Parable of the Prodigal Son

Stages of repentance

The antidote for forgetfulness

Sep 4/17 2015

 

"And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.  (21)  And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." (Luke 15:20-21)

 

This is from the familiar parable of the Prodigal son. No matter how familiar the scripture is, we glean something new from it every time we read it with attention. Do you read the Gospel daily? You must!

 

This morning, the words of the son to his father "jumped off the page" to me.

 

The son had rehearsed his encounter with his father. After he "came to himself", he counseled himself:

 

"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!  (18)  I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,  (19)  And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants." (Luke 15:17-19)

 

After his father ran to him and fell on his neck, the son delivered the exact words he rehearsed.

This is huge. There is great symbolic meaning to the son's reaction to His Father's love.

 

Let's explain a bit of the symbolism of the parable first. The Father is God, our Father. The son is human nature, or to make it more personal, since reading the scripture must be intensely personal, the son is us, you and me.  The parable describes the effect of sin on human nature, by showing that it makes us sink down low, to a barely human condition, and allows us no enduring satisfaction or joy. This is shown by the son's condition after he has "spent all" - he was reduced to being attached to a "citizen of that county" (the Devil), and to feed pigs, and no matter how much more he sinned (the pigs are a symbol of all sin and uncleanness, since for the Jews they were an unclean animal), he had no satisfaction or happiness: 

 

"And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him." (Luke 15:16)

 

In my experience as a priest and confessor, and a sinner who struggles against sin, I have learned to recognize some of the various parts of repentance. This parable describes them well.

 

The first stage is described as:

"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!" (Luke 15:17)

 

Sometimes for days or weeks or years we sin without understanding the gravity of what we do, or even that it is wrong. At some point, at least for some sins, we "come to ourselves". This is a process that may be repeated, many times, with different amounts of understanding and compunction. The parable describes one incident, but in our life, we will have many incidents.

 

After the son realizes his sin, he rehearses his words he will say to his father, and begins to travel back to his home. Since he had previously gone away into a "far country", the trip back would be a long one, and furthermore, he was in a debilitated state because of sin. The parable tells us of his weakness by his words to himself: "and I perish with hunger".

 

This is a second stage of repentance. His rehearsed words show the deep humility that must be present in true repentance, and the length of the trip shows that repentance is hard. It is not an instantaneous event! Full repentance takes time, and is very difficult.

 

There is another critical aspect to this stage of repentance. The trip back to our father is actually too long for us. Even if we have the resolve, we do not have the strength. Therefore, the scripture tells us that God receives our repentance, even when we are weak by describing the actions of the Father:

 

"And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him."  (Luke 15:20)

 

Now we come to another stage of repentance, the one that "jumped off the page" at me today.

 

It is lamentable and pitiful that we are such weak and forgetful creatures. We are sorry one day and make amends and the next  day we sin again.  All of us, except for a very select few, should confess forgetfulness among our most common and destructive sins. Very often, as soon as we are doing a little better, we forget God and ourselves. Our pride makes us forget who we really are. We are sinners, and weak minded and weak willed. Any progress we make is because our Father has come to us when we were yet "a long way off", and still full of sin. We must not forget this, but we do!

 

The parable describes the antidote to this deadly forgetfulness, borne of pride:

 

"And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.  (21)  And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." (Luke 15:20-21)

 

We must continue to say the words we have rehearsed before when we began to repent.

 

I spend a lot of my time trying to not be forgetful. This is a major reason why I fast, and read the Gospels and Psalter daily. Forgetfulness kills!

 

May God help you to remember that you are a sinner and even if there is improvement in your life, to stay humble and believe humbly the words of the prodigal: "I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." If we remember our sin in a truly Christian way, we will not easily return to it.

 

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Priest Seraphim Holland 2015     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas

 

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