Homily 35th Sunday after Pentecost: Prodigal Son

Luke 15:11-32

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!

2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. 7

          Thus the Fall of Mankind began.  You may be thinking, “Why did he just read that passage?  This is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son….what does this have to do with Genesis?”  This is because the parable of the Prodigal Son is a short story that re-tells the story of the fall of man….and his redemption.

          It has been said that the initial sin of man was pride.  Man fell not because he was hungry and ate some fruit.  It was not hunger that drove Eve and Adam to eat from the tree.  Where did their disobedience spring from?  What was its nature?  Let us look at two key passages from the Parable and from Genesis.

          In the parable we hear, “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’”  And in Genesis we hear the serpent tempt Eve, “in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”   Adam and Eve wanted to be like God in their own time and choosing before they were ready.  The Prodigal Son wanted his inheritance before he was ready.

          Mankind was made in the image of God with the potential to grow into the likeness of Him. For the Church Fathers, free will and a rational mind were a major part of being in the image of God.  In the Orthodox Church we call growing into the likeness of God as being divinized.  The process is called Theosis or deification.  In other words, Adam and Eve were not born perfect.  St. Irenaeus, an early Church father, notes that man was made for perfection.  Note the distinction here.  Man was made for perfection, not perfected already.  He describes the first man as being like an infant who must learn.  Man was not ready for perfection at his creation.  Since man was a created being he was meant to grow into perfection.  Being as an infant he was not ready for “meat” yet and must be nourished on spiritual milk and grow with the grace of God into perfection.

          Mankind, however, wanted to take the easy way to becoming like God.  In pride Eve took the fruit and ate when the Serpent told her that she would be like God if she ate the fruit that she and Adam had been commanded not to eat.  “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.”  Adam ate as well.  It doesn’t even appear that he put up any kind of argument with Eve…at least not one that was recorded.  We all know the consequences of their actions:  exile from Paradise being one of the chief consequences.

          So it is also with the Prodigal Son.  He wanted his inheritance before the proper time.  The father in the story stands for our Heavenly Father.  When it says that the Prodigal Son wanted his inheritance, it would mean that he wanted all of the gifts of God before he was able to fully use them correctly.  The father of the story, respecting his son’s free-will, gives him what he wants and the young man goes his way.  Even so, we are given the same free will. We can decide to stay in our Father’s household or move away from Him.  Since God is a loving Father, He will not force us to love Him back.  He has given us our free will and mind so that we may choose to follow Him and love Him or not.

          What does the Prodigal Son do with his inheritance?  He squanders it and finds himself in a far country.  Blessed Theophylact tells us that this far country is a metaphor for the distance a rebellious man puts between himself and God.  Man moves far from God by his rebellion.

          Adam and Eve misused their gifts from God, their free-will and rational mind, and the Prodigal Son has done the same thing.  Man left to his own devices, bereft of God, can sink lower into the pit of sin.  It wasn’t long after Adam and Eve left the Garden that Cain was born and slew his brother Abel; and it wasn’t that long after that that Noah was building an ark because of the wickedness that ruled the earth.  Just so the Prodigal spent his inheritance on riotous living and eventually found himself destitute, living among swine and starving to the point that even their food looked good to him.

          The Prodigal comes to himself, though, finally, when he has reached the bottom, when the last scraps of his pride have been stripped from him.  At his most humble, his lowest point he realizes his poverty and shame and knows that he must make his way back to his father:  no longer as a son, but as a servant at least.  This too is the path that we must take…we, who are the children of Adam and Eve.  We who have inherited the consequences of their transgression and added to it a hundred fold with our own sins.  We too can come to ourselves, our true selves as creatures made in the image of God and decide to return to our Father.

          In our return to God we find in the Parable that God has wanted our return, that God has never stopped loving us just as the Prodigal’s father rejoiced at the return of his son.  As that father ran to meet his son, even so God runs to greet us when we repent and turn toward Him.  As that father put a new garment upon him and put a ring on his son’s hand, so God elevates us back to our former status and even more; he makes us one with Him through our Lord Jesus Christ.  According to Blessed Theophylact the robe is the garment of baptism which brings us back to our original state and the ring is a symbol of our Chrismation which is the seal of the Holy Spirit.  The grain fed bullock that the father has killed for his son is, according to Blessed Theophylact, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  The word “fatted calf” does not adequately describe the Greek which translates better as grain fed.  This means that it is a calf, a bullock that has been bred to be sacrificed or eaten.  The grain also stands for the bread of the eucharist.  The bullock was never under the yoke; and so we see in it an image of Christ who was never under the yoke of sin either.  So we see that the Prodigal Son is elevated beyond what he was before just as we are when we are joined to Christ in His Church.

          The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the major themes of Great Lent.  In it we are to see not just the story of redemption, but the story of our redemption, each one of us.  Though we have been united to Christ in the Church, though the Church is Paradise, we are reminded that we can wrongly exercise our free will and find ourselves far from God in a strange land and beset by famine.  Every year we are reminded of this danger.  Every year we are reminded that we have a loving Father Who runs to bring us back into His Household.  Every year we need to be reminded!

          In the Vespers of the Prodigal Son we hear these words, and one hopes, we can make them our own:

Brethren, let us learn the meaning of this mystery.  For when the Prodigal Son ran back from sin to his Father’s house, his loving Father came out to meet him and kissed him.  He restored to the Prodigal the tokens of his proper glory, and mystically He made glad on high, sacrificing the fatted calf.  Let our lives, then, be worthy of the loving Father who has offered sacrifice, and of the glorious Victim who is the Savior of our souls.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!





2009 Fr. Philip Kontos