Repentance: the Way Home

DURING THIS PRE-FAST PERIOD and during the Great Fast itself this hymn is sung at Sunday Orthros: “Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of life, for my soul comes early to Your Holy Temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled; but since You are merciful, cleanse me in Your compassionate mercy.” What are these doors of repentance? They are in fact the first steps indicated in the parable of the Prodigal and they constitute our program for this pre-fast period.

We can begin with a realistic assessment of our life, our inventory, to use a popular term. What are the things we live for? Are they things of the earth or are they “those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God” as St Paul describes them (Colossians 3:1)? Do we give only lip service to the Scriptures, to the Eucharist, or to Christ’s poor or do they have a central place in our lives? We should take time to reflect on the signs of God’s love for us, the blessings of eternal life which we have received. Finally we should commit ourselves to action, to arise and go to the Father.

Our Welcoming Father

In 1884 the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy published a cantata called The Prodigal Son. His work was loosely based on the Gospel parable, but Debussy did not include its real meaning in his composition. In his cantata the main character is neither the son nor his father, rather it is the mother, not mentioned in the Gospel at all. When the father learns that his son had returned, he does not welcome him although he kneels at the older man’s feet asking forgiveness. In Debussy’s version it is only in response to the pleadings of the boy’s mother that the father takes his son back.

While Debussy may have given us an accurate picture of a nineteenth century bourgeois French father, the Gospel is presenting a picture of God and it is very different. In Luke the father does not wait for his son to come and kneel before him; he runs to welcome the young man home even before he can say his little apology. When the older brother objects, the father runs out to him. He is more concerned with his son than with the son’s hurtful actions.

The Gospel portrait of the father shows us that repentant children have nothing to fear from their Father when they return to Him. What about if we cannot carry out our good intentions to repent? If we forget our resolve, lose interest or fail? St Peter of Damascus offers this advice: “But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even if you don’t want to, show humility like the publican (Luke 18:13): this is enough to ensure your salvation.”

Thus we return to the prayer of the publican which will accompany us throughout the Great Fast: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” When we recognize our weakness and sinfulness, God sees the intentions of our heart. He is and always will be our loving Father.

The Older Brother

While the Father and the Prodigal are highlighted in this parable, in fact it contains three important characters: the Prodigal, the loving Father and the older brother. Some commentators feel that the older brother is the most important figure in the story because of the occasion on which the Lord told this parable.

To find this context we must look at the first verses of the chapter which precede it, which are not read this Sunday: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3). The Lord then tells not one but three parables about the joy over a repentant sinner: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the story of the Prodigal.

The Lord’s aim in each of them is to confront the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes who saw themselves as properly observant Jews in contrast to those who collaborated with the Roman occupiers (the tax collectors) or those who ignored the precepts of the Law (the sinners). Thus each of the characters in the parable represents one of figures in the above three verses. We have the Rebel son, who represents the sinners, the Conformist son, who embodies the respect for the Law and tradition which characterizes the scribes and Pharisees, and the welcoming Father who is Christ Himself. The Rebel is truly a prodigal, disrespecting his father by demanding what would come to him at his father’s death – in effect, saying “I wish you were dead.” As we know, he goes off and eventually loses everything. Finally, he decides to return to his father, who receives him with love.

The focus of the tale now turns to the Conformist brother who has done everything by the book but is every bit as lost as his brother ever was. As Fr Henri Nouwen tells us in his reflection, The Return of the Prodigal Son, (1992, p. 71): “Outwardly the elder son was faultless. But when he confronted his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden.”

Without realizing it, the older brother has gone off to a “strange land” just like the Rebel. He was no longer the faithful son of his father everyone thought he was. As his father’s eldest son, his place would be at the center of the festive gathering, seeing that everyone was welcomed and cared for. Hospitality was – and remains to this day – one of the most important activities in a Middle Eastern household. Refusing to take part made the Conformist the exact opposite of what he appeared to be: the faithful image of his father. He had no cause to look down on his brother; he too had fallen victim to “the tyranny of the passions” (St. Maximos the Confessor) and publicly insulted his father by his actions. He not only refused to stand at his father’s side before the guests; he even caused his father to leave them in order to deal with his son’s feelings.

Like the Pharisee in last week’s Gospel parable, the Conformist brother represents the scribes and Pharisees who are outwardly faultless. They observe all the precepts of the Law but look down on those who do not. The Lord Jesus does not tell them to ignore the Law, but to complete it with mercy and compassion. Elsewhere we find Him berating the Pharisees for this very reason: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).

What Happens Next?

The parable ends without an ending. We are not told how the older brother responded to his father because the goal of the parable is that we examine what we would do. St John Chrysostom said, “Almost any noble person can weep with those who weep but very few of us can rejoice with those who rejoice.” Very few of us can really rejoice in the salvation of another… But how happy is the man who can rejoice in the salvation of his brother, who rejoices over his brother’s repentance more than his own well-being.”