How is it possible that the good creation which God entrusted to us has become for many a means of enslavement? How is it possible that the creation, which God called “good,” and which he meant as a lovely nexus of signposts towards him, we have turned into ends in themselves, idols that can never satisfy? But it has happened!
Here we are, earth-beings made after the image of God, and instead of blessing and offering the creation to Him, we may so easily be mastered by our passions, and controlled by the very things we are to use to glorify him. Food, marital intimacy, the land, beautiful things—all these are good gifts, from his hand. But the story of the Prodigal and the lesson from the epistle remind us that we are prone to wander, to lose our perspective, to look at our feet instead of the heavens, and to be rendered slaves rather than free sons of God.
He knows our frailty! The parable, Luke 15:11-32, tells us of the extravagance of the waiting father, who not only welcomed back the son who had squandered all, but who pleaded with his surly brother who had made a god of privilege and self-righteousness. Like the publican, the younger brother was reachable; we do not know if the older brother remained, like the Pharisee, unable to truly see and love the father, or whether he also repented. The spiritual sins are subtle, and can deceive us—we can come to a place where we wrongly think, “I don’t have anything of which to repent” (Come to think of that, we have heard that of a would-be leader fairly recently). But our gospel reading, and our epistle especially, detail more the obvious, fleshy sins. St. Paul, in 1 Cor 6:12-20, details gluttony, but then moves quickly to porneia—that all-encompassing Greek word for various forms of sexual immorality.
Why does St. Paul linger on this sin, in particular. No doubt, it was because of the context in which he was preaching. The Corinthians were notoriously immoral in this way. In fact, the ancients coined the verb “to corinthize” in the same way as young people today have a song about ‘californication.” And it was not only in the world, but also in the church, as his earlier instruction concerning the man committing incest shows. And just verses prior to our epistle passage, St. Paul has detailed a host of sins, including same-sex erotic behavior and adultery in particular, and has reminded them that as non-believers, this is what they practiced. Indeed, he has said, this is what you WERE. Your lives were defined by these things, enslaved by them. Indeed, in that list of vices is also “idolatry,” which each one of these sins can become. And then he has assured them, “but you are washed, you are sanctified, you were justified (made righteous).” This should rings bells. Well I remember this being said over me while the priest washed me during my chrismation.
The apostle, however, has had to remind them of this because the Church has not only seen some pretty hairy sexual misconduct, but has tolerated it. What a tragedy! And this is not so far from our own day. In the name of kindness, some among us have bought the lie that in order to be a full human being, a person must be sexually active. Those with inclinations that are not part of God’s plan of creation are, by those who accept this lie, compelled to “act out”—whether that involves pre-marital sex, same-sex actions, polyamory, or other things that do not fulfil God’s plan for the creation that he made, when he made them male and female, and brought Eve to Adam to be exclusively one flesh. St. Paul is very particular: “Shun immorality. Every other sin which a person (the word includes women) commits is outside the body; but the immoral person sins against his own body.” So, it becomes an integral part of our nature, if we use our bodies contrary to God’s will. It becomes an enslavement. And that is a great tragedy, for “the body is not made for porneia, but for the Lord and the Lord for the body.”
Notice that St. Paul is not saying that sexual immorality is the greatest sin. But he is saying that it has a profound effect upon the one who acts that way, and that it is a distortion of what God made us to be. After all, remember that the very God who created us assumed human flesh, and blessed it. We are not to take what has been created and blessed, and use it for a purpose other than God’s.
That is, of course, what the prodigal did, as well as what the older brother did. The younger son took what God gave him, and misused it and squandered it. The older brother clung to that gift as though it was a right, and did not use it generously, in the spirit of his father. For both such carelessness and such mean-spiritedness, God has a remedy. It is the living water, the call to repentance and refreshment.
Father Theodore Pulcini, in his OT lectionary, suggests that two readings from the prophets will help us to see the generous nature of a God who forgives and calls us back to life
The first is Hosea 14:1-9:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept that which is good and we will render the fruit of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us, we will not ride upon horses; and we will say no more, `Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In thee the orphan finds mercy.”
I will heal their faithlessness; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.
I will be as the dew to Israel; he shall blossom as the lily, he shall strike root as the poplar;
his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom as the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
8 O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit.
9 Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.”
Here is God’s call to his own people, to the northern kingdom of Israel, also called “Ephraim,” who divided from Judah and the Temple, who read a distorted copy of God’s Word, and who were tempted to take on the habits of the Assyrians who had conquered them. God not only promises to heal them and love them, and protect them, but he even gives them the words of repentance. He tells them to say, “in thee, O Lord, the orphan finds mercy”, and to promise to turn from idolatry. If they return, he says, they shall blossom, and grow, and flourish. But they must turn to God alone, and stop dabbling with idols. The passage closes with a warning to the wise to listen, and to accept God’s ways, because transgressors will stumble.
Unfortunately, few of the northern people did turn back. Some remained loyal to the Lord, but many others remained bound up with the ways of foreigners, and practiced a syncretistic religion, a religion that involved adultery, like the woman at the well. But always, God’s invitation remained, “Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled.” Right up to the time of the gospel, God continued to hold out his hands to them, and we know how St. Photini heard that invitation, and then took it to the town’s people, who turned to Jesus, away from their error.
We are also directed to the luminous passage of Isaiah, where the invitation is made to God’s people who supposedly stayed loyal, those from the south in Judea. But they, too, need to repent, just as the elder brother did:
Everyone 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. (Isaiah 55:1-7)
Even those who are in the faith can spend their money for that which does not satisfy, can waste their effort on things that are not solid or real. But God calls us to true refreshment, to the mysteries, to the waters of washing, to the words of truth. In fact, this passage says, when we are intimate with the Lord and connected deeply with his covenant, we can be made a witness to the nations, and call those who don’t yet know the Lord. In the prophecy of Isaiah, this is looking forward to the time when the Jewish believers in Jesus, the apostles and others, would extend Jesus’ invitation to the Gentiles—and that was US! God’s plan was not just to rescue his people, but to reinstate them as kings and priests for the whole world: “the Lord your God…has glorified you.”
The ancient Israelites and Judeans lived in a challenging day, when the nations round about did not know the Lord, and practiced abominable things. St. Paul’s churches likewise were surrounded with all kinds of error, pride, and debauchery. We are not alone, then, as Christians living in a hostile environment. If we insulate ourselves too strongly from the world, we may fall into the trap of the older brother, who is unwilling to welcome and to rejoice over the one who was lost and now is found, unwilling to call to others to come, unwilling to join the Father in rushing out, unceremoniously, to usher them back to the father’s house. But the danger is probably for most of us on the other side—the world and its ways tempt, and perhaps sometimes we even bring the pig-slop INTO the house of the Lord, and feed on it, rather than being nurtured by the Chalice. Or do we try to do both? Let us not be easy on ourselves, but because of the great love of Christ and his extravagant act on the cross, be hard on our sins. Let us remember that whenever we look to the things of the world for satisfaction, and allow those things to fill our imaginations and bellies, we are really making no room for the good things that the Lord aims to give us. Let us say with fervency the doxasticon from Great Vespers for this week,
Of what goodly things have I, wretched one, denied myself. And from what sovereignty have I, luckless one, fallen. I have squandered the riches that were given to me, and transgressed the commandment. Woe to thee, wretched soul, when thou shalt be condemned to eternal fire. Wherefore, before the end, cry to Christ God: God receive me as the prodigal son, and have mercy upon me.
Great Lent is a time of return. It is the time to see where the world has infected our imaginations, and to say to ourselves, I will return. It is a time to stop our compromising, and look wholly to the Lord to make us what he intends for us to be. Today we are helped in making up our minds to dwell more closely with the Lord, and to follow his ways, and think his thoughts, not to idolize or be tempted by the ways and thoughts of the world. With the prodigal, we are called to take a step back to God. And when we do, we will be astonished at how the things of creation take their rightful place, and become avenues of his grace rather than traps for our passions. For from him and through him and to him are all things!
Our way, O brethren, is to know the power of this mystery; for after the prodigal son ran away from sin, hastening to that fatherly refuge, his all-good father welcomed him and kissed him, granting him signs of glory. He celebrated the mystical joy to the celestial ones when he killed the fatted calf, that we might conduct ourselves becomingly toward the One Who offers sacrifice, the Father and Lover of mankind, and to the sacrificed One, the glorious Savior of our souls.