st nicholas orthodox church
126 morris street southbridge, ma 01550
THE PRODIGAL SON
The gospel and hymns for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son bring into sharp focus the painfulness of our separation from God, our Eternal Father.
It reminds us of the power of sin to isolate and alienate a person from his or her Divine Source of life, health, hope and joy.
And, of course, it shows us the way back to the Father; the simple path that leads us back home to His embrace.
What is often ignored on this Sunday and goes missing from the sermons about the Prodigal's return is just how difficult that return can be-
In the gospel for this Sunday the understandable, even righteous anger, of the brother who remained loyal to his father often gets ignored or lightly explained away.
"All these many years I have been serving you and never at any time have I transgressed your commandments; and yet you never so much as gave me a young goat that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf." (Luke 15:29)
The father's answer was that the loyal brother has always been with him but that it was right to rejoice because the Prodigal had been "dead, and is alive again; was lost, and is found".
In the real life of our parishes, too often the Prodigals never return. Maybe they think that God is incapable of forgiving their offenses.
Perhaps they think there is nothing to forgive. But more often, I suspect, there is the dread of encountering the other brother-
We often hear of people who once belonged to our Churches and who strayed far and wide returning to Christianity via one of the Evangelical Protestant groups, or much less commonly via one of the mainline churches.
Only very rarely do we hear of one of these people returning to the Orthodox Church anywhere in the vicinity (perhaps because we are so small in numbers and our grapevine is so effective going to another Orthodox Church anywhere within fifty miles of one's 'home' parish is about the same thing as being there).
Almost never does the Prodigal actually come home again.
Early on in my priesthood I happened to be filling in a parish when someone who hadn't come to church for a very long time happened to show up.
I heard several people say to her, and I am quoting directly, "Yelena, when I saw you come into the church this morning, I thought the roof was going to fall in!"
I'm sure that it wasn't meant to be cruel. These people almost certainly saw this woman around town regularly and may well have been part of her social circle of friends.
But, whatever had kept her away from the church for so long and whatever it was that caused her to come on that particular morning, hidden in her own heart and known to God alone, was dealt a crushing blow by such a terrible remark.
I doubt she showed up again the next week.
As for people who have been well known in our communities for "behaviors unbefitting a Christian", as the prayers at confession put it; meaning the alcoholics, drug addicts, adulterers, gays, and others who have failed at keeping up the standards and expectations of Orthodox behavior: we have practically barred our doors to these people's return to the fold in so many cases.
Why? Because of a Pharisaical attitude that such people are forever tainted by their past and somehow never quite capable of rising above it.
And here we have precisely the problem of the brother who stayed behind in today's gospel. He was not only angry that he had been taken for granted.
He was outraged by the idea that the Father could completely and unconditionally forgive the Prodigal, receiving him back not as a 'hired hand' (as the Prodigal himself thought would have been more than generous enough) but as a son, with the full stature he had had before he had fallen.
In the mystery of Baptism and Holy Confession the Church has been given the means to readmit the Prodigal human race into the Father's Kingdom-
This power, this gift has been purchased and granted to us through the mystery of Christ's Passion and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
It has been given so that no one will ever be left out; so that no Prodigal will ever go wandering aimlessly in the desert of sin and despair.
Our role is to refuse to be like the other brother, to refuse to have those closed and flinty hearts which make it so much harder for the Prodigals to return home or even force them to go elsewhere.
If you know of a Prodigal, or if you are a Prodigal Son or Daughter of the Church now is the time to come home.
The banquet awaits you.
The Kingdom of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit opens wide its doors. There is consolation, hope, forgiveness and joy in abundance.
Come and see!
The Last Judgment
"When the Son of Man comes in glory...all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will come and say to those on His right hand, 'Come you blessed of My Father inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.'....... Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me; sick and in prison and you did not visit Me'....." (Matthew 25)
The gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment says nothing about the heavens and the earth being shaken, of stars falling and the moon being darkened-
To be sure, the gospel and the kontakion mention the "fire" associated with everlasting damnation-
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, our Lord was making it stunningly clear that on the Last Day we will be judged according to how well we loved one another; according to how well we loved our neighbor (And who is our neighbor? Why, everyone we meet, of course). Jesus tells us that there will be no compromise here and that there will be clear criteria to be met in order to pass the test. Did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked? Did we do this on the literal, physical level? Did we do it on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels?
Let's not fool ourselves into believing that we can get off the hook. There is plenty of obvious physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual suffering within a few miles of every household in our parishes (not to mention in this vast world) that demands our attention. Call any local nursing home, or group home for the retarded or mentally ill, and ask if they could use a volunteer to visit someone who has no family contact. Food pantries are usually desperate for help. Pro life organizations such as Problem Pregnancy will never say no to donations of time or goods, and the list goes on. And its never a one time deal. We are called to give over and over again because the needy and suffering will present themselves over and over again-
We need to be careful here, however, because we are not called to be social workers in our service to our brothers and sisters in need. We are called to give because we see Christ in them-
The question each of us faces today is the same one we always face: What is the true disposition of my heart? How am I disposed toward my neighbor (each and everyone else-
Once again, today's gospel is not about damnation; it's about salvation. The gospel is always and only about salvation. The goats are mentioned because some people will choose to stand on the left. No one will force them to be there. In fact, this gospel makes clear that no one is a goat except by choice; just as no is a sheep except by choice. We choose whether we will love our neighbor or turn our back on him.
Notice too, that the Lord, when He comes, will not quiz us about our doctrinal correctness. It will be sufficient that His Church keeps her doctrines pure and that we are obedient, but He will not quiz us personally about our astuteness in knowing the canons and dogmas. He will not even quiz us about our fasting. He will ask us about how well we loved one another and test us with the simple and crystal clear criteria mentioned in today's gospel.