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his field to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare and I perish with hunger! I will rise and go to my father and will say unto him 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.” All his life when he had left home was directed outward, now hunger came, physical want, loneliness, all these things which had kept him attached outwards, directed outwards, began to be severed from him, he had been tied by innumerable things, the way probably Gulliver was tied by each of his hair to the blades of grass on which he was sleeping, each of this ties probably was so weak, but in their togetherness they kept him a prisoner of everything around him, loneliness and hunger, hunger that reminds one of one’s physical existence and draws one inward, loneliness absence of any ties around; there is always a moment when sin or temptation seem to fall of, to abandon us and usually we are pleased and happy, we think that now we are free, is it true? It is no victory of ours, it is accident, and I remember an old priest, saying to someone: be careful in a few years, sin will leave you and then you will realise that you can no longer fight for God, the time will have passed; treasure the time of the fight, treasure the time when temptation is hard, because when it will have gone without you having overcoming it, you will lay waste. And here he was, that which had been temptation had left him and he was completely free of temptation, in a way completely disengaged, he had the sinister freedom which Sartre describes somewhere, when, introducing the subject of freedom, he gives the example of a man who was out of job: all his life he had been tied, all his life he has thought “if I only could do anything I want” and now he can, he can walk out and walk in, he can go anywhere, he can do anything, there is only one thing he cannot do: he cannot work, and he is a prisoner in a new way, in a more sinister way, and this young man is also free now. Temptation has gone far from him, loneliness and hunger are in a way his protection; and what, here he is, dying out, and so he comes back inward to himself and he realises part only of the situation; he realises that his hunger is connected with his betrayal of his having gone away from his father’s house. At the moment he does not even perceive it perhaps as a betrayal, he just sees crime and punishment in one action, and he realises that the crime and the punishment were to walk out of his father’s house; he think of the men who are fed, who are safe, who are warm ; it is enough to be hireling in the father’s house to possess all that, he is not yet aware that what he has broken is not a working relationship, it is a deeper relationship between him and his father, it seems to him that he can restore it by coming back to what he was doing in the gather’s house, working hard, being disciplined, obedient and so forth; he does not yet discover the inner meaning of his departure, and so he realises that he has done wrong “I have sinned against heaven and against thee, I am no longer worth to be called thy son, make me hireling, and give me bread! And then he start on his way. This is something which we do not do always, and I would say which we do rather seldom, very often we become aware of the wrong in which we have placed ourselves, we feel sorry, we feel ashamed, and if we could we would move back to the time before, but we do not often have the determination and the courage to move onward; we would go back to paradise lost, but there is no way back, there is only the way forward, towards another paradise not the old one restored simply but something restored which will be greater that what was lost. He walks because he is too lonely and too hungry, we do not walk because we are not sufficiently lonely usually and sufficiently hungry “he arose and came to his father”; the father had been waiting, the father had remained faithful, had remained a father, he had not become alien to his son estranged to him, he had not become indifferent, killed, he was alive perhaps more deeply to his lost son than before. What we have said in the last two talks about encounter or meeting, applies here. The father saw him, he had compassion, he ran, he fell on his neck, he kissed him and the son began his confession “father I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son” he was about to say what he had prepared “receive me as one of thy hirelings” (in ST James’ – hired servants), but the father does not allow him to say it, because he can be an unworthy son, in no way can he become a worthy servant, freed both from the glory and the responsibility of sonship. The father cannot receive him, the unworthy son, as a worthy servant, because the relationship that was one was there is there forever. The father interrupts this confession and said to his servants, 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 fattest calf, and kill it and let us eat and be merry: for this my son was dead, and he is alive again, he was lost and he is found; and they began to be merry”. The father receives him as a son, and look at the difference in which he receives him and the way in which we receive each other, even after minor offences, when someone has offended us and comes, and it is very humiliating it is a very courageous thing at times to come to us, much more than to come to God, because one can count on God’s love, one cannot count so much on the open-heartedness and love of those whom we have offended, when someone comes to us, how often is he received not by a father, or a sister, or a mother, but by a self styled judge, the righteous one who receives the unworthy one, how often the words of forgiveness are conditional, almost always, I would say, always. We receive one another on probation not otherwise: all right, let us try again, which means: I do not trust either your repentance or your goodwill, but I will give it a trial and again, even when we say “Yes, alright, I forgive you” is it forgiveness? Is it not that forgiveness will last until the first incident occurs and then all the past is brought back, our forgiveness does not start a new period of life, the other side of the flood as it were. It is not a new earth and a new life which begins for the one who is forgiven by us; it is a probation on the same earth and if by chance the culprit gives us offence, then we will hear rehearsed all the sins of his past and this is why it is so difficult to ask for forgiveness, because we know plain well that in the majority of cases, we will not receive any, there will be a slight effort to give us a new chance and then we will be watched closely, harshly at times, with a slight good will and slight hope on other occasions, but is it what we find here? Or is it what we expect of God when we turn to Him? The text of St. Luke says “bring forth the best robe” It gives an impression that the father send his servants to find the best clothes for him to feel that he was coming to a feast. I am not sure of the word “best”, the Greek text speaks of the first, first may be the best, it also may be the one he had at first when he was a son in the house. It may well be that the father said fetch him the robe of sonship the one he wore always when he was at home, which he dropped on the floor when he went out saying no longer shall I ever wear this, I have now beautiful clothes, and I should think that the young man must be slightly allergic to beautiful clothes by then, and that moving into his old tweeds might be a much greater pleasure and give him a much greater sense that he is back home. Can you imagine yourself coming back after tragedy and quarrels, being told, “Alright, here is a new frock which was made for your sister, or a new garment made for your brother, get into that, it will fit you quite nicely, it is a little narrow round the shoulders and a bit big round the waist, but it will do of course, look at the beautiful material and how new it is!” Would it not be a much better thing, much deeper thing if you were told “Oh yes, but you know we always kept your old clothes, they are in your cupboard as you left them, we just fetch them where they were, here they are, look ” And then you get back as I said into your old tweeds, and then I suppose this boy looked at himself and thought “But where am I, was the whole thing just a nightmare, when I look at myself I am the same”, and more than that: the father put a ring on his hand (the same problem arises also in the exchange of rings at the marriage service, what is this ring about?) It is certainly not simply a ring to beautify the hand it is not the ring of which the marriage service speaks, or the various passages of Scripture speaks, it is the signet ring. You know that in the past people were not as literate as we are and the great majority of people could not sign their name. So they wore a signet ring with which they sealed whatever was written in their name, and sealing something with one’s ring gave full and final authority to what was written. To give one’s ring to someone simply means that you trust him so completely as to give all power over your person, your goods, your honour and your life. And there is the father giving his ring to the boy who had despoiled him of half his goods and who had killed him to all intends and purposes, and who had defamed him, because probably many a man had said “look at him, he could not bring him up decently,” is that the way in which we treat people who come and say “I am sorry”, do we entrust them with the signet ring which will give them any power over us or do we make sure that they have no power over us so that even if they feel forgiven, we ran into no kind of danger. The rest of the story is simple, they rejoiced; it is simple, but not quite so: in the beginning of the story it is the father who is killed, in the end of the story, the father rejoices that his young son was dead, and is alive; this is what we find so often in the Gospel: the vision of things upside down, the one who killed was killed, not the other one, the one who died to love died to relationship, is the one who was dead; the one who was forsaken, rejected, is the one who remained alive, and here at the end of the story we find the older son. I do not think we need much commentary on the older son, he is such perfect portrait of I think practically every one of us: he is portrait of the good Christian, he is portrait of the faithful parishioner, he is the portrait of all those respectable things which stand between God and man. He had never done anything wrong, he had always been hard working, he had always been faithful, he had never broken any command of his father, he had not even, as it appears in the story, organised any feast for his friends, except by permission and with what was given him by his father, the only trouble is that by the time he has been so virtuous throughout his life and in the course of the years the young boy has been so riotous, the elder son had never been a son, he has never stumbled on the idea that he was related to his father otherwise than by work. He was a perfect hireling, he had never discovered his father. As I said before, is not that to a tremendous degree what we find in good churchmanship? I think it does apply to individual Christians, it does apply to congregations and I think it applies very often to the Church, dutiful, faithful, all sorts of things ending in “full”, but that for ages forgets the sonship in favour of or at the expenses of the other values. Well, I have taken this parable because I believe that it set before us in a complete exemplary way, sin as such, its significance, not in a particular form or aspect, but in what it is basically, essentially; the consequences of it and what we can do about it, but also the attitude of God towards the lost sheep, the prodigal son. The gifts of God are not to be taken away, what is given is given. We can become unworthy of the gifts, of the situation, but we cannot blot it out and there is no way of readjusting relationships with God, there is only one way, finding the only relationship which is right. God accepts no compromise on a lower level, no son will ever be accepted as a hireling, no devaluation of man is acceptable to God, that is something which is very important if we wish to keep our dignity even in our falls, even when we see ourselves at rock bottom.

Answer to a question

Metropolitan Anthony:

… I think that a relationship with God which would be pure receiving without the ability to give back something, would be a painful relationship. I always remember the story which is taken from the life of Moses in folkloric literature. Moses finds himself in the wilderness and meets a shepherd, he spends a day with him and in the evening he helps him to collect the milk and is very surprised to see that the best milk is collected in a bowl and put on a flat stone in the wilderness, where obviously the shepherd is not going to spend the night. And so he asks him about it and the shepherd says: You see every evening I collect the best milk from my sheep and leave it there for God. Moses who is a man of God and knows more about it than the shepherd of course says: “nonsense, God does not drink milk, He is pure spirit!” — “Not at all. He drinks it alright because every evening I put it there and in the morning the bowl is absolutely clean”. So Moses enlightens him, explains to him that God is pure Spirit, it does not drink milk, He does not need anything material and so on. Then the shepherd says “Well, I believe you, but it is against my experience so I will watch and see”. So Moses goes into contemplation to the desert and the will shepherd hides behind a bush to see if God will come and have his milk or not. And at a certain moment in the moonlight, he sees a little fox coming towards the flat stone, lapping the milk and galloping back into the wilderness. Nest morning when Moses comes eager to see the spirituality of God vindicated, he finds the man rather downcast. He says, “But what is the matter with you?” -“Well, you were right, God does not drink my milk after all” — “But you should be glad to know more about God than you did before”, says Moses; “No, — says the shepherd — because I do not know how to pray. I can do nothing for God. All I could give to express my love was to give Him this milk and I see now that God has rejected my gift”. So Moses felt, in spite of being a Prophet, rather upset about it and he felt that his vindication of the greatness of God was not a complete success; so he went in the wilderness to pray a little more, and God appeared to him and said “No Moses, you are wrong, because I do accept the gift of milk; it is true that I do not drink milk, but as the little fox needs it, I share my milk with him. So I accept it and share it”.

And I think there is a moment in our relationship with God, even if we have nothing, if all we can do is to produce this jar of milk, even if we know that the fox is going to have, it is God’s milk and God shares it with a little beast, that is alright. But if we can do nothing at all, if God is so transcendental, that we can only be there and receive sunshine and rain, well, in thed… you know, it becomes a little tiresome, one has a desire for reciprocity, not that we can give — as the Liturgy says: Thy of Thine own — Yes, indeed, but we still feel we must move in that direction also.