Being With the Father but Not Becoming Like the Father

A number of years ago under Communism, there was a certain old priest in Romania who would never greet anyone with the typical “Hello” or “Good Morning”.  Instead, whenever he greeted anyone, he would say, with a shining smile on his face - “Rejoice always!”  Now this may seem like an unusual way to greet someone, but it is even more incomprehensible when one realizes that this priest was in jail, he had a son who was in a Soviet prison, a daughter who was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor, and two sons-in-law who were in jail with him.  This man realized that his grandchildren were starving, and his whole family suffered.  Still, he could greet people in prison by saying, “Rejoice always!”

When another prisoner asked this priest how he could rejoice when he and his family suffered so much, the priest simply replied, “Rejoicing is easy when we follow one verse from the Bible, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” If we learn to rejoice with all those who rejoice, we always have plenty of motivation for rejoicing. For example, I sit in jail yet I rejoice that so many are free. I can’t go to Church and receive Holy Communion, yet I rejoice with the millions of people around the world who go to Church weekly and receive Holy Communion. I can’t see my children and grandchildren, but I rejoice with all those who play with their children and grandchildren. When we learn to rejoice with those who rejoice, then we always have something to rejoice over.”

This story truly captures the essence of Christian love and the spirit of our Orthodox faith – to rejoice in the joy of others, to share in the good will of others, to be happy and grateful when others do well. In other words, the spirit of the Gospel is completely opposite any spirit that may be jealous and envious, contrary to any spirit that covets what others have. Remember the 10th Commandment in the Mosaic Law – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s possessions,” and yet how many of us struggle with rejoicing in the joy of others?

Today’s Gospel story of the Prodigal Son offers a memorable illustration of how hard it is to acquire this spirit of joy and love for others good fortune. Of course, the Gospel reading of the Prodigal Son is possibly the most beautiful story in the entire Bible because it summarizes, in a very brief manner, many central elements of our faith. Oftentimes, we draw attention to either the Loving Father or the rebellious younger son, because they both teach us about 1) God’s unconditional and never-ending love for us, 2) the fruit of our rejection and departure from God, and 3) how we truly repent, or turn back to Him after we have sinned. Too infrequently, though, we pause to reflect upon the older, obedient son, who never physically left the father, yet who failed to learn and adopt the spirit of the father – the spirit of mercy and love and joy which were so central to the Father’s life!

Let’s briefly recall the story: A father has two sons. The younger son greatly offends the father by asking for his inheritance, and basically by doing this says to his father, “I know I will receive an inheritance when you die. So give it to me now, because I consider our relationship dead and over. Your money is more important to me than you are!”

Because of His unfathomable love, the Father respects the freedom of choice that his younger son possesses, and grants him his request. The Father understands that true love can only come where freedom exists, so he allows the younger son to take his inheritance and run away to a distant land. Now we could say so much about how this separation from the Father vividly portrays the fruit sin, and how the utter depravity the son eventually falls into, wasting all his treasure and ending up living among the pigs, represents life away from God. But we’ll save that for another sermon.

When the younger son finally realizes that he lives in a self-imposed hell, he comes to his senses and returns to his father in humility and deep repentance. The Father, the image of our loving God, not only welcomes his prodigal son back, but even receives him with unimaginable love and mercy. The Father rejoices because his son was lost and is now found, was dead and is now alive! Mercy, joy, love, and grace abound in the Father’s spirit towards his fallen son!

Well, the story doesn’t end with the return of the lost son and the divine love of the Father. And here is where I want to draw our attention for today. As the Father welcomes the younger son back, and begins to celebrate and feast over his resurrection from death to life, the older son returns home from working in the fields.

Now we need to remember that the older son has never left the side of the father. He has been the dutiful son, staying close to the father, trying to obey his father’s wishes. The only problem, though, is that even though the older son has physically stayed close to his Father, outwardly being the obedient older son, he still never cultivated nor understood nor adopted the Father’s spirit of divine love and mercy, of joy and grace. The older son obeyed his father out of duty, not out of love. The older son focused more on the rules and regulations of what an older son should do, instead of striving to understand and imitate the Father’s heart, cultivating the same spirit of joy and love which the Father possessed. Although outwardly the older son never rejected his Father and left his Father’s house, as the young son did, still though, the older son’s spirit departed from the Father long ago, becoming hard, cold, and unloving.

As the Father is rejoicing that his younger son has returned safe and sound, the older son returns from the fields hearing music and a celebration coming from the home. He’s quite annoyed, and after talking with a servant, basically responds “What??? A feast for my good-for-nothing brother who wasted all his money on prostitutes and prodigal living? Why all this celebration and joy, instead of punishment and fairness? Where is the justice that my brother rightly deserves? My father shouldn’t give him a feast, but a beating! My brother deserves nothing more, and I won’t take part in any unjust celebration!”

How many of us can relate with the older son? Truth be said, the father hasn’t been just! He hasn’t given the younger son what he deserves. Instead of justice, the Father has shown mercy. Instead of a reprimand, the Father has shown love and compassion. Instead of rightly justifying himself to his younger son, the Father humbly rejoices that his son is alive again!

The older son, and it’s probably the older son who represents many of us in the Church, can’t comprehend his Father’s unconditional love and mercy, his infinite forgiveness and kindness. And because of his inability to understand, the older son chooses to stand outside the feast, angry, jealousy, and self-righteous.

If one were to say to the older son, “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” as the Romanian priest in my opening story, the older son would simply look at you with a blank stare, or maybe even with self-righteous contempt. He judged others according to an outward law, instead of according to divine love and God’s mercy.

The Father of the story, who represents our heavenly Father, is truly divine agape, divine love. And the most important characteristic that we his followers must imitate and cultivate within our own lives is such love. Divine love which rejoices in the joys of others. Divine love which forgives not according to what one deserves, but according to how God forgives each of us. Divine love which does not wish the death of a sinner, but that any and every sinner, no matter how terrible they are, will return to their heavenly father and partake in His feast of joy. Divine love which knows no jealousy or envy, and does not rejoice in the sufferings of others, but instead is kind and compassionate, rejoicing in and hoping for the good of others!

As we continue our preparation and journey towards Great Lent over the next two weeks, let us all focus our attention on how we can capture the loving Father’s spirit of mercy and compassion, of grace and kindness. We truly must cultivate such a spirit of “rejoicing with those who rejoice,” and never wish or rejoice in the ill fortune of anyone, if we sincerely want to walk through life in a Christ-like manner!

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