THE LOST SON
A Sermon by Rev. Ragnar BoyesenPreached in Freeport, Pennsylvania, in November 1985
“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”‘” (Luke 15:17-19).
The parable of the lost son is summarized in the simple spiritual fact of the loss of spiritual life through egotism. The parable shows us how we can return from being spiritually lost.
The love of pleasures and luxuries is here weighed against the love of parental authority. In itself there is no wrong in seeking pleasures and possessions because these are necessary and enriching as long as they are subjected to our will to serve the Lord. But as goals in themselves, the love of pleasures and possessions is destructive.
The man in the parable has two sons. In the internal sense of the Word the Lord is Himself Father for both the internal and the external churches, for the Christian Church and for the heathen church. The Christian Church is represented by the young son who deceives his father, while the heathen church is represented by the elder son who remains with his father. The parable of the lost son is the internal story of how the Lord lost the Christian Church, His internal church.
The two brothers in the parable are types for the external and internal in each of us. The spiritual man is supposed to affect and subject the external man to itself. But most often the external man is lost in self-service and in the world, trying to appear just in the eyes of others. The external man will do good, but from moral and ethical norms which do not have spiritual motives. This is the elder brother who continues his service in the house of his father, but who nevertheless is distant from him, because his father’s love and mercy are not received in his envy of the younger brother. The older son perceives himself as an unfree servant. The younger son does not feel unfree. He asks his father for his inheritance and travels to far countries, where his riches are squandered. This is the old story of the riches of charity which are lost when man believes that life belongs to himself, and desires to do good from himself.
The lost son has often, in Protestant tradition, been pictured as the poor wayward and misguided son who in actual fact is good but to be pitied. This sentimental interpretation has its counterpart in the view that the young man was the wasteful son. The parable could therefore be called the “wasteful son.” It is this meaning which is taken up in the Writings when they explain that the youngest son represents one who squanders his spiritual riches to no purpose (see AE 279). The waste consists in the individual knowing the spiritual norms the Lord has put on morals and ethics, and yet refusing to live according to these norms. The wastefulness consists in the existence of a knowledge which never is used because the will is lacking.
The older brother, who also represents the simple and obedient man of the Christian Church who in sincerity reads the Word in its literal meaning and lives according to it, cannot in the same way be charged with wastefulness because he does not know the internal meaning of the Word, and for that reason he cannot be expected to use that meaning in his life.
The man of the New Church, however, who knows what the Writings teach but who turns away from using his knowledges is in the highest degree to be likened to the lost son. The one who from an egotistical will tries to live within the New Church, and at the same time only concedes to fill his or her memory with truths, is counted as one of the rebels who have demanded their spiritual inheritance paid out in advance, and who are using it in spiritually luxurious living.
The spiritual inheritance is our knowledges of heaven, the love of the neighbor and love for the Lord. These are spiritual riches which we must guard with care and love, to be used wisely so that they will multiply. But he who keeps his truths to himself as his private property which he can do with as he pleases has that same lack of spiritual responsibility which characterized the wasteful son. Without our conscious struggle to search out the will of the Lord, we waste His riches in self- aggrandizement and illusory joys which are but false pleasures. How often have the tendencies of the world quietly sneaked into our minds while we uncritically have watched the so-called “other people” around us? Are we not often lacking self-critique? Are we not selfish and pleasure-seeking? How often do we not speak from our memory alone, from what we know, and not from what we actually feel and have reflected upon? We are afraid of the proprial feelings in others because we instinctively will want to guard our own proprium.
As long as the impulses of our egocentric will has its way with us, so long do we live in a foreign country.
Like the lost son, we have taken out our inheritance ahead of time when we know about the conditions of eternal life without doing anything about changing. We are wasteful as long as we believe that we have our thoughts and our feelings as our very own possession. As long as they are with us they are selfish thoughts and worldly expressions of will which draw our spiritual gifts down into the dust where they become foreign to us because they have become soiled. We are figuratively reduced to the pitiful status of a swine herdsman every time the needs of the body are allowed to claim all our attention at the expense of our spiritual needs. When the natural in us no longer serves us, but drives us as a taskmaster, we live from “the pods that the swine ate,” subjected in foreign service while our spirit goes hungry.
And here we reach the paradox in the parable. Just this spiritual hunger makes the natural life in us pale. Our natural life appears no longer to have any lasting attraction for us. We are instead apt to discover how meaningless life has become in this foreign service. When the natural man in us will accept the presence of disillusion and despair, we can be reached by a flow of reflection which can wake the conscience in us. Through temptations we are reminded of the blessings of our father’s house, those tender remains from childhood instruction which always will remind us to return to our true spiritual home. Through temptation we feel at first a general sense of bad conscience, the result of evil spirits flowing in to harm us. This is like the famine in the land which forces us to think, to reflect. If we “come to” ourselves, we shall remember that we cannot do anything that is truly good from ourselves, but that we will continue to stick fast in our tendencies to evil. If we could but come so far that we acknowledge that we are not good, that we have no spiritual rights whatsoever, then the Lord can save us from our feeling of evil. One who knows that he or she is not good at heart, but who desires to do good not from self but from the Lord, can be likened to the lost son who comes to himself in that foreign country.
The awakening consists of our realization that we are not only generally sinful, but that we have specific sins. When we gain a new knowledge of our states which convinces us that we have one arch weakness, we can be said to wake up spiritually. With a specific realization of a sin we can pray to the Lord to ask Him for that specific power which we will need to overcome our weakness. Through reflection and temptation we can wake up from our spiritual exile. Like the son we must also wish to return to our spiritual home.
Because only the Lord can remove evils, we have to demonstrate that we want Him to help us. We have to stand up and walk home. This is the same as removing those evils that keep us down. We have to take away those evil habits and thoughts that dominate our natural life. All cooperation with the Lord is initiated by man; otherwise he would not be a free spiritual being. When you and I break one of the commandments, we break all of them, because we deny that such a breach is a sin against God. Without the acknowledgment that an evil action is a sin, we will remain in that sin. The Lord cannot take away our sin without our cooperation (see TCR 523).
When knowledge changes from a joyless confirmation to true repentance, the spiritual life in man embarks on renewal. It is through the gift of freedom that man can discover that specific evil which has forced him into spiritual exile. Through reflection we can conclude and affirm: this evil is a sin. Like the lost son, we awaken from the dry desert states of egotism when we open up to remember those states of charity and joy from childhood. These memories light a new longing within our minds: “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'” (Luke 15:17- 19).
Humility and that genuine acknowledgment of our own spiritual poverty can make us determine to reform, with the Lord’s help. Through self-examination we can find those weaknesses which protect our egotistical side of life. Through prayer for help, we turn our thoughts to our heavenly Father, which will motivate us to return to His house. If we dare to confess that we actually have that very specific weakness, that very one which hinders us from being conjoined with the Lord, then we will receive courage through our prayers. By confessing freely, we can be given the will to submission by the Lord. This is the will to start from the beginning, like a servant who is not worthy to be called a son. By a willing submission we are motivated to return to our Father’s house, to that new contact with heaven that will. inspire us and bring us onward in life. By a willing return to the Lord in the Word, we will find that the Lord can reveal to us our inmost intentions, our most secret thoughts. When we go to the Lord with the willingness to be led, to learn to obey, then a new life begins.
“But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Joyfully the father of the lost son brings him into the house where he asks the servants to slaughter the fatted calf while he puts new clothes on his son — the best robe, a ring and shoes. “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24).
The Lord sees us like a father even when we are far away from Him. The vigil of His Providence never leaves us. When we make that first confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and against You, and am no more worthy to be called Your son,” then the Lord inflows with a new strength and hope in our mind.
Through the repentance of action are we capable of returning to our Father’s house, to the Lord as He is revealed in the Word. The new robe He clothes us with are new perceptions and new realizations from a love of truth which longs to see it work in our lives. The new ring, which is love in the internal man, is that love of conjunction which gladly accepts submission to the Lord. The new shoes are the new affections in the external man that make the external man serve the internal man because of our willingness to exercise self-compulsion (see AE 279).
The Lord will give us this new and heavenly love when we resist evil for the explicit reason that we wronged the Lord. No other motive is capable of bringing us back to the house of our spiritual Parent. “… a man who is in good not only acts aright from the will but also thinks aright from the understanding, and this not only before the world but also before himself when he is alone. Not so a man who is in evil …. For whatever anyone wills from love, he wills to do, he wills to think, he wills to understand, and he wills to speak …. To this is also to be added that when a man shuns what is evil as a sin, he is in the Lord, and the Lord then works everything” (Life 47, 48).
The first resistance to our states of egotistical life is the beginning of our heavenly life. First we lose our egotistical nature before we are given a heavenly willingness to serve. Having been a spiritual squanderer by letting the knowledges from the Lord remain inactive, we are turned through self-compulsion to serve Him and our fellow man. By this willing service we are given that new heavenly freedom which makes us part of that heavenly family of helpers who love nothing better than obeying the will of their Father while attending to the needs of their brothers and sisters. In joy the Lord comes to meet us: “For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” Amen.
Lessons: Luke 15:11-32, TCR 510
True Christian Religion
510 The communion called the church consists of all men in whom the church is, and the church enters into man when he is becoming regenerate, and everyone becomes regenerate by abstaining from the evils of sin and shunning them as one would an infernal horde with torches in hand, endeavoring to overtake him and throw him upon a burning pile. There are many means by which man, as he progresses in his early years, is prepared for the church and introduced into it; but the means whereby the church is established in man are acts of repentance. Acts of repentance are all such things as cause man not to will and consequently not to commit evils, which are sins against God; for until this takes place, man stands outside of regeneration, and if any thought respecting eternal salvation should then creep into his mind, he turns toward it, but immediately turns away from it, for it enters the man no further than into the ideas of his thought, and from that goes forth into the words of his speech, and also, it may be, into some gestures conformable to speech. But when such thought enters the will, it is in the man, for the will is the man himself, because in it his love resides, while thought is outside of the man, except when it proceeds from his will, and then will and thought act as one, and both together constitute the man. From this it follows that for repentance to be repentance, and to be effective in man, it must be a repentance of the will and from that of the thought, and not of the thought only; therefore that it should be actual repentance, and not merely verbal. That repentance is the first thing of the church is very evident from the Word. John the Baptist, who was sent beforehand to prepare men for the church which the Lord was about to establish, when he baptized, preached at the same time repentance; and therefore his baptism was called the baptism of repentance, for the reason that baptism signified spiritual washing, which is a cleansing from sin. This John did in Jordan because Jordan signified introduction into the church, for it was the first boundary of the land of Canaan where the church was. The Lord Himself also preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, teaching thereby that repentance is the first thing of the church, and so far as man repents, his sins are put away, and so far as they are put away, they are forgiven. And still further, the Lord commanded His twelve apostles, and also the seventy whom He sent forth, to preach repentance. From all this it is clear that the first thing of the church is repentance.