I was reminded this week that I had once said at a conference that probably the two stories from the New Testament that have had the most influence on our culture, more than any others, are the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable read this morning, "The return of the prodigal son." Of course the events of Jesus death and resurrection form the basis of our Christian faith, but these two stories, that did not actually happen, because they are parables, resonate in us with what is true, good and moral in our society .. or perhaps what we would like to see as good, true and moral in our society.
Marcus Borg the Biblical scholar is fond of quoting an ancient American Indian aphorism: "I dont know whether or not this really happened, but I know it is true." That is the power of parables, they dont need to have happened because at their core is a truth that all people can recognize.
As I have mentioned before the power of the parable is that you can find yourself within it. They are for me, not just moralistic stories, but they help us discover our true selves and how we can live life more fully. The old adage was that a parable was "an earthly story with a heavenly message." Umm! Well that just isnt so. It is an earthly story with an earthly meaning. That is, it is meant to touch your life today and help reshape your way of being in the world. I have mentioned in the update article that many regard Rembrandts painting on the front of the Order of Service titled The Return of the Prodigal Son (Hermitage, St Petersburg) as one of his greatest religious/spiritual paintings.
The Waiting Father
First, the important point is that the father doesnt primarily represent God. The father, like every character in this story, is a part of you and your journey through life. The qualities we observe in the father are qualities that we are each capable of and called to imitate. And he is such an interesting fellow. He accedes to his younger son's request to give him his inheritance while he is still young and before the father dies. The father agrees and the son calls out Yippee! Let the party begin. The father, perhaps against his own better judgement, sends the son off into the world to explore his own possibly heroic journey.
There was an interesting documentary on television recently that showed a similar practice among the Amish people in North America. Their children live in a cloistered, protected environment without any modern conveniences and when they were 18 years of age they were permitted to leave the community and live in the big, wide world, in many ways completely unprepared for what they would find.
The father in our story let the son go, perhaps knowing that there was no way he could hold him back on the farm. This apparently irresponsible act of giving the son more money than he could handle was perhaps an act of great wisdom. For the father knew that the personality of this young man needed adventure, challenge and probably dramatic failure if he was to encounter his true self.
So he says good bye to the child he loves and longingly waits for his possible return. Just to introduce the elder son here; we actually dont meet him until the end of the story. But again I think the father was perceptive enough to know that the eldest child needs a different experience to discover his deepest being. He probably didnt need to leave the family home, his journey may have led him to give up his overly strong sense of loyalty and duty and having the compulsion to always do the right thing. That may have been the burden that he carried, and he had to let go of it if he was to find his true self.
Rumi the ancient Persian poet said: "Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. Ill meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about."
The Younger Brother
Now to really get the point of the story of the prodigal who leaves home and wastes his money well actually his fathers money you have to get the point of the quote from Rumi. We live in a world and a culture that is bound by a strong dualism between good and bad, right and wrong. And that is helpful in our day-to-day living. But there is a deeper truth in life than this dualism between being the good person or the bad person. The story is quite clear that there is no condemnation of the younger son. No criticism (except from the elder brother later) that the young son was bad. He was on a journey that would yield in his life a greater truth; a more profound insight into himself and the world in which he lived. But it was going to cost him something. In fact, a good deal of pain and suffering.
The poet and author Robert Bly tells the story in his book Iron John about the rituals practised by one of the Aboriginal tribes two hundred years ago. When a boy of about 12 was to be initiated into the tribe and the dreamtime, there were several rituals he had to pass through. He had to spend a week by himself in the bush; kill an animal that belonged to his totem; and finally have one of his teeth knocked out. Bly writes in his book , how barbaric we moderns think such a thing is. But he goes on to say, "Wouldnt you be willing to give up one tooth to be initiated into the secrets of life and the universe?"
For this young man, and I suspect that for each one of us, the only way we will ever come to the deep inner place of union with God and ourselves is that we journey through a fair bit of pain. Richard Rohr once said that it is only great love or great suffering that will truly change us. Here it is important to see that this young man must suffer in order to become himself. But remember, a failure can be a gift that opens the world, or it can just make you bitter. A great loss of money, or a friend, or a lover can expose us to a dark place where we may for the first time in our lives catch a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel and we are, even in our great loss, in a safe place.
So the story centres on this turning point in the young mans life.
But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'
"When he came to himself " When he woke up to the truth about his condition, what did he do? He turned around and went the other way and that other way was to return back home. Back to where he had come from. So you could say this wild expedition had been an expensive failure, a waste of time because he was going to end up back where he started. But why isnt it a glorious failure? Because the journey had transformed and changed him.
Much has been written about the mythic journey of the hero. The call to adventure; the trial of courage; the exploration of the inner cave; the ordeal that must be overcome and the road back home. In part this is the journey of the younger son. He is the hero of this story. Although the mercy, grace, forgiveness and generosity of the father should not be underestimated. As I said at the beginning, we are the characters in this story. You and I are the younger brother; the waiting father; the older brother. At different times in our lives we may be more one than the other. The younger son leaves home with the sense of excitement and adventure and returns home with the gift of his true self. The father waits with love and compassion and even both violates the culture by giving this boy his inheritance and then insults the elder brother by welcoming him home, when a good dressing down was in order. And the elder brother loyally and dutifully must discover for himself how he might take the hero's journey and find his true self. His leaving home may not be physical but rather inner and spiritual. We all must find our own welcome home, but to find it as we have never seen it before.
Put your fingers in your ears if you dont want to hear these oft quoted words of T.S Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
The younger brother comes home and all he can see and feel and experience is grace, love, generosity, and no judgement. He has truly arrived home.