Coming to Ourselves
The words came like a smack out of nowhere on Thursday night. I noticed that there was a pouting child standing next to me at my computer as I finished an email. I turned, expecting a long lamentation about why bedtime was too early, I can handle those arguments with one hand tied behind my back. But the words I heard instead from my normally sweet and rational five-year-old were these, “Mom, you and Dad favor Brynn (his sixteen-year-old sister). And it isn’t fair.” What?!? In what was probably not best parenting move, I burst out laughing, to which I got the stink eye, and an indignant response, “Stop laughing! I’m serious.” I quickly realized that Grayson meant business. His reasons were three-fold, clearly he’d been doing some thinking: he was not allowed to stay up after 9:00 and Brynn was, he was not allowed to sleep with the dog and Brynn was, and he could not have a laptop and she did. “And so,” he summarized like a little prosecuting attorney bent on justice, “you favor her.” I explained reasons: Brynn is older, Brynn’s bedroom doesn’t have carpet the dog can destroy, and, well, Brynn bought the laptop and is almost seventeen. My rationalizations seemed futile in the face of bedtime crankiness and indignation, until I asked Grayson if he would like me to carry him up to bed, to which he responded, “Yes, I would, and it just dawned on me, Mom, that Brynn doesn’t get carried up to bed.” Somehow this seemed to equal the playing field.
Being an only child, myself, I have often been immune to sibling rivalries or slights. I don’t know the feeling of thinking your parent might love one child more than another, or that this sibling that you grew up with is both your closest friend and harshest critic. And so the story of the prodigal son is one, I confess that I have always sort of misunderstood, for I saw it as a story of family dynamics instead of what I have come to believe it is: a story about judgment and grace and how it plays a part in each of our lives. For I have come to believe that we each have a little of the prodigal son in us, and we each have a little of the son who stayed home. And I believe that those two personas can abide within us and wreak havoc on our souls as we try to wrap our heads around scandalous love and radical grace.
The first character in the story, of course, is that vagabound son. The younger one. Scriptures have called him the prodigal, which means “recklessly wasteful.” He was, we might imagine a dreamer, one who wanted to see more than the land he had farmed his own life, one who had bigger ambitions, higher hopes. We can’t really fault him for that, can we? The rub comes in the way this son goes about getting away: he asks for his share of his father’s inheritance which would have been a terrible insult. As things stood in Jewish culture at that time, the land was a precious, precious commodity. Having been a wandering people for centuries, a people who had no home, the idea that a son would deliberately choose to break up an estate and sell off part of it for money to leave his home was utter scandal. And on top of this, he was insulting his father placing the value of money over the power of relationship. He did not ask to borrow money, he asked for his birthright, for that which would only come to him when his father was dead. Essentially he said, “I am finished with you; I am severing ties and moving on.” But the father does what, I believe, many parents would do. With sadness, and with remorse, gives that which is asked (and that which ultimately would be due to the youngest child, likely a third of the estate). We don’t know exactly why the youngest son felt he needed to leave, whether it was a selfish act or a painful mistake, or whether he was simply following the restless passion of a young man who wants to make his own way in the world. But, regardless, he goes.
In quick short verses we learn of the younger son’s plight. He squandered the money from the property in dissolute living. And we don’t quite know what that means, sounds as if some poor financial decisions were made, but it’s also a little hard to tell, maybe it was simply that the precarious nature of the economic system knocked him back, maybe sequestration hit Palestine, perhaps if the famine hadn’t come he could have made it. It’s hard to say, really. But the reality is that he becomes so desperate that he finds a job taking care of pigs, something which would have been taboo in a strict Orthodox kosher home. And so he has sunk as far as he can go, has lost it all—family, money, and religious scruples.
And while the circumstances may have been a little different, while the details vary among us, I would imagine that there may have been moments in our own lives where we can resonate with the bottomless pit that the younger son has landed in. Times when we may have set out with the best of intentions but made a few wrong turns. Times when for whatever reason we made poor choices and ended up on a dead end street. Times when instead of picking up the phone, we picked up a bottle. Times when what we wanted hurt others, and led to our own alienation. The younger son is an all-too human figure, the one who wants it all, and cuts ties and damages relationships to get it, the one who in forging a path, doesn’t consider those he mowed down to get it. The greedy one who wanted more, and didn’t realize how much he might hurt others to get it. That younger son who is part of so many of us.
We want to hate him, but we also know him all too well sometimes.
But there is another powerful figure in this story, and you can almost hear the elder brother whining across history, “Why does the story get to be called The Prodigal Son? Why can’t my name be in it too?” There is an older brother. A brother who worked hard, and took care of his father, and who would never dare to do anything unscrupulous. He is the brother who followed the rules. He is the one who stayed behind and cleaned up the mess of the life that his younger brother left. He heard his father cry at night, and watched his father standing in the window looking out over the road, constantly ready to welcome the younger son home. He must have been so irritated that he always had to be the good son, the one who carried on when his brother ran away. And I suspect we know these feelings as well, don’t we? Aren’t many of our churches made up of these older sons? The ones who have tried to do things right? Who have tried to follow the rules?
And so the homecoming scene is a tense one. Wherever we find ourselves in the story. Whether we identify with the younger son, the ones who felt he had to leave, the one who broke a heart for whatever reason and then the one who landed in quandary and had to come back to ourselves, or whether we identify ourselves as the rule-following older brother, the steady and dutiful child who crosses t’s and dots i’s but who still finds themselves full of resent, the meeting of these two realities doesn’t feel like a comfortable one.
We know what happens. The father runs to greet the younger son, offering him the best that he has to offer—the softest clothes, the family ring, the choicest meat. And the older son stands awkwardly, watching the exchange, his temper rising. And he sputters the truth of the matter, “This isn’t fair.” And you know what, he’s right. It isn’t. But grace is scandalous that way. And a parent’s love can be extravagant. And sometimes we can get so caught in what is right, that we forget the good stuff—reconciliation, and reunion, and repentance.
Until 2001, I lived my life as the metaphorical older child. I did what I thought my parents wanted of me. I followed the rules and got good grades. I obediently attended college, and then graduate school. I was licensed in the church and then ordained. I married my college sweetheart when we were in seminary and was called as the associate pastor a prophetic college church. It was a peach of a life. And I settled myself into my elder brother existence and did what was expected of me. And it wasn’t until a few years had passed when I realized that my life felt inauthentic. And with great sadness, and with even greater shame, and with tremendous remorse I left both my marriage and pastoral ministry. I felt like I had become that younger brother, demanding my share of the inheritance, and fleeing for a life of what was not dissolute living, surely, but also was not what anyone had hoped for me. There were many people angry at me for requesting a divorce, many who stopped talking to me because I had wounded my ex-husband so deeply. I couldn’t blame them. Throughout that time in my life I kept a quote taped to my computer, and on to my bathroom mirror at night. It was my mantra and my hope, what I wanted to believe but couldn’t image how. The quote by the writer Isak Dinesen was this: We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it, again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. I wanted this to be true, but I was in such pain and darkness, and I knew I had deeply wounded some of those who I most loved. And those wounds after more than twelve years still tingle a bit in the dark of night. But my story does not end there for I was blessed to experience my own prodigal daughter homecoming story, which came for me in a whoosh of grace. Four years later, I experienced my moment of coming to myself when I stood in line to register for a women’s clergy conference in the wilderness of Wisconsin and realized that my former mother-in-law was standing behind me. Here was the woman with whom I had not spoken since the day over three years before when she and I sat on the kitchen floor dividing tea towels in my old home as she helped my former husband and I break up housekeeping. I knew I needed to acknowledge her, but I didn’t know how, and I turned around slowly unsure of whether she knew I was the one in front of her, only to have her offer me a bring smile as she pulled me in to embrace me in the soft down of her coat as I began to cry. She looked into my eyes after that hug and said, “You look happy. That’s what I’ve I needed to see.” We spent the rest of that conference sharing meals, and cups of tea, and piecing together the bits and pieces of what went wrong, and what she offered me was nothing short than miraculous and holy. I experience the love that that prodigal son must have felt when he saw his father running toward him upon his return to the land he had left.
There is something about being the prodigal child sometimes and being met with grace which makes us a little less of an elder son. Because once we’ve basked in that kind of undeserved grace, we’re more apt to want to extend it to others. Once we’ve been invited back into the fold when we know we are completely undeserving, we’re more inclined to want to pull others into the circle of community. Once we’ve been offered reconciliation, we’re more inclined to want to be peacemakers. Once we’ve been given unconditional love, we realize that we can offer no less to others.
The theologian Paul Tillich wrote of the grace we find from the parent who welcomed his youngest son home and reassured his oldest son’s anguish when he wrote these words: Grace strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of…an empty life. Sometimes a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
Grace doesn’t always make sense to us, it may seem undeserved, it may not seem fair, it may mean that your bedtime is a different time than your sisters, or that your brother got the party that you deserved. But there is abundance in God’s scandalous grace, and it hovers around each of us when we most need to be brought back to ourselves. May we accept this grace, and offer it to others.