COURAGE OF THE PRODIGAL SON
On Sunday of the Prodigal Son 12.02.2023
St. John of Kronstadt Cathedral, the City of Gay
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
This Sunday and the week of preparation for Great Lent is called the Week of the Prodigal Son. Today we recollect the Gospel parable about the Prodigal Son. He was a son of a rich and righteous father, who was also a kind and hardworking person. The son asks him to receive his part of the inheritance, leaves his country, and wastes everything, which his father had gained by hard and honest work. He thoughtlessly fiddles away his property, loses everything and becomes a beggar. He comes to a state when he is close to death from starvation. He is famished and in order to sustain his life he works as a swineherd. He is so hungry that he is even ready to take the food from the pigs. And he is deprived even of this food.
At this moment, he comes to his senses, as per the Gospel, and says to himself, “I perish with hunger while my father’s servants eat better than I do in my situation. I will go to my father to be his servant, but not a son anymore.”
Always, almost always, when we listen to, read and discuss this parable, we usually talk about the worthlessness of the Prodigal Son. It has been said so much about his worthlessness already, that it sounds habitual and familiar. Nevertheless, today I would like to talk about his courage. Perhaps, at first, this might confuse some people, as how can we talk about the courage of a worthless man.
You know, one should have courage to turn back and go back to the place where he had all honor, where he was a son of a rich father, who had possessions and servants, and where he had all preference and privilege over all those people who dwelled in his father’s house. He was his beloved son. In the end, in contrast to his prior position, he returned as a worthless man, in rags, skin and bone, having neither honor nor good appearance. He had the courage to come back and say, “I am ready to be a slave, accept me as a servant here.”
Has anyone tried to be in his shoes? Try, take it on. Would you go back to the place where you had all honor in such a sleazy appearance?
In most cases, it is very hard to trample over one’s pride. This is an extreme case. Most often it appears hard for us to trample over our pride and admit some details of our bad deeds. We even try to blur and erase them as soon as possible, so no one notices. These are minor details of our life, our biography. However, to fall so extremely from the height he had to the bottom, come back to the place where you were known as someone significant, and be ready to become a slave there, this is worth something. This speaks about his having courage.
Meanwhile, his brother, who lives in his father’s house, who preserved his honor and enjoys the position of the only heir, lacks courage to cross the threshold of his father’s home when he hears that his father accepted the younger brother who behaved that badly. He lacks courage to overcome his resentment when he says, “Father, why have you accepted him? I have always been with you, I have never left you or defamed your name. I have never failed you. And yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this worthless man comes, you kill the fatted calf for him and put a ring on his hand.”1 In ancient times, a ring was a symbol of kinship and inheritance.
This trouble-free brother does not find courage and inner strength to overcome his pride and resentment. While this worthless man does. Look, many who are first will be last, and the last first.2
What was the nature of his courage? Sometimes we speak about a hare who was driven into a corner by a wolf and has nowhere to escape. It turns back and jumps on the wolf, as it has nowhere else to go. This is the nature of courage of the Prodigal Son – he has nowhere to escape. He was in a dead end. This dead end made him courageous. This dead end of desperation made him do something. There are two ways out of it. The most weak and worthless choice is to put one’s head in the noose. While a courageous choice is to admit that you have come to this dead end, push off it and move back.
In order to become courageous, one should overcome great pain and desperation. To some extent, it is like overcoming a dead end in one’s life. I do not even know how many thousands of people I confessed throughout thirty years, but I made a certain note. Usually, those people who know what sorrow is, are stronger. They are like tempered steel. While those people who do not know sorrow are pampered, as if they were raised in a greenhouse. They are relaxed and not mobilized.
The Lord often sends us sorrows. We wonder, as we have come to God and said, “Here we are, we are your children now. We are baptized now and we go to church on Sundays and it seems to us everything will be smooth.” But suddenly we have sorrows.
First, sorrows give us a true picture of ourselves. Before you went to war, it seemed to you you were strong and brave. The first bullets whistled past your ears and you are shivering all over and your legs give way. This is a good fear; courage comes after this fear. When a person experiences a great fear and overcomes it, courage comes to him then. While those who see it only on the TV are unsafe.
In this parable, we see a very sad story of the fall of the Prodigal Son, but we also see his beautiful repentance. He came back from this disgrace, worthlessness and piggishness. Exactly, piggishness, as he even warmed himself and ate among pigs. He pushed off this bottom and moved back. There are many beautiful moments in the story of the Prodigal Son. We should only see and imitate them.
There is no repentance without a descent to the depth of your worthlessness. This is the way of all Holy Fathers. Before they ascended very high, in the mysteries and in the principles of spiritual life, they descended to the hell of their nothingness. They dug that deep. Usually we bury everything very deep so no one sees, but they had courage to dig out themselves and see the depth of their fall.
Sometimes we wonder why Holy Fathers cried without ceasing. If only every one of us dug out and saw the inside out, we would all cry and cry very bitterly.
This is why this story of his coming back and his father’s joy is kind; it is both sad and noble. He came back in the end, came to his senses, found courage in himself, lowered his head and prostrated himself at his father’s feet. I guess, there is a Rembrandt’s painting, where the Prodigal Son kneels before his father, his face buried into his father’s belly, while his father embraces and caresses him. This story is both sad and beautiful. This man is on the one hand worthless and on the other, he already has something courageous and beautiful in him.
This is the way of Christianity. One cannot become a venerable without descending to the hell of his nothingness and piggish rotting at first.
Glory to our God always, now, and unto the ages of ages!
The coming week is a usual one. There will be fast on Wednesday and Friday. On the rest of the days, we eat as usual. In a week, there will be a Meat-Fare Week. We do not eat meat during this week, but we can have everything else. Therefore, in two weeks, there will be the Forgiveness Sunday and then Great Lent begins. We will examine ourselves, what we have inside of us. And cry.