March 1, 2021

Prodigality and Life (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

"This my son was dead, but is alive again" (Luke 10:24).

The Lord in the Parable of the Prodigal Son does not want to simply describe the life of the prodigal, since it is mentioned in only two words ("ζων ασώτως" = "prodigal living") while the burden falls on the return, but on the one hand He wants to present the consequences which were created when the youngest son removed himself from his paternal home, and on the other hand the great and exceeding love that the Father showed to the returning son. This is how the God-bearing and Spirit-bearing Fathers interpreted today's parable, in contrast to others in our day who interpret it in a literary or moral way. For us and for all Orthodox in general, what matters is not what this or that person says, but what the Holy Fathers say, who are a Revelation in history, who have attained theoria. For the understanding of the true teachings of Holy Scripture is a form of theoria.

With the few thoughts that will follow we will try to see three patristic interpretations, which will help us to enter the deeper meaning of the parable and to discover ourselves.

Prodigality and Death

The Prodigal Son was dead when he was out of the house and away from paternal love. Life was received by returning to the Father. This is the meaning of the words of the compassionate father: "This my son was dead, but is alive again." This shows that life outside of God, who is our Father, is death. God is Life in His substance. He who turns away from Him is dead according to Grace, even if he lives physically and holds a great social position. Saint Gregory of Nyssa teaches that “he who does not have true life does not truly live; the life of a sinner is not truly so, but in name only."

In general, the Holy Fathers teach that, just as when the soul leaves the body it dies and emits a stench, a sign that it lacks the soul, so when the Holy Spirit leaves the soul, which is the soul of our soul, the nous of our nous, the life of our life, then the soul dies and the rot of death is released. Thus we understand that sin is the mortality of the immortal. It is an existential event and not a simple psychological conflict or a moral event. But when the dead man returns to the Father, then he lives true life and tastes real happiness and bliss.

Man is a Prodigal Without the God-man

With this prism, Adam and his descendants were prodigals, having turned away from God, they put on with sin the robe of divine Grace and put on the leather tunic of decay and mortality. The beloved one kicked away the gift of the possibility of deification and preferred the prodigal life. He lost communion with God. All life outside of God is prodigality.

However, the Lord Jesus Christ came and with His incarnation gave man the opportunity to return to his home, that is, to Paradise. The loving Father opened His arms and gave him the kiss of peace, welcoming him to the house, that is, to the Church. He gives him the ring of adoption. He wears it through the first garment after Holy Baptism, the garment of the Holy Spirit. We are clothed with the Holy Spirit not as we are clothed with a robe, but like iron with fire "not outwardly, but entirely mixed, and our hearts are filled with the Paraclete, the eyes are enlightened, the ears are sanctified, thoughts are suppressed, meanings issue forth, wisdom is given, and people of Grace are fulfilled." Even the Father sacrifices with the Holy Eucharist the calf, offering him the Body and the Blood of the Lamb of God, "the one who takes away the sin of the world." Living in the Holy Church, in the house of the Father, man celebrates and rejoices, because in it "a feast of the heavens and the earth is formed, a thanksgiving, a rejoicing, a joyful dancing." In the Orthodox Church "the pleasant and blessed make the sound of a chorus, the angelic song" (John Chrysostom).

Thus in the Church we feel comfortable and experience real and natural life. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the consubstantial and life-creating Holy Trinity, call the prodigal and give him life. In the Church we live our unworthiness, but also the generous love of God, who accepts us. We feel that the cause of our condemnation is not sin, since we are all sinners, but the denial of God's love. Thus the members of the Church are not a sum of "virtues", but of sinners who repent and experience the love of God. Therefore the Church is not a deprivation of life, but is filled with life. It is not an absence of love, but an excess of love.

A Prodigal and Scattered Nous

The Prodigal Son of the parable perfectly expresses, according to Saint Gregory Palamas, the prodigal nous. That is, when the human nous emerges from the heart and from the constant memory of God and turns sinfully and sensually to creation, when "it is scattered in the desire for food that is not necessary, in the desire for bodies that is not modest, in the desire for money that is not satisfied, and in the desire for empty and inglorious glory,” then he is literally a prodigal.

The heart, according to the biblical and patristic tradition, is the home where the nous resides with God. There a continuous "internal divine liturgy" takes place. When the nous departs all the gifts of God are scattered. According to the Holy Fathers, "a nous that is distanced from God is either beastly or demonic." That is why the return of the nous to the heart and the acquisition of the memory of God enlivens the dead nous, since it is illuminated by the uncreated Grace of God. Therefore life without prayer is prodigality and life with prayer is indeed LIFE. "The nous which is united with God and remains with Him with prayer and love, becomes wise, good, strong, philanthropic, compassionate, long-suffering" (St. Maximus the Confessor).

All this means that prodigality is decay, death and mortality, while incorruptibility, immortality and life are fruits of repentance. Therefore, let us be like, as Saint Chrysostom says, the Prodigal Son, who was not only prodigal in sin, but also in repentance, in order to restore our existence to the original beauty with which the Creator adorned it.

Source: From the book Όσοι Πιστοί. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.