Lenten Evangelism #2: The Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by James Tissot (From Wikimedia Commons)
The Return of the Prodigal Son, by James Tissot
(From Wikimedia Commons)

This sermon is available as an audio recording via Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday of the Prodigal Son, February 8, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

We continue today our series on evangelism which we will focus on through this pre-Lenten period, throughout Lent and then complete on Palm Sunday. We are exploring how the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ relates to all of the themes presented during this most beautiful season of the year.

Today the story given to us in the Gospel is one of the most well-known from the Scriptures—the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is told by the Lord Jesus and recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Even people who know nothing about the Bible have often heard of the Prodigal Son and have a general idea of what his story entails.

We heard the story read in the Gospel, but just to recap the basic outline, here it is again: The younger son of a man goes to his father and asks for his inheritance. He takes that inheritance and travels far away and wastes it all on foolish living. He then finds himself feeding pigs just to try to make ends meet and is even so desperate that he starts to consider eating the pig food himself.

While there, he finally comes to himself and remembers his father’s house, how even the servants there have what they need. So he decides to go back home. When his father sees him coming from a distance, he gets up and runs to him and embraces him. The son confesses his sin to his father and asks that he be taken in as a servant, because he is no longer worthy to be called his son. The father’s response is to receive him again truly as his son, to clothe him in the best garments, and to have a great celebration in honor of his return.

The elder brother hears about all this and complains to his father that, even though he had been faithful, there had never been such a celebration for him. And the father responds that the elder brother already had everything that belonged to the father and that it was fitting that there should be a celebration on his brother’s return.

The way we usually read this story is in terms of our own personal situations. When we find ourselves far from God our Father, there is always the possibility for return. We can be forgiven, if only we will come back. And even though we’ve wasted what God gave us, we will not only be forgiven but be clothed with glory from God in celebration. And that is an excellent way to read this parable.

But I want us also to consider this parable as evangelists. As Christians, we are tasked by God with spreading the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone we know and even to bring it to people we don’t yet know. So we are evangelists. And a major part of what our life in the Church is about is being equipped for the work of God that we have been given. We are not only being equipped to pursue our own salvation but actually being equipped to pursue our own salvation by pursuing the salvation of others. We saw last week in the parable of the Publican and Pharisee how we need humility in order to be saved, and humility always reaches out in love.

So how does the parable of the Prodigal equip us for the work of the Gospel?

First, we have to apply this to ourselves by asking whether we, like the Prodigal, have also come to our senses. Or are we still living among the pig slop of our sins? Have we left the dynamic life of the Father’s house and preferred living somewhere else? Or have we come to ourselves? Have we rejected what the world has to offer and instead placed the life of the Father’s house first? Have we asked the Father for forgiveness for the ways we’ve wasted our inheritance from Him? Have we come back, asking just to be servants and not demanding to be sons?

We have to do that if we are going to have any credibility when we preach this message. You cannot give to someone else what you do not have. You have to be evangelized before you can evangelize. So we first have to pursue forgiveness from our Father for ourselves and then make living in the Father’s house our way of life. Doing that is the first step in equipping ourselves to preach this Gospel.

So we do that. And we have to keep doing that. It’s not a one-and-done kind of thing. The journey back to the Father’s house is a journey we take over and over again. The hope is that the journey gets shorter each time! The key thing is that we’re taking that journey.

So we’re on the journey. We’ve rejected the world’s vanities. We’re asking for forgiveness. The Father is running to meet us, to clothe us with His glory, to celebrate our return. What now?

Now we bring that message to the world. The message is that our heavenly Father really will forgive us our sins. This might seem like a pedestrian kind of thing to say: yes, we believe in forgiveness, etc., etc., but forgiveness has power, brothers and sisters!

Every human person is carrying around the shame and pain of something he has done, or something he feels that he is, even if he is not consciously aware of it as a feeling of guilt. Sometimes, a person doesn’t really know what he’s missing. He may not know that he’s living with pigs and trying to eat pig slop. The way to break through that unawareness is not to condemn someone living like that, but to show them the beauty of the Father’s house.

When the Prodigal came to himself while living among the pigs, he did so with a memory of the Father’s house. There are many people out there who have no memory of the Father’s house, and so coming here will not feel anything like a “return” to them. They feel they have never been here before. But it is still a return, but it is a return that is larger than their own stories—it is the return of mankind to the Father’s house after the Fall of mankind that happened with Adam and Eve. And so even if one individual person does not have that memory of intimacy with the Father, it is still a return for him, a return to a place which his ancestors abandoned.

So even if they do not have that memory of the Father’s house, we need to use our own memories of the Father’s house to bring them an awareness of that beauty, an awareness of what they are missing. And in seeing that beauty that we will bring with us, they may see that they are indeed living among the pigs when they could be living here with their brothers and sisters in the Father’s house. The Father’s house is their home, even if they have never been home before.

Forgiveness is indeed powerful.

Forgiveness in the Father’s house is not merely like getting a traffic ticket torn up or like having charges dropped, where the effect is just getting out of a punishment and getting back to normal. No, forgiveness in the Father’s house is about the entry into a different kind of life, a life of celebration and glory and love, a life of release from the pain and the weight of the memory of brokenness.

It is no wonder that when we refer to the divine services here, we say that we “celebrate” them, that the one who leads them is the “celebrant.” It is indeed a celebration. The worship of the Orthodox Church is the actual living of the divine life of the Father’s house. It is the celebration. It is the feast upon the fatted calf—not a merely carnal, fleshly food but a mystical eating of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So this is our message, our Gospel that we bring to the world through the parable of the Prodigal. First, we have to live the story ourselves, to be evangelized ourselves by entering into this story of forgiveness, restoration and celebration. But then we have to take this story and tell it to our family and our friends and anyone who will listen. We tell them the story of forgiveness, the story of restoration, the story of celebration.

The parable of the Prodigal is a beautiful, powerful tool that we can use in our evangelism, first in our own lives and then to those around us. There is forgiveness here. There is restoration here. There is celebration here. Here is your home, even if it is a home you have never been to before. Come home. You will be received. You will be loved. This is our Gospel!

To the God Who always receives us coming home, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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