So this Guy’s got Two Boys, right?


Readings for the Sunday of the Prodigal:

NOT THAT THERE’S Really this kind of ranking system, but I imagine that “The Prodigal Son” is one of the more well-known of Jesus’ stories. Perhaps equally as often what they know about this story is wrong. We use “prodigal” as a way to describe anyone who goes away and comes back, although that’s not what “prodigal” means. Many folks know about how forgiving the Father was in this story and use this story as one of Jesus’ “don’t judge me” moments to try and get the Church to bend (or even break) her own rules. They only know what they want to hear. What they have learned though, is sort of an inoculation: it keeps them from wanting to know more.

First, we’re going to start with the meaning of “prodigal”. It’s about how you spend, waste, give away, or otherwise use or misuse your money. It’s not about coming back.

  1. spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.
    “prodigal habits die hard”
  2. having or giving something on a lavish scale.
    “the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream”

When the younger son says to the Father, “split your stuff in half and then give me what is mine…” he is saying, “I wish you were dead now.”

The Father concedes this. So it is the Father who is the first prodigal in this story. Yes, the Son runs away and spends all of Dad’s hard-earned dough, but the Son is only doing what he’s seen Dad do already. And yes, I know: the Son is prodigally sending his money on wine, women, and song. However he’s spending only irresponsibly – and he’s copying Dad. Dad, of course, could run a business, take care of a family, and lavish a gift on his son. Son does not have the kind of discipline needed to navigate in the real world. That said, I knew lots of kids in college who made stupid money choices. I was one of them! Again, the Youth probably wanted to do “things” with his money that would make him happy. He didn’t want to do responsible things like pay bills. That’s boring – let Dad do that – but as long as I have money, let there be a party! The Son thinks Dad made some wonky choices and the Son thinks, Hey, I can do this better.

And, like most irresponsible youths he comes to himself after a while, snaps out of it. Grows up. Settles down. Stops being prodigal in a bad way and – one hopes – becomes prodigal in a good way, like Dad.

But then the problem with reading arises: because the older brother is a bit of a putz, at least in the normal reading. So I want to speak for him.

See, at the start of the story, Dad divides everything in half and gives one whole half of everything to the younger brother and one whole half to the older son. It says the property was divided between them – not just to the younger one. That might sound just to you, with your 21st-century ears, but to a Second Temple Jew or in many cultures around the area, that would have already been entirely wrong. By right, the older brother gets anywhere from 2/3 of everything all the way up to everything. It’s the older brother who’s getting screwed here. And, when the younger brother comes back, and the father says, “All that I have is yours…” it might be better to hear that as “The only stuff we have left is your stuff.” When the fatted calf gets killed for this welcome home party the calf belongs to the older brother.

I’d be a bit indignant about this too.

Dad’s been very prodigal with his family stuff. The father is just as guilty of wasting his belonging as the younger son. The older son is saying, “Hey… wait. That’s my stuff!” And, let’s be real, it is.

Where the older brother fails here is to think it’s about stuff – his stuff, my stuff, your stuff, our stuff. But it’s not about stuff. It’s about love. It’s about family. It’s being together in the end that’s what counts.

But more than that, the older brother is only acting as if he hasn’t anything at all. The Father already gave him his half of the stuff. (Jesus says this happened at the beginning of the story.) He’s acting this way to get the right to complain. You never gave me a fatted calf… well, actually, everything was given to you at the beginning of the story. Why are you complaining? What are you afraid of?

The older brother is acting like the guy with one coin (Luke) or one talent (in Matthew). In the both stories, the servant hides things away because they are fearful of the master. In the Lukan story the servant is described as “wicked” but in the Matthew story the servant is “slothful”. The Greek implies that the Master is accusing the the servant of being scared of doing anything, of being timid. Jesus seems to be saying the same thing here: yes the younger brother ran away, and took a huge risk and came back. He had every reason to be afraid, and yet he was not. He was bold as all get out – just like Dad. But the older brother had no reason at all to be fearful or angry – and yet he was still that way: love is prodigal. Fear is not.

Fear is risk adverse. Timid. Careful. “Where’s my stuff” is not a greedy question here, it’s the voice of fear. That’s not Jesus’ way at all.

Freedom is a State of Soul


Tuesday in the week of the Publican & the Pharisee:

BETWEEN THE CFR Podcast and my own t0-read (especially Transformation in Christ and He and I) list I’m in the midst of a flood of thoughts about interior freedom. This is a specifically Christian conception, although it may have non-Christian predecessors in pagan philosophies. How can a person respond fully from, the core of their being, to God as he is really presenting himself to them? To do this the person must be free, but this doesn’t mean free of external chains: a saint can be imprisoned, beaten, enslaved, abused, tortured, maimed, and nearly dead – while still being free to respond to God.

Understanding that external forces can only “kill the body, but not the soul” is a first step, or maybe the first step is realizing that no matter what the world says, God says we are free in the Son. That means that even when the world says you are “oppressed” or “unfree” in any way, you’re not actually hindered at all from responding to God in a way that mirrors the mystery of Holy Matrimony: free, full, faithful, and fruitful. We fear external forces and this fear can prevent us from being free. It is the fear itself – and internalized response – that is the cause of our unfreedom: not anything on the outside. If God calls and we do not respond because of fear, we have failed. It’s not that someone else has prevented us. God does not call us foward if he doesn’t give us the gifts to move in his will. A fearful rejection of God’s call is a lack of faith in God, a lack of confidence in his promises.

Today’s epistle, though, finds St Peter describing to us an entirely different kind of hindrance to interior freedom: those who fall pray to their own desires, “especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority… They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way they have gone astray…”

It would be especially easy in today’s church to point at Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Monastics, Nuns, theologians, etc, and say, “they are like this” but to point at or to point out… would be to make us like the Pharisee in Sunday’s Gospel. It’s damnable to point out this failure in the second or third person, but far more difficult and far more laudable to point out this sin in the first person. In the second person, just saying “she gets to do this…” becomes an excuse for me to do it as well. But saying out loud, “I am doing this because I want to…” and saying it with that level of honesty can help others seek their own healing. Peter calls out those who want to. They are enslaved to their own addictions to sin. And they lead others to the same enslavement.

It’s easy, as I mentioned, to point at others.

I spent most of my twenties and thirties involved in things this way. My parents turned into activists, now launching others in this direction. It pains me, today, to see the blowback of my own enslavement.

But freedom comes not from one’s own license to do whatever one wants, but conformity to the God who’s very name is love.

CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has a passage on this at the very beginning:

To us [the Demons] a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy [that is, God] demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below [that is, Satan] has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.

…Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

When that desire to obey manifests, it is God’s Grace that does so. When we lean in, it is His Grace that causes us to lean in at all, and gives us the needed time and energy and tools to do so. It is the dance of human freedom to be God’s Son that moves us, but the Dance is God.

We can only do it when we are Free.

And God will break all the chains we hold out to him.

Publican and Republican


The readings for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee:

LAST NIGHT I attended the vigil service at Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA), my former parish. Since my Byzantine Catholic Parish does not have vigil services, I think I may make a few trips over to the Cathedral this Lent. The Dean greeted me and asked what prompted my visit and I replied, “Publican and Pharisee.” “Which one are you?” He asked. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“We’re all the Pharisee.” he replied.


It’s important to realize that any of Jesus’ listeners would have known the good guy and the bad guy in this story. Everyone hated the tax collectors and everyone respected the Pharisees. Some scholars posit that Jesus, himself, was a Pharisee and there’s good reason to read many of the stories in the Gospel within the context of contemporary, Second Temple rabbinic debates. So, begins Yeshua, Let me tell you a story about a tax collector and a Rabbi I know. Everyone settles down knowing how this will end.

Except suddenly the bad guy is the good guy and vice versa.

This is not a parable about “legalism” or about Jews, this is not even a parable about Pharisees. Yes, the prayer the Pharisee says is a slight mockery of three of the prayers one says waking. But these didn’t (seemingly) start in Judaism. Yeshua taught us not to judge, it would be odd if he made a parable judging others – and teaching us to judge that group of people as well! It’s about You-know-who-the-bad-guy and You-know-who-the-good-guy, except you’re wrong.

This is a story about the listener or, in this case, about the reader.

My brother in Christ drew this 12 years ago. It’s still right. We always want to compare ourselves. Jesus wants us to focus each on our own journey. But we want to see how others are doing. That’s why this week is a fast-free week in the Eastern Tradition: there’s no fasting at all. Meat for seven days! Don’t look at what others are doing. And, by the way, what you can do doesn’t really matter that much either. It’s your heart. Rend your heart, not your garments, as the prophet says. Rend your soul, not your diet. Rend your life, not your neighbor’s.

When we think we know who the good guy is, we usually make a first-person inclusion there. Aquinas says no one loves evil because it’s evil: everyone thinks he’s loving a good. Of course I’m the good guy. Or at least one of them.

The lesson in this parable is that we can’t tell from the outside and – worse – if we’re making judgments at all from the outside, we’re exactly like the bad guy in this story who judged himself good and the other guy evil when… in fact… the other guy was saved.

Rather than looking anywhere else, it’s much better to look at your own plate, at your own heart, at your own life and see what’s out of place and pray for God to have mercy on you. When you sit down to hear a story and it seems you may have misjudged who was the good and bad guys, yes, the storyteller was very crafty.

But the problem (which the storyteller used) was your judgment.