Sunday of the Prodigal Son, February 12, 2017
2 Corinthians 6:12-20; Luke 15:11-32
Very 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 on this second Sunday of the pre-Lenten period to discuss our theme for the next many weeks—the priesthood. And as we meditate on the priesthood in light of these Lenten themes, we consider not only the ordained sacramental priesthood of bishops and presbyters but also the priesthood of our Lord Himself and also the royal priesthood to which every baptized, chrismated Orthodox Christian belongs.
Today is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and we hear one of the most well-known and beloved parables told by our Lord in Scripture. It is a parable of love, of forgiveness, and of family. But most especially, it is a parable of return.
In this story, the younger son of a wealthy man demands his inheritance from his father and takes it far away and wastes it on foolish living. He wrecks himself financially, psychologically and spiritually. He is so degraded that he even finds himself wishing he could eat pig food.
But then he finally comes to himself and thinks about life in his father’s house. And he makes his way back. He returns, asking if he can just be like one of the servants. And he is received by his father with celebration and love not as a servant but as a son, even while his older brother is off to the side grumbling about the unfairness of it all.
This parable tells us several things about the priesthood, and I want to focus here on the three main characters in the parable to discuss how each of them exercises the priesthood.
First, we consider the prodigal son himself. You may wonder how he can possibly be an emblem of the priesthood. To understand this, we have to look at a couple of verses from the Epistle to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 5:3, Paul says that a priest offers sacrifices for his sins and also for his people. And then in verse 7:27, he says the same thing, that he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins and then for the people.
Now, we do not see the prodigal offering up sacrifices for anyone else here, but we do see him doing something first for himself—that is, he is offering a sacrifice, and the sacrifice is himself. He is giving himself up because of his sins, offering to be a mere servant. This is something that a priest must do. He has to offer himself up. Why? Because he knows that he is a sinner himself.
So when the prodigal makes the movement of return, he is doing so because he knows he needs it. When we as the royal priesthood or when an ordained priest return again to this holy temple and offer ourselves up to God, it is because we know that we have sinned and need to be offered. And we do not present ourselves as deserving anything but as servants.
The priesthood of return is also exercised by the older brother. How? Well, he does it badly, in fact. When his younger brother returns to their father, the older brother does not receive him in a priestly way but rather uses his God-given priestly role to stand as his brother’s judge and to complain that he is not being treated fairly by the father. This is a distortion of the priesthood.
That is the image that some people have of the priesthood, actually—they think it is about being judgmental. They believe that Christ in His priesthood is going to condemn them. They believe that the ordained clergy want to condemn them. They believe that the royal priesthood of the people of God think of themselves as better, as superior. So they don’t want to return. They don’t see the priesthood as being about return at all, but as about rejection and about asserting privilege. But that is a false priesthood, a priesthood that worships not God but the self.
Finally, we also see the priesthood of return being exercised by the father. He is of course an emblem of God Himself, and he shows us a very full picture of what the priesthood of return is all about.
First, we see that he is willing to give his son his freedom even though he knows that it will be bad for him. But his son wants to leave, so he lets him leave. He doesn’t go running after him but gives his son responsibility for himself, even though it hurts to see him go. A priest knows that giving freedom is a key element in the exercise of the priesthood, even though that freedom can be used to walk away.
But the next time we see the father, he is keeping watch for his son’s return. He is waiting. He is hoping. He wants his son back. This is what the priesthood does. Our great High Priest is always waiting for us to return, looking for us, ready for us. And our ordained clergy should be doing the same—always keeping their eyes open for when one of God’s children comes back to the house of the Father, ready to receive, ready for their return.
And all of us need to function this same way in our common royal priesthood. Our eyes should be open for the return of God’s creatures to Him, whether they are those who were formerly among us or whether they were never part of the Church but still need to return to the God Who created them. This is what a priest does—he is looking for the return of those who belong to the Father.
And then, we see the father run out to the prodigal son when he spots him in the distance. He goes the extra mile. He meets him where he is. He is ready to receive him and to forgive him. The Lord is always like this, and so should we also be, both ordained priests and the royal priesthood of God. We as priests meet people where they are, just like our High Priest does. They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be attractive. They don’t have to have all the right beliefs or opinions. If they make a move toward God, then we go running out to meet them.
Then when the prodigal returns, the father celebrates and gives him everything, treating him not as a servant but as a son, as one of the family. He kills the fatted calf—a symbol of sacrifice and of celebration. And he is not merely hospitable—the prodigal is not his guest. He throws open the doors of his house and recognizes him as family.
The return of the prodigal is therefore a true return, because he is being restored by his father to sonship. He is being raised up from his low estate and clothed in the garments of life in that family, ornamented with a ring of beauty and given shoes to steady his feet. When a creature of God comes here to this holy house, returning to the God Who made him, then he is given God’s own glory, ornamented with splendor and virtue, and strengthened and steadied in his life. This is what the priesthood of return does—it grants restoration and strength to the fallen.
So we have seen today a number of aspects of the priesthood in this beautiful parable—the priesthood of our Lord, the ordained priesthood and the royal priesthood of us all. We have to be like the prodigal, offering ourselves up as a sacrifice in the act of return, not expecting to be sons but to be servants.
And we have to avoid the anti-priesthood of the older brother, who instead of receiving his returning brother rejects him. Instead of using his priesthood to restore and to forgive, he uses it to reject and condemn, to set himself up as better.
And finally we exercise also the priesthood of the father: We look for the return of those who belong to God. We run out to meet them where they are as soon as they make a move in His direction. We celebrate when we receive them, count them as part of the family, and strengthen them for this life.
This is the priesthood of return.
To the God Who always receives us when we return, 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.