February 4, 2018

Homily on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (St. Gregory Palamas)



By St. Gregory Palamas

1. “Behold the days come, that there will be famine”, says the prophet as he weeps for Jerusalem, “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the word of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). Famine means being deprived of and desiring necessary food. But there is something worse and more wretched than this famine: when someone is deprived of the necessary means of salvation and does not perceive his misfortune, having no desire to be saved. Someone who is hungry and in need goes round searching everywhere for a crust of bread. If he finds some mouldy barley bread, or someone offers him bread made from millet or husks, or any other lowly kind of food, his joy equals his former anguish when he could not find anything. The person suffering from spiritual famine, being deprived of and desiring spiritual nourishment, goes round searching for someone with God’s gift of teaching. If he finds someone, he joyfully feeds on the bread of spiritual life, the word of salvation, which nobody who keeps searching to the end fails to find. As Christ says, “Every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Luke 11:10).

2. Some people, because their minds have gone so long without nourishment, lose their desire to eat and so do not notice the harm they are suffering. If they have a teacher it annoys them to listen to him. If they do not, they do not look for someone to instruct them, and live more sinfully than the prodigal. Although by going away he deprived himself of the Provider, Father and Lord of us all, when he was caught in a terrible famine and perceived his deprivation, he repented, went back, searched and found again the divine and undefiled nourishment. Through repentance he benefited so greatly from the gifts of the Spirit that he was envied for his riches.

3. But let us go back to the beginning and expound to you in your charity this parable of the Lord in the Gospel, as it is customary to read it in church today.

4. A certain man,” it says, “had two sons” (Lk. 15.11). Here in the parable the Lord calls Himself a man. There is nothing strange in this. If He truly became man for our salvation, it is not at all strange if He presents Himself as one particular man for our benefit. He is the eternal Guardian of our souls and bodies, of which He is Creator and Lord, and He has shown surpassing love and care towards us in His works, even before we came into being.

5. Before we existed, from the foundation of the world, He prepared a kingdom for us to inherit, as He tells us Himself (Mt. 25.34). Before we existed, for our sake He made the angels ministering spirits, as Paul says, “sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1.14). Before we existed, for our sake He stretched out the heavens over the whole visible world, as if putting up a tent for us without distinction in this transitory life. [. . .] Before we existed, for our sake He made the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night (Gn. 1.16). He set them and the stars in the firmament of heaven to move in the same and in the opposite direction, existing together and differing from one another in their various kinds, that they might be for signs both for seasons and for years. None of these signs are necessary to the spiritual creation, which is above the senses, or to the animals, which live by their senses alone. They were made for us, who by our senses enjoy the other benefits of the visible world as well as its beauty, while in our minds we can apprehend the things we see.

6. For our sake, before we existed, He laid the foundations of the earth, spread out the sea upon them, poured out air in abundance over everything and above the air kindled fire in His wisdom, that the excessive cold of what lay below might be tempered by having fire all around, while the fire’s own excessive heat would be contained in one place. If all this was also necessary for the animals to survive, yet they too were made, before we existed, for the service of man, as the prophet David sings in the Psalms (Ps. 104.14).

7. To sustain our bodies our Creator brought this whole world out of nothing before He created us. But to improve our ways and lead us towards virtue there is nothing our benevolent Lord did not do. He made all the visible world like a mirror of heavenly things, so that by contemplating it spiritually we might attain to them as by a marvelous ladder. He put in each of us a natural law, our own conscience, as a steady plumbline, an upright judge and an unerring teacher. If we concentrate our minds within ourselves, we will need no other teacher to understand what is good. If, through our senses, we rightly turn our mind outside ourselves, “the invisible things of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,” as the apostle says (Rm. 1.20).

8. When by means of nature and creation, He had opened the school of virtues, He appointed guardian angels over us, raised up fathers and prophets as our guides and showed signs and wonders to lead us to faith. He gave us the written law to assist the law implanted in our reasonable nature and the teaching given by creation. In the end, as we treated everything with scorn—how great is our laziness, and what a contrast with the long-suffering and care of Him who loves us!—He gave Himself to us for our sake. Emptying the riches of the Godhead into our lowest depths, He took our nature and, becoming a man like us, was called our teacher. He Himself teaches us about His great love for mankind, demonstrating it by word and deed, while at the same time leading His followers to imitate His compassion and turn away from hardness of heart.

9. Tender love is found in people who have things in their care, so shepherds love their sheep and owners love their property. Since, however, such love is greater between those linked by blood and kinship, and greatest of all between fathers and their own children, the Lord uses these latter to demonstrate His own love for mankind, calling Himself a man and the father of us all. For He was made man for our sake and gave us new birth through holy baptism and the accompanying grace of the Holy Spirit.

10. “A certain man”, it says, “had two sons”. For the difference in minds divided a single nature into two, and the distinction between good and evil gathered many people into two. We sometimes say something is twofold when it has two different modes of conduct, even though it is essentially one, or again, we call many people a single entity, when they are all of one accord. “And the younger of them said to his father” (Luke 15:12). It stands to reason that he was the younger, for he makes a childish and very foolish request. The sin which he had in his mind as he hatched his plan to depart is itself younger than virtue, being a later invention of our evil inclinations. Virtue, by contrast, is ancient, for it was eternally with God, and was instilled in our soul from the beginning by the grace of God.

11. “The younger of them”, it says, “came and said to his father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.” What foolishness! He did not fall down at his father’s feet beseeching him, he simply said it. Moreover, he demands his portion like a debt from Him who graciously gives to everyone. “Give me the portion of goods which legally belongs to me, my just share.” By which law and which justice are fathers in debt to their children? Quite the opposite: children are in debt to their fathers, as nature proves, for they owe their existence to them. This too shows his childish frame of mind.

12. What does He do who sends rain on the just and the unjust, who makes the sun rise on the evil and the good (Matt. 5:45)? “He divided unto them his living” (Luke 15:12). Note that this man, the father, needs nothing for himself. Otherwise he would not have divided his living just between the two of them, or just into two portions, but would have kept back a third portion for himself. Being God, “He has no need of our good things”, as David says (Ps. 15:2 Lxx). So he divided his living, which means the whole world, between these two sons. As the one nature is divided by two differing minds, so the one world is put to two differing uses. One person says to God, “All the day long I have stretched forth my hands unto thee” (Ps. 88:9), “Seven times a day do I praise thee” (Ps. 119:164), “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee” (Ps. 119:62), “At the last hour I cried unto the Lord” (Ps. 119:1 Lxx), “I trust in thy words” (Ps. 119:42) and “I will early destroy all the wicked of the land” (Ps. 101:8), meaning he will cut off the longings of the flesh that lead to sensual pleasure. Another spends all day over his wine and looking for places to drink. His nights are passed in impure and lawless actions and he rushes headlong into concealed dangers, or obvious treacheries, robberies and evil projects. Yet both shared the same night, the same sun and, most importantly, the same nature, exploiting it in opposite ways. God has divided the whole creation equally to all, offering it to each to use as he pleases.

13. “And not many days after,” it says, “the younger son gather all together, and took his journey into a far country” (Luke 15:13). Why did [the Prodigal Son] not set off at once instead of a few days after? The evil prompter, the devil, does not simultaneously suggest to us that we should do what we like and that we should sin. Instead he cunningly beguiles us little by little, whispering, “Even if you live independently without going to God’s Church or listening to the Church teacher, you will still be able to see for yourself what your duty is and not depart from what is good.” When he separates someone from the divine services and obedience to the holy teachers, he also distances him from God’s vigilance and surrenders him to evil deeds. God is everywhere present. Only one thing is far away from His goodness: evil. Being in the power of evil through sin we set off on a journey far away from God. As David says to God, “The evil shall not stand in thy sight” (Ps. 5:5).

14. Once the younger son had gone away and taken his journey into a far country, “there he dispersed his substance with riotous living” (Lk. 15.13). How did he disperse his substance? Above all it is our inborn mind that is our substance and our wealth. As long as we are faithful to the ways of salvation, our mind is at one with itself and with God, the first and highest Mind. Whenever we open the door to the passions, immediately it is dispersed, wandering continually among fleshly and earthly things, all kinds of pleasures and passionate thoughts about them. The wealth of the mind is prudence, which stays with it, discerning between what is better and what is worse, for as long as the mind itself stays obedient to the commandments and counsels of the heavenly Father. Once the mind rebels, prudence is dispersed in fornication and foolishness, shared out between both evils.

15. You will see the same happening with all our virtues and faculties, which are truly our wealth. Evil is always near at hand, and if they turn aside to it they are dispersed. Our mind itself stretches out in longing towards the one God Who Is, the only Good, the only Desired, the only Bestower of pleasure unmixed with pain. But once the mind has been enfeebled, the soul’s ability for real love falls away from what is truly desired, and, scattered among the various longings for sensual pleasures, is dispersed, pulled this way and that by desires for superfluous foods, dishonorable bodies, useless objects, and empty, inglorious glory. So the wretched man is cut to pieces and tortured by the cares these things bring, and cannot even enjoy breathing the air of seeing the sun the riches we all share.

16. If our mind has not distanced itself from God it stirs up our anger against the devil alone, and puts the soul’s courage to use against the evil passions, the rulers of darkness and the spirits of wickedness. But if the mind does not heed the divine commandments of the Lord who armed it with these weapons, it fights against its neighbors, rages against its fellow-countrymen and hunts down those who do not agree with its own absurd desires. Such a man, alas, becomes a murderer. He is not only like an animal, but like a reptile or some venomous creature: a scorpion, a snake, one of the viper’s brood, although he was appointed to be a son of God. Do you see how he has dispersed and done away with his substance? “And when”, it says, “the younger son had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want” (Lk. 15.14). He did not think yet about returning profligate as he was, so “he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine’ (Lk. 15.15).

17. Who are the citizens and rulers of that country far from God? The demons, of course, by whom the son of the heavenly Father is appointed a brothel-keeper, a chief publican, a captain of thieves and a leader of rebels. The life of pigs, because of its extreme filthiness, is symbolic of all the passions. Those who wallow in the mire of the passions are the pigs, of which the younger son was put in charge, as surpassing them all in self-indulgence. But he could not eat his fill of the husks the pigs ate, meaning that he could not find satisfaction for his desires.

18. Why is the nature of the body not adequate to serve the impulses of the dissolute man? If someone who loves money gets gold or silver, his need for it grows, and the more it flows in, the more it increases his desire. The whole world might just satisfy one greedy, power-seeking man, but then again, it might not. And as there are many such and only one world, how can even one of them satisfy his desire? So it was that the younger son, who had distanced himself from God, was not able to eat his fill. No one, it says, gave him enough to satisfy him. Who would be able to? God was absent, whom just to regard brings untiring satisfaction to the beholder. As it says, “I shall be satisfied when I have seen your glory” (Ps. 16:15 Lxx). The devil does not want to satisfy shameful desires, because satisfaction naturally produces a change in relation to what is being consumed. It stands to reason therefore that no one gave the younger son enough to satisfy him.

19. As soon as the son who had broken away from his father came to his senses and realized into what evils he had sunk, he wept over himself saying, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?” (Lk. 15.17). Who are the hired servants? Those who through the sweat of repentance and humility gain salvation as their reward. Sons, by contrast, are those who obey God’s commandments out of love. As the Lord said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (Jn. 14.23).

20. So the younger son, who has abandoned his sonship, comes out of his holy country of his own free will, and fallen into famine, passes judgment on himself, humbles himself and repents, saying, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven before thee” (Lk. 15.18). We were right when we said at the beginning that this father is God. How could this son who had left his father have sinned against heaven unless his father was in heaven? For he says, “I have sinned against heaven”, meaning against the saints, the citizens of heaven, “and before thee”, who dwellest in heaven with Thy saints, “and I am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (Lk. 15.19). Brought to his senses by humility he is right to say, “make me”. Nobody can manage the steps of virtue on his own, though also not without his own deliberate choice. “And he arose”, it says, “and came to his father. When he was still a great way off” (Lk. 15.20). How did he come to Him when he was still far away, so that his father, having compassion on him, came out to meet him? He who repents in his soul reaches God by his good purpose and his rejection of sin. He is, however, still far from God, tyrannized mentally by habitual sins and failings, and he needs great compassion and help from above if he is to be saved.

21. The Father of Mercies came down to meet him. He embraced him and ordered his servants, namely the priests, to put on him the best robe, sonship, in which he had been clothed before through holy baptism, and to place a ring on his hand, putting the seal of contemplative virtue on the active part of the soul, as symbolized by the hand, as an earnest of the inheritance to come. He also ordered them to put shoes on his feet as holy protection and assurance to empower him to tread on snakes and scorpions and all the power of the enemy. Then he orders the fatted calf to be brought, slain and offered at table. This calf is the Lord Himself who is led out from the hidden place of divinity, from the heavenly Throne set above all things. Having appeared on earth as a man, He is slain like a fatted calf for us sinners, that is, He is offered to us as bread to eat.

22. God shares His joy and celebration over these events with His saints, making our ways His own, and His extreme love for mankind, and saying, “Come, let us eat and be merry” (Lk. 15.23). The elder son, however, is angry. Remember the Jews who were angry when the Gentiles were called, the scribes and Pharisees who were scandalized when the Lord accepted sinners and ate with them. Should you wish to think such things even of righteous people, it is not at all strange, if the righteous man is ignorant of the riches of God’s goodness which surpass all our understanding. So the father of both sons pleads with the elder one and teaches him what is fitting, saying, “Thou art ever with me”, sharing unchanging joy, “It was meet that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31, 32). He was dead by reason of sin, and is alive again through repentance. He was lost because he was not to be found in God, but now that he has been found he fills heaven with joy, as it is written, “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:7).

23. Why exactly is the elder son aggrieved? “Thou never gavest me a kid”, he says, “that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf” (Luke 15:29–30). God’s gifts to us are so surpassingly great that even the angels desire to look into the things He has bestowed upon us through His incarnation, as Peter, the chief apostle, says (1 Pet. 1:12). For this reason righteous people too wanted Christ to come before the appointed time, as Abraham desired to see His day (Matt. 13:17, Luke 10:24, cf. John 8:56). But He did not come at that time, and when He did come, He came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32), and above all, to be crucified for them, taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29). “For where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).

24. That God does not give the righteous even one goat, meaning one sinner, when they ask Him is clear to us for many reasons, but especially on account of the vision of holy and blessed Carpus. When he cursed certain wicked men and said it was unjust that unbelieving men who pervert the straight ways of the Lord should live, not only was he not heard, but he experienced God’s displeasure. He heard terrifying words which led him to acknowledge God’s unspeakable, incomprehensible forbearance and persuaded him not to curse those living wicked lives but rather to pray for them, as God still grants them time to repent. To show this, and at the same time to prove that He gives great and enviable gifts to those who return to Him in repentance, the God of the penitent, the Father of Mercies, devised this parable.

25. May we too, brethren, take hold of repentance by our actions. Let us abandon the evil one and his herds. Let us keep away from pigs and the husks they eat, that is to say, the disgusting passions and their devotees. Let us withdraw from evil pastures, namely, habitual sins. Let us flee from the land of the passions, which means unbelief, insatiate desire and intemperance, where there is a terrible famine of good things and where there are passions worse than any famine. Let us run to the immortal Father, the giver of life, as we follow, through the virtues, the path that leads to life. There we shall find that, in His love for mankind, He has come out to meet us, granting us forgiveness of sins, the token of immortality, the earnest of our inheritance to come. As we are taught by the Saviour, as long as the prodigal son was in the land of passions, even though he thought and spoke words of repentance, he gained no benefit at all. Only when he left all his sinful deeds and ran to his father did he attain what was beyond hope. From then on he stayed near him in humility, living chastely and honestly and preserving unharmed the grace renewed in him by God.

26. May all of us attain this grace and keep it undiminished, that in the age to come we may rejoice with the prodigal son who was saved, in the heavenly Jerusalem, the mother of the living, the Church of the firstborn, in Christ Himself our Lord, to whom be glory for ever. Amen.

From Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009.