Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ 7 Just so, 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. 8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; 12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. 15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Third Sunday of Great Lent, Sunday of the Prodigal Son), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Like Adam and Eve, whom we recalled on the Sunday of Expulsion, the prodigal son decided to cut himself off from his source of life and well-being, his father’s home, for what he believed would be freedom. For us that would be the Church, the Body of Christ, of which Jesus Christ is the Head. What the son experiences instead of true freedom is exile, poverty, and hopelessness. The prodigal son realized his shame, and by facing his condition he acknowledged his dependence on his father, arose, and returned home, at which point reconciliation between them was fulfilled when his father forgave him, clothed him, and offered a sacrifice for him.
Through the entrance of sin into the world, we became susceptible to its influence, and just like the prodigal son, we cut ourselves off from union with our Creator, the source of life. As a result, we continually seek life and freedom outside of God and the boundaries he set for us in the Garden, the freedom to worship him alone.
Our reconciliation with God is fulfilled when we repent and participate in Holy Badarak. The sacrifice of Christ is offered to us as we offer ourselves to him. (The word ‘Badarak’ even translates as ‘sacrifice’ or ‘offering’). In Badarak, as we express our faith and live out the vows of our Baptism, we rejoin ourselves to the original source of life from which Adam and Eve cut themselves off, the Tree of Life, the fruit of which is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And like the prodigal son, when we return to our Father, we experience true freedom. That is, freedom and liberation from sin, exile, shame, and prideful arrogance. No matter how far we are from him, “Our Father” is patiently waiting to run toward us with mercy and forgiveness.
A Prodigal’s Confession
We confess our sins over and over, week after week. If we are honest with ourselves, we’re able to hourly confess our misdeeds and broken communion with God. In the story of the prodigal son, the younger of the two sons sells his inheritance, essentially turning it into cash, which is shameful enough, but then he also asks for it before his father’s death which is equivalent of the son saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” He further brings shame to himself by abandoning his obligation to take care of his father in his old age. To make matters worse, after the son spent his inheritance on frivolous luxuries, he became desperate enough to share food with pigs, which for the Jews is especially shameful and degrading. The son could not have sunk any lower. We all find ourselves somewhere on the spectrum of shame.
The son realized that even his father’s servants have it better than he has it, so he might as well return home dragging his shame behind him in order to at least eat a decent meal. When the son arrived, the father ran to him and while the son was confessing (perhaps he even rehearsed the confession he would say to his father), the father seemed to not even acknowledge his words but rather called for his servants to bring out a robe (an image of baptism) and a ring (an image of identity).
Do we focus on the words in our confession as if they are a formula for forgiveness? This is not to imply that we shouldn’t verbally confess, but consider the father’s response in the story. The father’s forgiveness doesn’t seem to be elicited by his son’s words, rather the son’s humility. Also consider that it is the nature of the Father to forgive, even when our words are feeble and rehearsed.
In our faith, confession is never just once. That’s the nature of salvation. We are not converted once, nor repent once. There is daily conversion and constant repentance. Salvation is not static, but dynamic, not a completed state, a state of having arrived, but a constant becoming like Christ and union with him, a continuing journey back to the Garden. And so the point of the parable of the prodigal son is his lavish welcome after a return from being exiled from Paradise. We, each one of us, are the prodigal son, time after time, returning to our loving Father through humility and heart-felt confession.
St. Athanasius tells us exactly our experience after we confess in the manner of the prodigal son:
When he confesses like that, he will be considered worthy of more than that for which he prayed. His father neither takes him in like a hired servant nor treats him like a stranger. Oh no, he kisses him as a son. He accepts him as a dead man come back to life again. He counts him worthy of the divine feast and gives him the precious garment he once wore.
Thankfully, we have a Father who doesn’t ask us to prove ourselves before being welcomed back into the Church. Does our life as individuals reflect that of the welcoming father? As a parish, does our community cultivate a fatherly environment where others feel welcome to confess their shame and hopelessness, or do our faithful feel as if they need to put on their best self when in Church? While we confess our own sins, do we lavishly welcome others who carry shame and need healing, or do we avert our eyes and focus only on our own shortcomings?
“Incline Your Ear, and Come to Me”
The parable of the Prodigal Son is about return. But we may not always be aware that we have become lost. For many people in the world, it may not always be clear as to how to get back. From what place did we originate and for what purpose were we created? And so what place should we set out on our journey back? Fortunately, everything can be found in the person of Jesus Christ and his Church. The Church is where we encounter and experience the love of our Father, the mercy and healing of our Savior, Jesus Christ, the family of God into which we are baptized, where we unite with one another and with the Lord through the Sacraments, where we gather, no matter our shame, and ask God to cleanse us and commune with us, where we hear the Scriptures read which tell us that we were created as worshipping beings to live in union with God and given freedom to exercise toward that end. The Church is where we are able to admit our sins, faults, and shortcomings, and to celebrate what God has already accomplished for his people.
Have some of us left the Church, or at least placed a “safe and healthy” distance between us and the family into which we are baptized? If so, who or what becomes our substitute father, “the citizen of that country” to whom we join ourselves just as the prodigal son did? On what do we depend for sustenance? To what do we turn when we are feeling down? To what teachings and counterfeit Creed do we adhere? If not what the Church teaches, do we listen and believe what society tells us about how we should live and be successful and happy? Where else but the Church, despite the humans that make it up in all of their failings and hypocrisy, can we hear the life-giving, albeit difficult words of Jesus as to how we can live a blissful life? The Beatitudes from this Sunday’s lectionary reading (Luke 6:20-26), when lived rightly, help us understand our state of being, our false sense of self, and on whom we need to truly depend. When the prodigal son realized he had nothing, when “no one gave him anything,” he came to his true self. That’s when he knew he needed to return to the One without whom we can’t do anything (see John 15:5). The parable of the Prodigal Son in which Jesus tells us that we are lost and to whom we belong, to whom should return.
Elsewhere Scripture echoes the voice of God calling each one of us back to him. From this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, through the prophet Isaiah, God invites his people to come back to him after having strayed and held captive by the enemy:
Ho, every one who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in fatness.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call nations that you know not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:1-9)
Prophesying about the Messiah, Isaiah’s words still apply to each one of us, and also to the Church, the New Israel. If you are distant, draw near. Read this prophecy again and ask who or what kind of people are being invited to return to God? What are the divine blessings being offered? Does it sound like a parallel to the Prodigal Son, a feast to which we are being invited?
We also hear God’s call to the path of salvation through our Church Fathers. In a way, St. Ephrem the Syrian, whom the Armenian Church has historically adored and by whom we have been deeply influenced, calls us to imitate the prodigal son, to return to the Father, to run toward Jesus Christ for healing and mercy. Listen to the urgency, the excitement, and desire to fall into the embrace of our Lord.
Therefore, abandoning all [wrongs], let us hurry to reach the affluent Father’s generous Son, whose name is “Life” and “Light” and “Savior.” In Him we have believed. In Him we were baptized and enlightened…He robes his people in the [robe] that he received from the Father. “The glory that you gave me, I gave them,” he says. Taking his people by the hand, he leads them to the Father. “I desire that where I am, they may be with me.” He leads them into the Father’s loving arms and his embrace. “For as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, so let them too be with me and with you, among us.”…So why do we dawdle? Get up and let us dash to such a merciful Lord! Don’t delay! Don’t be lazy! If the Lord had to traverse many lands and provinces, it shows how urgent it was for him to persuade us, without delay, to fall down before God’s compassion and infinite love for us. (Come Back to Me: An Appeal to Repentance, Bishop Daniel Findikyan, trans., St. Vartan Press, 2020)
How have we been lazy? How important is repentance to us? Does it seem like the Church is calling us to an impossible task, one of moral perfection? A mere obedience to rules so that God will be happy? First, this is not Christianity, not the version that the Orthodox Churches have preserved and taught, anyway. Furthermore, any transformation is only possible with the help of the Holy Spirit. We work for salvation, but we do not earn it. It is an act of God, not our feeble attempts to “follow the rules.” Lastly, we are not called to moral perfection. Salvation, our journey to the Garden, is about the communion with God we experience(d) in Paradise. As Bishop Daniel clearly points out in the introduction of his new book quoted above, “The opposite of sin is not perfection, it is union with God.” Rather than viewing repentance through the lens of legalism (right vs. wrong), it should be viewed through the lens of healing (life vs. death). Therefore, repentance or the story of Adam and Eve, is not necessarily about disobedience, but communion with God.
Perhaps repentance is important and necessary for salvation, but how often is enough? Each Sunday? What about those who sporadically attend Badark, even for reasons of geographical limitation? From this Sunday’s epistle reading, St. Paul reminds us that salvation is not something that happens in a moment, but is an ongoing journey, where the time to address it is always the present moment:
Working together with [Christ], then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For [Christ] says,
“At the acceptable time I have listened to you,
and helped you on the day of salvation.”
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (II Corinthians 6:1-2)
And the path on which we should live is the one that leads toward the One whose name is “Life.” If only we would incline our ear and listen for his voice.
Thou dost show me the path of life;
in thy presence there is fulness of joy,
in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore. (Psalm 16:11)
Christianity is a Celebration
We can learn from the prodigal son. Out of a desire to be independent or autonomous, what happens when we depart from who and what we were created to be, i.e. children of our Father in communion with him? Sin is not merely a transgression of rules, but a condition, a disease in which symptoms include preferring things to ultimately fulfill us other than God, thus alienating us from him, whatever those distractions may be. We leave God’s care in all kinds of ways, finding whatever cheap substitute. We can all create our own list. But there is hope. The beginning of the victory over sin, the victory over death, is Christ’s death. At the Cross, Jesus “trampled down death by death,” and Badarak is a proclamation of this victory.
Christianity is proclamation and a celebration, a confluence of penance and thanksgiving. Salvation has been accomplished, and Christ restored us back to what he originally created us to be – in loving communion with him. So how do we respond? We give thanks and celebrate. He led us back to the Garden to feed from the Tree of Life – his own Body and Blood, not as a magic pill that cleanses us from our bad deeds, but for healing and restoration of our diseased condition of sin, that which draws us away from the eternal life and bliss we enjoy as children of “Our Father.”
In Badarak, the people of God recall, proclaim for themselves, celebrate, and give thanks for the mystery of our salvation already accomplished by Christ. Like the father in the parable, our Father has gifted us with a ring, the symbol of family identity and adoption:
On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerub′babel my servant, the son of She-al′ti-el, says the Lord, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the Lord of hosts. (Haggai 2:23)
And a robe, a symbol of righteousness granted by baptism:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)
Is that reason enough to celebrate and eat at the Table provided by the Father who sent his only Son to heal the world of sin and lead us back to the Garden? So arrive on time! Don’t be late for the party! Let’s celebrate what’s been done for us out of the Father’s inexhaustible love. We have been lost and now we are found! We were dead and have been made alive!
The parable leaves us with a question that forces us to look at ourselves, individually and as a parish community. The older brother in the parable refused to celebrate, refused the invitation of his father, claiming his father never threw this kind of celebration for him. The father simply tells the son that everything he owns is also his, but there is a time to celebrate: when someone who has been lost is found, when someone who was dead is now alive. The younger, prodigal son wasn’t living his faith the way he should, but eventually returned home. All of us, of course, are like him. But in what ways are we like the older son? What does it say about us if we are not celebrating the way we should?