The Prelate’s Sermon, February 28
The Third Sunday of the Great Lent is known as the Sunday of Prodigal Son. A very heart-breaking title, yet it reflects the spirit of our Lenten journey. Saint Luke has devoted an entire chapter (15) to three lost and found cases derived from three categories of the Creation: an animated sheep, an inanimate coin, and an intellectual/spiritual human being. Jesus tells three parables when he sees how Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus describes a shepherd who has lost one of his sheep. Leaving behind the 99 sheep, he goes after the one that is lost, and when he finds it, lays it on his shoulders and he shares his joy with friends and neighbors. The second parable is about a housewife who loses a silver coin. Upon finding it, she shares her joy with her friends and neighbors. The third is dedicated to a prodigal son who asks his portion of his inheritance, leaves home, and after wasting his wealth, suffers poverty and famine, and returns home with the hope that his father may accept him as one of his servants, but meets an unexpected welcome. It is a superb happy ending story with one false note. His elder brother gets angry upon being informed that his prodigal brother was welcomed warmly by his father.
a. In the Old Testament, the shepherd is one of the best known analogies depicting caring God. Psalm 23:1 is the best example of this fact. Also, if we take into consideration that Moses, as a shepherd, met God (Ex 3:1), David the shepherd was privileged to be anointed by Samuel, sent by God (I Sam 16:11-13), and Prophet Amos (Amos 1:1), a shepherd of God’s message, and moreover Jesus, identified himself as the good Shepherd (Jn 10:11), it becomes clear that it meant a lot to the audience.
It has been questioned how a shepherd could leave 99 sheep to find a lost one. It shouldn’t be interpreted as carelessness but rather, silently, we should understand that they were well protected. The Church Fathers have interpreted also the sheep as the Celestials, and the Good Shepherd that came to find the lost sheep, as mankind.
The description of laying the found sheep on his shoulders is very touching, as it reminds us of a father carrying his child on his shoulder, both feet laying down on his breast, as if structurally they became one and the child was made to feel safe.
b. The second parable is quite interesting in the sense that in the Teaching of our Lord women have been always present in different ways. In this passage, the housewife’s diligent search for the coin reveals her care. We should not ignore the value of a silver coin within that context. If Judas betrayed his Teacher for thirty pieces of silver, accordingly, we could measure the price of one silver coin
c. The third parable is the masterpiece. It is the core of our Lord’s message. It sounds unusual indeed, even to a 21st century audience. How a child could ask for his portion of inheritance while the father, the sole owner of the wealth, was alive. An inheritance could be distributed only after the death of the will maker. This irresponsible request sounds as if the father was already dead for the son. Nevertheless, the father makes the disbursement with supreme understanding. The son leaves home to fulfill his dreams and enjoys the companionship of those who adore him. His self-esteem reaches to the skies and thinks of himself as a perfect source of joy, friendship, sincerity, etc. Eventually, he loses his inherited wealth due to his excesses and is left all alone. The poor guy only then realizes that all his admirers were friends because of his money. Due to a severe famine, he agrees to take care of pigs, which was the greatest of all insults to him. In his misery “coming to himself” as described in the narration, he analyzes his life very objectively, by saying, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.’” He actualizes his decision, and returns back to home. While still he was far off, his father saw him and filled with compassion, he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. The son tries to make his intended confession, and the father orders to reestablish him in his former status and prepare a banquet to celebrate the return of his son, for, he says, “this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found!” This celebration was overshadowed by the elder brother’s negative behavior. He complains that his father was unappreciative toward him, while he was so gracious in welcoming his prodigal brother. Thus, he does not participate in the celebration.
The third parable is indeed a multifaceted story that has provided rich material for commentators. Within the limit of our sermon, let us highlight the characteristics of the father and his two sons.
a. By its conclusion, it is very obvious that the prodigal son’s adopted decision was a failure, and in general this attitude has been the main subject of studies. It is true that there is no justification for his action. Yet the focus of the parable is not only his unconventional decision with all its consequences, but “coming to himself,” his courageous decision to go back home at all cost. In the abyss of despair, this is a most positive decision: repentance followed by confession constitutes the heart of this parable.
As much as this is only a parable addressed to a specific audience, it is relevant for all generations. Even though the main character is a young man, the parable is not directed to that age group only. We should understand it within the biblical context that, all of us equally being the children of God, it refers to adults and elders too as much as to the youth. The message we get from this parable is interrelated with our former sermon on Expulsion Sunday. To sin, in other words to fail, to fall short as part of our human weak nature is unavoidable, and subject to understanding. Yet not to admit it but justify it is unacceptable not only to God but even to humans. In this parable, as much as the prodigal son’s sin is deep like valleys, his repentance is lofty and praiseworthy like the tops of the mountains. It is exemplary for all those who cross the valley of failure, frustration, anxiety, or any negative situation not to commit themselves to hopelessness, not to justify themselves or blame others, but courageously to make a sharp U-turn, to repent and confess their failure, and surely it will be followed by an unexpected and brilliant result.
b. The gravity of the parable is upon the shoulders of the father. The late Dr. Kenneth Bailey, an instructor of New Testament at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, when discussed this chapter and mostly the third paragraph, said that this parable is the jewel of the Gospels. If all the gospels were lost and this had survived, it could reveal the love of our heavenly Father. When I asked him how it could reflect God’s love without the Cross, he answered with a big smile: “Father, as a native of the Middle East, you should well know that an old man never ever runs in public to embrace his child, most especially a child who had defamed the family. The father, disregarding all the odds, already had expressed his ultimate love. By the virtue of its essence the Cross is love, understanding and forgiveness and vice versa.”
Indeed, the father’s most genuine behavior, described so meticulously—seeing his son when he was still far off, which assumes that the father was waiting for his return—being filled with compassion, running and putting his arms around him and kissing, not letting him to utter his sorrowful regret, reinstating him in his former status and sacrificing the fatted calf to celebrate that his son who was dead and was now alive, who was lost and was now found, indeed surpasses all human understanding of love and forgiveness.
c. If we analyze the attitude of the elder brother, to a certain point it is quite reasonable and may be justifiable․ From his point of view, it was unacceptable to grant such honor to a prodigal son. His name was supposed to be erased from the book of the family, for his shameful action, it would be better if he was dead rather impudently returning home. Yet the elder brother was short in grasping the momentum of the true joy, that his brother once was lost now is found. He could not move forward to forgive, to share his father’s comfort. We are not sure whether he participated or not in the celebration, but assuming from his harsh judgment, he may have excluded himself and invited his own condemnation upon him.
The epilogue of this chapter 15 fully follows its prologue. It’s true that the Prodigal Son’s parable concludes with the sad attitude of the elder brother; in fact, it has common ground with the same behavior of the Pharisees and the Scribes who rebuked Jesus because of welcoming sinners and eating with them. No matter how the Law preservers or the elder son were faithful in their commitment, their resentment was not justified at all but was condemnable in God’s eyes.
A last note is also very important in this regard. If we pay attention, the first two parables are followed by a statement, with different wording yet emphasizing the same message. The lost sheep parable is followed by this: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” The lost coin parable was followed by this: “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Bear in mind that in both cases, neither the sheep nor the coin could be compared with a lost human as is the case in the third parable; nevertheless, those who are familiar with the parable literature, know well that whether the actors are persons, animals or plants, they embody humans. The audience of chapter 15 knew well to whom the remarks were addressed. These statements, as much as they were a reproach to all those who thought of themselves as righteous, were also a wake-up call to see and enjoy the grace of God, which doesn’t depend on our merits but only on unconditional love of God that pours upon the good and evil (Mt 5:45).
Knowing how our heavenly Father waits us to celebrate our Redemption through the sacred blood of His Only Begotten Son, let us always examine ourselves, and whether like the elder son we are at home or like the prodigal son we have gone astray, diligently let always ask for His mercy․ For in the words of the Psalmist, “a broken and contrite heart God does nor despise” (Ps 51:17). Also let us pray with Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali and say, “Heavenly Father, true God, who sent your beloved Son in search of the sheep that had gone astray. I have sinned against heaven and before you. Receive me as the prodigal son, and clothe me with the original garment of which I was divested by sin. Have mercy upon your creatures, and upon me, great sinner that I am.”
May the love of God direct our thoughts, words, and deeds in order not to alienate ourselves from His care and to participate in the celebration of the eternal life praising the All-Holy Trinity. Amen.