Was life good, living in the house of the father? One would almost be tempted to believe it was not. Why else would the youngest seek to leave home and explore other ways of living? Why else would the oldest be so bitter about having stayed home? Apparently he had not had the best of times either!
The youngest exploring other ways of living however doesnt necessarily mean the place he left wasnt any good. Many interpreters see his leaving as a healthy sign of growing up, of becoming an independent adult. Something all of us should, at some stage, go through to be able to have an adult and equal relationship with our parents. From that perspective the youngest leaving home is a necessary phase in his development, the desire to see a bit of the world and gain some experience outside the parental home nothing but a healthy longing for independence and development.
In the story there is room for that. The getting out, the going away, the leaving home, the saying goodbye to the father and the exploring of the big wide world. The father in the story is able to let go, to give room, to stand aside for a while and let this child do his thing.
It is lovely to be able to think that God is like that: A parental figure that is able to let go, to give room, to let us do our own thing for a while and patiently wait to see if well find our way back to him.
Great to think of a God patiently and lovingly waiting even if we wander off in all sorts of directions. And the story Jesus tells here gives us reason to believe God is really like that: Open, generous, patient, prepared to give room and wait .
After some exploring the youngest discovers there is no fulfillment in his new way of living. He ends up with the pigs, hungry, dissatisfied and lonely and decides to return home.
That does not always happen by the way. Some of us are not home to start with. Some of us are born in exile, grow up in bondage and only find home far away from where theyve started. For them the exploring is essential to find their true self, their true home and come close to what God has meant them to be. In this case, in this story, however, the son discovers through his traveling that where he belongs, where life is really good, is with his Father, and that there is a need to return, to turn around from the direction he has been going in.
After the exploring is done, after experiencing life a bit wider and deeper, this boy finds his way home. And that is what is important. To find our way home, to find the place where we feel welcome, at home and embraced. The place where we are no longer restless but find our rest in God and know ourselves to be safe and sound.
The eldest, well, he stayed at home, but was apparently not really home. Without leaving he strayed as much as the other. Living out of duty and commitment to his father and running the farm he missed the most important bit. Namely what his Father was all about.
Hes gone all sour and miserly because, although he has stayed, he never appreciated the place is he was in, never enjoyed being close to the Father.
It is a disappointment to the Father this son hasnt understood in all this time what he was on about. And maybe, just maybe, this son hurts the Father even more than the youngest who wanted to leave and explore and took everything and scattered it around. Because this dutiful hard working son apparently never got round to sharing in the love and generosity of the Father. Hes gone cold and narrow minded from trying hard but never putting his heart into it.
As people do sometimes. If again we take the Father to be an image of God, the eldest could stand for those people who do their religious duties all their life, fulfill their commitments, go to church every Sunday, but never really share in the love and life of the Father, of God. And who, when it comes to God showing his mercy and his love for all people distance themselves out of resentment and anger with His prodigal giving.
The Father, God if you want, pictured as the one who wants to provide a home, who is looking for communion, for relationship. Welcoming the younger son back with warmth and conviction, inviting the elder to let go of his resentment and jealousy and become part of the celebration of love and community. A Father, a God seeking to provide a home where things are different. Where there is forgiveness in abundance, freedom to explore life in all its aspects, where there is joy when children find out where their home is, where they come to fulfillment, where there is celebration and the offer of new life after failure.
And we might wonder: Where do we stand in the story? Are we like the youngest? Adventurous and not quite yet ready for a life close to the father, or are we more like the eldest?
Living a life of duty and distancing ourselves from all too much generosity where the Church is concerned?
How close are we to the Father in our living and giving? How generous and loving? Are we ready for a life close to God or do we feel we still have a bit of growing to do before we get to that? There is room for that you know . Or have we been so close to God, all our lives that weve quite forgotten what a crazy God we have and how unbelievably far his mercy reaches out? Can we bear to see how some squander what is most dear to us and still welcome them back with warmth and conviction like our father does?
The story ends with a question mark, and I think it is a question directed at us. Which son do we feel closest to? Or is there maybe a bit of both in all of us?
In any case: The Father in the story, God, is pictured as somebody whose heart goes out to both his children, and who would, if possible, like to have them both near and celebrating life in his presence. Perhaps that is a thought to take home with us today: That God longs for us to be with him, to live our lives close to him, but that he leaves room for us to discover for ourselves where for us life is at its best, where we find fulfillment and joy. And that he is prepared to wait and give room for wandering, squandering, holding back and returning for any of his children. But always prodigal in his giving when we are ready to receive it.