Epistle Reading – 1 Cor. 6:12-20
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
And God (Father) both raised up the Lord (Christ) and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not!
Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two”, He says, “shall become one flesh”. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
Some basic thoughts are raised within this particular epistle which helps prepare our reading and understanding of the gospel pericope. The key theme raised by St. Paul is that he highlights that there are many things which may be permitted to him under civil law, but not all of these things which are legal and acceptable according to the mores of the world are beneficial for his well-being, or ethical. Some examples we can draw upon in our own time is smoking and drinking, which though are legal, excessive consumption of these can be detrimental to one’s health. Gambling is also legally permitted to all those over the age of 18, but gambling could lead to an addiction which takes over a person’s life and hurt those who are close to the addict. One could assert that money could have been better spent in the company of friends sharing a coffee, or in almsgiving to those who are in need.
Nevertheless, St. Paul uses the example of the stomach which serves the purpose of consuming and digesting food, therefore there is nothing wrong with eating. However he points out that we can turn it into an obsession beyond any sense of reasonable proportions and become gluttons. Yet like all material things of this world, food is just a transitory object which can perish and decay. Thus his advice is to not become solely focused or obsessed with material things, because in the final analysis we cannot take them with us after death. For these things merely exist to sustain our earthly survival, just like the example of food which St. Paul uses. In effect material things like food does not give sound purpose or meaning to our lives, it is just there to be consumed, nothing more or less.
Therefore St. Paul points out that there are two paths which could be taken, the first is to remain solely focused on material things, which will result in a person being controlled by material possessions, rather than having control over material possessions. Hence his key assertion is that a person needs to practice self-control and discipline, otherwise they will be overtaken by becoming a slave to material possessions and addictions.
This he equates to the effects of sin and pathoi (negative passions), since it affects a person in the same manner. For it temporarily satisfies a person’s initial urges or desires, but continuously needs to be serviced, while the person begins to obsess in how they can secure their next “fix” in spite of the cost to themselves or others around them, (IE. Financially, health-wise etc.).
Thus, a person becomes enslaved by their pathos or sin, and cease functioning as their natural self. Instead, their whole life revolves around their pathos/sin. That in turn makes their pathos/sin a compulsion and chore rather than something of enjoyment, since its derived satisfaction is gradually eroded. Thus the person has to take further actions which are more extreme in order to recapture something of that “edge” or satisfaction which they once felt because their pathos is now a habit and a compulsion. In effect you cease enjoying life to its fullest potential!
The example St. Paul draws upon to illustrate his point further, is that of sexual immorality (that is any sexual encounter outside of marriage), which he asserts is a dangerous precedent that violates a person’s bodily integrity, as well as their union with God. Drawing upon Scriptural and philosophical thought, St. Paul highlights that the sexual union is not purely a physical one, but constitutes an emotional and spiritual expression, (present-day science is currently verifying the emotional element). This experience becomes part of a person’s memory and subconscious and will always remain with them irrespective of any possible forgetfulness, but form a barrier to future relationships, (possibly making one indifferent, apathetic, unreceptive, jaded or demanding of others who come into one’s life). In effect one leaves something of themselves behind, they lose something of their identity and well-being.
From the Christian perspective as St. Paul underlines, is that a human person is not created as a sinful being because the body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and that every sin that a person commits is outside of the body. When one considers this point we can see that the inputs necessary to satisfy a person’s sins and pathoi are in actual fact external to the integrity of the body, smoking, alcoholism, drugs, promiscuity or gluttony to name a few. The body may become dependent or addicted to these things, but the inputs for these things are external to the body, one merely needs to be in the right place at the right time to secure these “resources”.
Yet there is another reason for the Christian, why they cannot, or should not, violate bodily integrity, since all people are created in the image of God, and each is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, but for those who are baptised, they have become One Body and Spirit in Christ, His Flesh and Blood. God the Father Who willed the sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son for the salvation and love of humankind and all Creation, offered this courageous method as a means by which to teach the world about how foolish it is when it follows its own wisdom. It is a great lesson which leads humanity ultimately to repentance, in order that it may realise its foolishness and then to begin to transcend its own limitations by depending on Him and not itself.
Thus for an Orthodox Christian, humans are not autonomous beings, but belong directly to God, thus their body is “God’s property” and not their own. Therefore to sin against the integrity of the body is to trespass against the One to whom the body belongs to, not just to ourselves. Nevertheless this is not a negative thing because one may have been baptised into the blood sacrifice of Christ’s Crucifixion, but it also means they are also joined as partakers to the joyful mystery of the Resurrection. Hence there is the responsibility placed upon the faithful to remain virtuous carriers of the Holy Spirit, and to give greater account for their actions above others who are not baptised, since they are potential recipients of God’s gift of salvation.
With that in mind, the exhortation put before all is that one must fight against the things which compromise this hope, which is sin and the pathoi. Of course this brings into consideration of each person’s free-will which is a gift from God to all. However it can be a dangerous gift, since history can attest to, the many ways in which people have misused or abused free-will to their own detriment and to those around them, (consider for example the rise of dictatorships which have brainwashed entire nations). In spite of this danger God has also provided the means to overcoming such errors in judgement or choice, that is the gift of repentance.
Repentance means to make a genuine but radical change in mindset and perspective on behalf of the person seeking forgiveness and self-correction. It does not mean that one commits their sin or pathos, and then demands automatic forgiveness for their error. Rather it is something that is earned and cultivated in order to help prevent a repeat of such a negative outcome, that is termed a work of unrighteousness. To choose to remain in one’s own faults rather than to do something to rectify the matter, is the ultimate sin and failing.
For as St Paul cites in very strong terms, drawing upon various examples, in 1 Cor. 6:9-10, that those who choose to continue in living their life of unrighteousness become their own obstacles to spiritual progress and will be denied the gift of salvation:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the Kingdom of God”.
Then He said: A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me”. So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants”.
And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.
And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son”.
But the father said to his servants, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found”. And they began to be merry.
Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf”.
But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, “Lo, these many years I been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him”.
And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found”.
Many things could be written on this particular gospel pericope, but to one’s own mind certain key themes seem to arise from the narrative. Yet before we highlight these themes, we should cite that this parable is one of the foundational texts for the mystery (liturgical rite) of confession which is still in practice and essential within the life of the Orthodox Church, particularly since it describes where sinful living can lead to, while providing the means for correcting errors in judgement. The message presented within this specific gospel text may not initially seem clear to the reader, and may go beyond them.
Quite often many may understand the text as giving people the freedom to go forth and sin, and live a life in excess, and when times become tough, to return begging for forgiveness expecting that it will be given without question. Furthermore those who do the right thing should not expect any sort of reward, but those who led a sinful life will not only be forgiven their transgressions, but rewarded for their sinning and returning. The truth of the matter, as presented within this gospel text, is quite the opposite to this understanding. Thus careful reading and observation is essential to drawing out the key themes put forward to the reader.
Yet in order to do this we need to look at the three central characters of the parable, two of which illustrate the two distinct paths of life and spiritual experience; that is the prodigal son and the seemingly righteous brother. These two characters represent our own story and journey of life, for we are both the prodigal and the righteous sons. However the two characters revolve around the third party who is referred to by virtue of both sons, and yet is the person on whom the parable’s teaching hinges upon. Nevertheless this understanding will not become clear unless we observe each person’s role within the parable’s turn of events:
The Prodigal Son
The prodigal is usually the first character which people identify and can come to terms with his particular journey and mindset. As the parable relates he approaches his father demanding his share of the inheritance which is tied up within the family estate. This is not anything unusual in principle according to Middle Eastern culture or tradition, but is a legitimate request that is legally binding. However such a request was rare and only made when a young man intended marriage and sought to establish his own family.
Nevertheless since a young man was the son of his father and thus the bearer of his father’s name, he thus had the responsibility to remain as a member of his father’s household, since he was responsible for the care of his parents. The formation of his own family would become an extension of the paternal household, which was also joined to that of his brothers. Hence the survival and perpetuity of all concerned were guaranteed, since the more people who existed meant the more hands were available for work and thus the survival of the family/tribal unit.
For a son to come and demand an inheritance before his own father had passed on, was thus not a standard practice despite being a legal one. Such an assertion was not only an affront to a man’s own father, but to his entire household and tribe, which included workers, slaves or dependents as well as blood kin. In effect such a proclamation is to say to other household members that they are dead, and that they are no longer a personal concern or consideration, and that their future survival is entirely their own responsibility. This in effect is what the prodigal son announces by his demand, he does not await for his father’s passing, he does not discuss the matter with others, and he automatically assumes that he has entitlement, when in actual fact his father is the one who has the authority to determine what is his.
From a spiritual perspective this could easily be seen as the demands that we place upon God and those around us, when we abuse our own free-will to purse selfish goals without careful thought or consideration, particularly to the outcomes of our actions. In the prodigal’s case, it is breaking the household’s communion of unity and survival. Yet the prodigal secures what he demanded and goes forth into a foreign land where he revels and parties to excess, with no consideration for the future, or his own real well-being. Naturally one could assume that he would have been surrounded by so-called friends who leeched off his squandered wealth.
For Orthodox Christians this not only refers to worldly realities of everyday life, but is representative of the pursuits of sins and pathoi to satisfy detrimental urges and desires, (as discussed in the epistle reading). The image of going into a foreign land is symbolic of entering Hades, the playground of the Devil, the excessive living of the prodigal as the feeding of sins and pathoi. The possible so-called friends made along the way as the demons who will encourage the prodigal to move towards his own destruction.
Of course as the parable continues the inevitable happens, this foreign land shows its true colours, whereby hard times come and famine grips the land. The seeds of destruction which the prodigal has sown now bear fruit. He is starving and alone since there is no one who is there to help him, and he has made no provision for his future survival since he squandered what he had taken as his inheritance. Yet the only solution to his personal crisis is in effect to sell himself as a virtual slave who tends pigs which had more to eat than he had.
The message is quite blunt; the wages of sin is death, torment, affliction and misery. The lack of spiritual vigilance has left the prodigal to the machinations of the Devil’s whims which have now enslaved him, the initial pleasures and benefits that were bestowed have been consumed and the price has to be paid. Again echoing St. Paul’s exhortation towards self-control over all things, so that one may be the master of themselves, and not addicts serving their addictions which have taken over their lives. The prodigal now has become the slave and the afflicted one who is willing to stoop to even lower depths, and is hoping that the pigs will show mercy by sharing their food with him!
The symbolism of the pig is rather telling as the Blessed Theophylact of Ohrid asserts. He points out that a pig is not capable of looking upwards to the skies, but its vision can only see things that are directly in front of it or below it. Yet it normally looks downwards at the ground, and is an animal whose natural habitat, and habitat of choice, is to live in muck and mud, while it greedily eats its food which by nature it does not share. What shocks it out of its environmental understanding, is when a farmer places it upside down on its back to be sent off to market, thus silencing a pig because it has become enchanted by the wonders of the sky which it has never seen in its entire life!
What the blessed Elder seeks to infer from this, is that the prodigal had his eyes focused solely on worldly things and a false reality, thus he did not realise the mess in which he was living in (his own living pigsty). It is only when the harshness of his environmental reality, famine and slavery, is what wakes him up. This forces him to look upwards from the ground at which he stared at, that is the worldly material things, which neither show mercy nor give comfort, and so he has to reassess what is most important to him.
In like fashion, we often get tangled up in such concerns within our own lives too, for we often forget what are the things most important to us like family, friends, health, inner peace, mental stability and so forth. These are things on which we can never put a price on, and yet are essential to our own well-being. However we are naturally too preoccupied with the muck of things around us to realise these truths which should be self-evident, but our own distractions prevent us from giving them heed.
So where does that bring the prodigal? Repentance! Through critical self-examination he understands his mistake and understands firstly that his father is a just and righteous man who always ensured his welfare, and was willing to sacrifice his own interest for his benefit, such as giving him the inheritance due to him. Secondly he also understands his own error, and that something needs to be done to correct his own failing.
This second point is particularly important because it goes to the heart of what repentance means, which is to not despair, but recognise a failing and do something about it, to literally change mindset by removing one’s previous views and replace them with a new and corrected set of values. To dwell on guilt and despair is counterproductive and prevents repentance to take its natural course, which is part of a person’s healing process. However, true repentance also needs works of correction and reparation to those who have been injured by our own vile acts.
Hence the prodigal prepares himself to confess his sins, seek forgiveness and plead for mercy, because it is he who has to take the first step towards reconciliation with his father and his former household. Nevertheless he also prepares himself to accept whatever response or decision is meted out to him, even if it means he returns as a hired slave, since he cannot brazenly ask to return to his former status, this is what Genuine Repentance means.
The message for us is quite clear, because each believer who stumbles (and the truth is we all stumble) needs to repent, confess our failing, seek forgiveness, and be willing to accept God’s guidance and judgement, even if it means we must make some sort of sacrifice on our own behalf.
On a final note about the prodigal, his actions within this parable, sets the tone and nature of the mystery (rite) of confession within the Orthodox Church. It is one of the foundational texts for the existence and the need for this particular rite, because it is part of a process of self-examination, healing and reconciliation between ourselves and God, as well as our fellow man. Much of the sciences of human psychology can find its roots, practices and beliefs within the formalised process of this rite.
The one who administers the rite, usually the priest, serves merely as a witness to a person’s confession and seeks to challenge personally held views, suggest possible alternatives or approaches to overcoming personal obstacles, maybe prescribe tasks which may help a person progress, or just remain silent so as to serve as a sympathetic ear to a person’s pain and anguish. According to some Church commentators, the priest is the one who will give account and verify the confession of a person on the Day of Judgement, likening his role to that of a defence attorney.
Yet however one looks at it, the priest is in the Church’s view the spiritual guide and doctor of a person’s mental and spiritual well-being and has a close familial but professional relationship with the faithful who seeks to confess as part of their journey of repentance, reconciliation and healing. Thus due to their close relationship, the priest will understand the person’s personal history and condition well, and will be able to give appropriate advice or instruction as to how a person can deal with their existential issues.
The “Righteous” Brother
The character of the “righteous” brother proves to be an elusive one for us, because he only appears towards the end of the parable which raises certain questions over his role or his apparent righteousness. For at the beginning we did not see this brother make any attempts to dissuade his wayward brother on his course of destruction. He seems to come across as apathetic to his brother’s plight, consider that he did not make any attempts to go and seek out his brother and help him out of his predicament. Rather he writes him off as dead.
In examining this particular brother’s actions, there are some Church Fathers who speculate as to whether his eye was set on recouping the family estate’s loss from his brother’s departure, to help it grow in wealth beyond that loss so that he may have more to inherit for himself? Consider this, inherited wealth disappears quickly, whereas to remain close to the source which generates wealth is far more advantageous, while cutting out a rival for its spoils initially may prove costly, but could easily be regained and expanded.
Whatever his reason is, whether for righteousness or for personal gain, the “righteous” brother’s initial silence and apathy is the key issue. The message is that everyone is our brother and our neighbour and therefore we must keep an eye out for each other and a helping hand, because we all fall and make errors. The need for an outsider to point out our failings in love is a crucial necessity, because through their guidance we can be brought back on track within our lives, to have things that we may not see be pointed out to us, and even possibly avoid going deeper into our own destruction and downfall.
This all becomes apparent with the righteous brother’s resentment upon the prodigal’s return. He did not express this anger when his brother left which was the appropriate time to do so, but he does not enquire as to the well-being of his brother, nor ask where he has been, nor what suffering he has undergone, nor inquire as to what prompted his return, which is the most important question of all. Thus there is no concern for his brother’s welfare, but grumbles about his brother’s return and even denies that the prodigal is his brother, but calls him “Your son” when speaking to his father. Hence the righteous brother fails to recognise the gift of genuine repentance and furthermore he does not even encourage this gift.
The other key failing of this righteous brother is that he does not recognise the reason for why he remained steadfast by his father’s side, or why this choice in not breaking the household communion was correct. Therefore he does not understand his true intentions or reasons, maybe those Church Fathers’ speculation might be correct? In any case our speculations will remain as such since the parable indicates that this brother was not clear himself about his true intentions, one can only infer from the text.
Nevertheless he does not realise that everything he has, actually belongs to the father, who is head of the household where everything is shared in the unity of one communion, and is not his own personal effects. Yet the father assures him that his reward is greater because he was not subjected to the tyranny of suffering and slavery, nor that he had not broken communion with the household, and that whatever belongs to the father is shared with him and can be made use of, all he has to do is ask! Interestingly this brother who grumbles later on about not even receiving a goat to feast on with his friends, had never asked his father to fulfill such a request? So how can a person fulfil a request when it has not even been made?
Thus we see this brother splitting hairs over nothing. Will not the father look more favourably upon the dutiful son? Whereas the prodigal was willing to sacrifice his own self interest for forgiveness and to be received again by willingly subjecting himself to become a hired servant and to not make any demands. Hence if the father rejoices over this willing return and wake-up call that the prodigal has had, it is by virtue of the prodigal’s realisation of the importance of selfless love and mercy which he knows his father has lavished upon him, his brother and all the household to ensure everyone’s welfare. The point is missed by the righteous brother even though he had been putting it into practice. (Again he does not know the reason for why he stayed!)
This naturally represents the paths of spiritual life which people can either fall into, those who go astray, and those who remain steadfast. Both ways present their own dangers, for those who go astray the results are quite clear to see, but those who remain could easily fall into indifference, pride or apathy to their neighbour’s plight despite going through the motions of spiritual life, all because they lose sight of its purpose.
This is what occurs when Christ relates the story of the Tax-collector and the Pharisee (Lk. 18:10-14), which again represent these two approaches. The Pharisee may have done things all in accordance to the Mosaic Law, but his actions and his intentions were insincere and merely gestures and not expressions of faith. Whereas the tax-collector who was considered as a parasite of his society, came with faith and remorse to seek forgiveness for his evil actions, and through prayer sought to begin the process of correcting those evil deeds. Instead of helping the man, the Pharisee writes him off completely and condemns him, rather than assist him, or enquire about his circumstances. Hence the parable of the Prodigal reflects this relationship between the two brothers and their approaches to spiritual life.
Finally, the key character who remains rather discrete in the parable and yet is the foundation on which it is built on. What can be said for a long-suffering father who puts up with the excesses of two sons, one who is wayward and the other who is contentious? Yet he remains the paragon example of wisdom, mercy and selfless love, because he knows not to force his wayward self-willed and stubborn son to remain, but must let him be free to enter into a journey of self-discovery in spite of the perilous dangers. On the other hand, he has the other son who automatically assumes that what the father possesses is his, and with his brother out of the picture will solely go to him. Hence the father must remain as an example to both his sons so that they can learn what is true love, fairness, compassion and righteousness. Furthermore he is not one who is constrained by human conventions or perceptions of what is right or just, but goes beyond them.
Take for example of how the father breaks with Middle Eastern custom by willingly run towards his prodigal son and embracing him. Culturally speaking the act of running for a mature man, especially towards a wayward son is even today perceived as something undignified. The cultural context is that for such a son seeking reconciliation he must approach his father and fall to his knees, while the father maintains a certain silent detachment and coolness to his son’s request. Culturally speaking, the father will forgive his son, but through his detached and military-like manner wishes to impress upon his son’s thoughts that one must recognise their own failings and must avoid at all costs repeating them, hence he must not do it again. Whereas in the parable we see the father’s merciful condescension towards his son by his running and embrace, while not subjecting the prodigal to this formalised convention of forgiveness.
As for the other son he reiterates the point that the prodigal did not understand initially, which was that all things belong to him, and is their benefactor, provider and protector, and that they are dependent on him, but he shares openly with them and does not begrudge them anything. All they need to do is to ask in sincerity and to try and mimic his example. Thus he is the source of all good things and is the True Teacher of how one should live, because by following his example all that is his will be theirs also, thus their reward is great.
In absolute terms who is ultimately this father?
Christ in this parable uses the father figure to denote the wisdom of a true believer, but He ultimately is making reference to God and His long-suffering, patient and pedagogical love for all of humanity, by calling us to return back to the divine household from which we came. While those who dwell within the household to not begrudge those who return, but to assist the Father in His task and to remain vigilant and not resentful. This often represents the faithful within the Church who throughout the ages have endured immense hardships on account of non-believers who persecuted them, or those who left the Church.
Yet it is also the message to those within the Church who may follow the examples of either the prodigal son or the supposed righteous son. The Father’s example is the foundation and principle by which they should live their lives and for perceiving or discerning things around them. The conclusion is simple, vigilance and love in adhering to the ways of the Lord, whose standard sets the benchmark by which we live and how society should be, because to be just a good person is not enough, the call is for something greater, to aspire to be blameless divine-like beings despite falling short of that aim.
 Carob pods
 Any sisters would be married off into other family units.
 This point echoes the thought put forward by the day’s epistle reading, whereby St Paul cites that many things may be lawful to do, but it may not be ethical or beneficial.
 The word repentance is Latin in origin and possesses the same meaning as the Greek word metanoia, which in its most basic and literal meaning is to take one’s head off and replace it with a new one.
 Consider the need for challenging personal misconceptions or views, overcoming personal ego or delusions that we create for ourselves. These are the same concerns which modern day psychology and psychiatry deal with today. The difference is that within psychiatry the therapy also involves the administering of medicines and drugs.
 Nevertheless more can be said on the matter, but it is best left for a discussion specifically about the rite of confession.
 Gen 2:24
 An area of interest which science has been examining for quite some time, is the link between the psychiatric well-being of people who have been exposed to multiple sexual encounters, duly noting the effects on a person’s relationships, citing a higher proportion of depression and break-ups. Naturally the mass-media promoting promiscuous behaviour has not assisted relational or sexual stability or satisfaction, let alone psychological well-being. Affecting also those who are not as active, who become excessively depressed due to media hype, since they believe they are suppose to be aspiring to some sort of benchmark the media sets which defines their happiness. Another area of interest in reference to questions over bodily integrity, is the connection science has been examining about women seeking abortions, whereby the mothers cite their experience of strange physical and emotional effects of abortion. The common opinion expressed that they felt some sort of connection with a living being that they feel they have lost. What research in both cases will reveal no one knows yet, but it is one worth observing.