The Sunday of the Prodigal Son is the next signpost on the journey to Great Lent. As on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee last week, and the Sunday of Zacchæus before that, the theme of this Sunday is repentance; the focus on the parable of the Prodigal Son leads us to contemplate the necessity of repentance in our relationship with God our Father.
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) forms an exact icon of repentance at its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger. Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father’s house. But repentance implies action: “I will rise up and go…” To repent is not just to feel regret, but to make a decision and to act on it.
This parable follows the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee so that when we have seen in the person of the Prodigal Son our own sinful condition, we might come to our senses and return to God through repentance. For those who have fallen into great despair over their sins thinking there is no forgiveness, this parable offers hope. The Father is patiently and lovingly waiting for our return. There is no sin that can overcome His love for us.
Finally, this parable offers us insight into the world in which we live. It is a world where the activities of people are disconnected and not ordered toward the fulfillment of God’s divine purpose for life. It is a world of incoherent pursuits, of illusory strivings, of craving for foods and drinks that do not satisfy, a world where nothing ultimately makes sense, and a world engulfed in untruth, deceit and sin. It is the exact opposite of the world as created by God and potentially recreated by his Son and Spirit. There is no cure for the evils of our age unless we return to God. The world in which we live is not a normal world, but a wasteland. This is why in the Slavic tradition of the Orthodox Church the reading of Psalm 137 is added to the Matins service for this and the the following two Sundays. This lament of the Hebrew exiles states: “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion. On the willows we hung our harps, for how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137).
Here we can see the challenge of life in this world and the alienation from God that can happen when sin reigns in our lives. As a result of sin in our lives, we lose the joy of communion with God, we defile and lose our spiritual beauty, and we find ourselves far away from our real home, our real life. In true repentance, we realize this, and we express a deep desire to return, to recover what has been lost. On this day the Church reminds us of what we have abandoned and lost, and beckons us to find the desire and power to return. God our Father is waiting and ready to receive us with His loving forgiveness and His saving embrace.
The icon of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son shows the prodigal being received by his father upon his return. We are presented with an image of a warm and loving embrace, the son showing his need for his father, an attitude that represents repentance, love, and hope for renewal and restoration. The father is shown full of compassion for his son, having born the burden of his sin and suffering, but now filled with joy that he has returned.
Orthodox Christian Celebration of the Feast of the Prodigal Son
At the Divine Liturgy, hymns for this day from the Triodion are added to the usual prayers and hymns of the weekly commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ. Scripture readings for this Sunday are: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; Luke 15:11-32.
For the week that follows the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, fasting is observed on Wednesday and Friday. This is the last week that meat is allowed on non-fasting days. The next Sunday is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, also known as Meatfare Sunday. It is the last day that meat is eaten prior to the fast of Great Lent.
Kontakion of the day
Tone 3: When I disobeyed in ignorance Thy fatherly glory, I wasted in iniquities the riches that Thou gavest me. Wherefore, I cry to Thee with the voice of the prodigal son, saying, I have sinned before Thee, O compassionate Father, receive me repentant, and make me as one of Thy hired servants.