Homily 248 – Prodigal Son
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
February 12, 2017
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.
One of my mentors used to tell me that it is the person you identify with in the parable that is the most critical element of interpretation.
Looking at the parable of the Prodigal Son, the challenge is that I see myself everywhere.
Perhaps first and foremost, as I think is common, we see ourselves in the person of the Prodigal Son himself.
We also want to just take our inheritance in our control, both physically and spiritually, and go live without expectations.
That is, perhaps, the thing that most drives the son to leave.
At home, there were expectations. He had a place, and a role, that was pre-defined for him in many ways. He would have an inheritance, and he would become like his father – because an inheritance was a family business in those days. It was flocks of sheep and head of cattle.
It was land and water for crops.
And I get it. I understand that sometimes, following in the expectations of family, of community, is challenging. Even distasteful perhaps.
In my case, my father was an engineer. If I had followed his path, we would have a lot of bridges falling down.
In our time, following in your father’s career is perhaps not as important as it once was.
Nevertheless, I left home, and made my way on my own. I was not subject to the expectations of others. That was, in a real sense, freeing for me. There were no limits.
I moved away, then further away. And found myself a stranger in a strange land with strange customs. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Gold Coast of Florida.
Now, thankfully, I did not squander my money on women and loose living. But, in honesty, I lived above my means. I learned that having things, regardless of how nice they were – those things provided more stress than enjoyment.
I don’t want to give the impression that my decision – a family decision – was somehow traumatic or monumental.
But there was a change. A moment. I knew I had to return to something familiar. The place where I worked had been sold, and I no longer had a job. I had a wife, a young daughter, and very, very few friends.
We could have stayed – I’m pretty confident of that – but we chose to return home.
And thankfully, we were welcomed.
Just as the prodigal son was welcomed.
That decision – that moment of setting our mind toward a different place, a different direction. That decision was repentance. It was the very definition of the word – a change in direction and purpose.
And we changed both physically and materially and also spiritually. For that is when we began to explore the Orthodox Church.
There were a group of former Evangelical Protestants that had become Orthodox about 6 years earlier in both Memphis and Nashville. Memphis was marginally closer, and that is where we went.
They also had their own moment of return. They had adopted and adapted some Orthodox practices, but at some point recognized their own need to return to a home. To have expectations and disciplines and norms.
Their journey home involved encountering several that might be characterized as the elder brother who stayed home. The elder brother – faithful, enduring – ever present. Did what he was supposed to do.
And resented the returning prodigal.
Sometimes, we can identify with the brother. A bit envious of the attention showered on the returning son. A bit frustrated from the lack of recognition that comes from staying put and meeting expectations – being reliable.
In a very literal way, I am the eldest of three brothers, and two sisters. So I also know that responsibility, and can identify with the elder brother.
The pressure of setting the bar – being the standard bearer – when all you really want is to follow your own path.
And, finally, I’m also a father. And I know that regardless of the path my children choose, I will love them and they will always be welcomed home. Should they decide to take a different path, I will wait – probably longingly, and with great sorrow and anticipation – for their return to their home, both physical and spiritual.
The parallels aren’t airtight between the parable of the prodigal and my own life. But the parallels are sufficient to give substance and meaning to the text.
Because the common element is for all of us to recognize –that it isn’t what we desire that is necessarily appropriate for us.
The prodigal left to follow his desire, and returned home contrary to that desire. The older brother set aside his desire to be resentful, and accepted his brother’s return. And the Father, always faithful, set aside His desire for his children to follow in his steps, and allowed them to follow their own path.
Whether leaving, or staying, or returning. Our desire has to be put behind the good of our family. And when we set aside those parts of our life, we truly can enter the joy of the resurrection.
Which is the ultimate return, for each of us, should we decide to pursue it.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!