“Believe me, the most important work of the fathers (priests & bishops), of every advisor and preacher, is the invitation to the sinful person to assess himself in the presence of God, in the light of His commandments, as did…the prodigal son, of whom it is rightly said: ‘he returned to himself.’” Pope Shenouda III
We’re on our third and final installment in the discussion of The Life of Repentance and Purity (got something fun planned next week) and this week we’re on Part 3: The Means of Repentance (How to Repent). I’m only going to mention one point from this section and I’ll let you explore the rest on your own.
But first let me go back to the gospel that we (Coptic Orthodox church) read this past Sunday and we read every year on the 3rd Sunday of Lent. It is the well-known story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
There we see a son commit a HUGE SIN – about as big as it gets. Asking for your inheritance money before your father has died is like saying “I’m sick and tired of waiting for you to die. Can you hurry up and die please? I wish you were dead right now.”
Yikes! That’s bad.
The son gets his money and goes off into a far country. He enjoys his time at first but soon the money runs out and a famine hits the land. He’s hungry and got nowhere to turn. So he finds a job working in the ever-blossoming field of professional swine management – aka, feeding pigs.
He not only has to feed the pigs, but things got so bad for him that he actually envied what they were eating, “And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:16).
Lusting after pig food is about as low as it gets. But that state doesn’t last very long because he decides to come home and say he’s sorry. And when he gets there, he’s greeted by a new set of clothes, a warm embrace and a great feast – all courtesy of the father who he wished were dead earlier in the story. And everyone lives happily ever after...
But wait a minute… how did that happen? Where did that come from? How such a sudden and drastic shift?
Imagine you’re watching this as a movie. You’re in the early part of the story – before the son has come home – and you see him in the pig fields. How would you describe his state of being? What words would you use?
Now imagine that you had to get up to go to the bathroom. You missed 5 minutes of the movie and when you come back you see him back in his father’s house. Now what words would you use to describe him? Same words? Or the exact opposite?
Was poor, but now rich. Was hungry, but now filled. Was lonely, but now loved. Was empty, but now satisfied. Was miserable, but now in heaven!
All that in just a 5 minute bathroom break?! How could that be? What happened during those 5 minutes that made such a difference? How could things shift so suddenly and so drastically where the boy went from “envying pig food” to “feasting at a rich man’s table”?
“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!” Luke 15:17
The story shifted when “he came to himself” – that one moment changed everything. He didn’t repent yet… he didn’t confess… he didn’t do anything at all… BUT HE CAME TO HIMSELF. And that changed everything for him…
…and it might have the same effect for you.
I’m talking about confession here but I’m not just talking about going to a priest and reading a list of sins off a piece of paper (a practice which has become much more common in recent years). The idea of preparing for confession is good, but just writing a list of sins misses the point.
Pope Shenouda writes:
“Do not get lost in many details, but give priority to your clear weak points and to the “mother virtues,” such as the virtue of pursuing God’s love, which contain within them the rest of the virtues and which will help you to realize the whole spiritual life.”
The Prodigal Son didn’t need to confess a list of sins: I said a bad word, I told a lie, I was not nice to my father and I skipped church because it was cold outside. The laundry list approach is not what saved him and changed his life.
He needed to “come to himself” – to come to the realization that he was not being a very good son. He had broken the relationship with his father and in the process broken his father’s heart. The issue isn’t the details of the actions (“I said mean words”); the issue is the heart that says “I have sinned against heaven and before you and am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Do you see the difference?
My fear, my brothers and sisters, is that we have two extremes when it comes to the practice of confession:
Extreme 1: I confess very rarely and when I do it is just the “big sins” and it’s mainly to clear my conscience before Good Friday or Easter. For me, confession is a matter of duty or obligation.
Extreme 2: I confess very regularly and when I do I bring a laundry list of sins that I read off a piece of paper. For me, confession is a matter of rules and routine.
BOTH EXTREMES ARE NO GOOD!
We need quality not quantity. It’s not a matter of HOW MUCH you confess but rather just HOW you confess. Someone who confessed only once but did so with a “broken and contrite heart” is greater than one who confessed monthly with merely a laundry list of sins.
Why? Because the goal is RELATIONSHIP not rules.
Not confessing regularly is bad and I’ve spoken about that before. I’m not negating any of that here. But I’m simply balancing it with the other side of the coin – that is, confessing simply out of routine or habit and never doing what the Prodigal Son did when “he came to himself.”
We’re about halfway through Lent. Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday will be here before you know it. Maybe it’s time for a “come to yourself” meeting like the Prodigal Son had and maybe it’s also time for a “COME HOME” moment like he had as well.