The Prodigal Me

ProdigalMy brother has always been the type who could get away with pretty much anything.  Being the younger of the two of us, he would just get a “Now Trent, don’t do that” from my mom, where I would get a pretty stern talk or a kind pat on the rear for doing the same thing.  I remember that I would always take a sort of joy in the rare occasions when he actually got what he deserved like when my grandma chased him through the department store trying to wallop him with her purse for darting around inside the clothes racks.  One time I actually set him up.  He was just learning to write his name, so after getting his handwriting down I took my mom’s lipstick and wrote his name on the wall.  I put the lipstick back in the bathroom drawer and then ran to mom saying, “Mom!  Look what Trent did!”  He got it pretty good for that.  I kind of felt bad.  Kind of.  It felt pretty good to see him get what he deserved for a change – even if he didn’t actually deserve it that time.

Last week we talked about people getting what they don’t deserve.  This week we talk about the same thing in a different way or maybe about people not getting what they deserve – depending on how you look at it.  The Pharisees are chiding Jesus for eating with “those people” when he in essence tells them three stories rolled in to one.

First, he tells of a father who had two sons.  The oldest son is the good son and does everything that he is supposed to.  The youngest son took his inheritance and left town.  It was tough for the father because he realized what his son was saying when he asked for his inheritance.  In essence, he was telling his father that he wished he was dead.  Even so, the father bucked the customs and sold the family land so that he could pay out the inheritance.  You see, Jews would NEVER sell their land because along with a king, the Torah, and their temple, the land was something that God gave them as a special gift.  He knew that when he did this his name would be mud and he would be ridiculed by the town folk, but wanting his son to be happy, he went through with it anyway.  As much as it pained him, he sold the land and let his son go.

After a long time of wondering if he had made the right decision and being concerned that perhaps he should have exerted a little more control of his son for his own good, he was sitting as he did most days, staring down the road.  Then, suddenly, he saw a figure approaching.  It was a figure that rippled because of the heat rising up off of the desert floor.  Today wasn’t a delivery day.  There were no buyers or sellers scheduled for today that he knew of.  He squashed any glimmer of hope that his son was alive and well and finally returning for fear that he would be disappointed just like he was every time he saw an unexpected visitor make his way up the road.  But today would be different for his heart leapt when he saw his son approaching and he yelled out to the servants to prepare a party because his long-lost son had finally returned.  In anticipation that this day may come, he kept a robe, a ring, and some sandals in a small box next to his chair and so he picked it up and took off running down the road.  It was highly uncustomary for a man of his age and stature to be running as it was not perceived as being stately, but he could care less.  He had to run because he needed to get to his son as fast as he could.  Not only did his heart ache to embrace his son, but he also knew that the neighbors would want to stone his son for causing the Levitical laws to be broken.  He looked around frantically to make sure that nobody had noticed his son and was poised with rocks to hurl, and caught up with his son engulfing him in his arms, ready to take any stone that was thrown.  His son started to say something, but he couldn’t hear it through his own sobs of joy and after placing his finger on his son’s lips to silence him, he bent over and picked up the box that he had dropped at his feet and pulled out the robe and placed it lovingly over the shoulders of his beloved son.

You see, though, this wasn’t just a story about a father who got his son back and loved him unconditionally.  Within this narrative there was also the story of an older brother who did everything “by the book” just as he was supposed to.  He stood to automatically inherit two thirds of his father’s estate, but he still did all of the things that were required of him.  Even when his bratty younger brother caused strife in the family and community by talking his easy-going father into selling part of their land, he kept on following the rules because he knew those who did what they were supposed to got the good things in life.

Sure, he loved his younger brother, but he really didn’t care either way if he came back.  He had already caused enough trouble and had chosen his path, so he figured he could just stick with it.  The last thing he needed was the spoiled kid coming back and ruining things for him again.  He had already done enough damage.  So, when he heard that his brother had returned and that his father was having a party for him, he was furious!  His father never did anything for him!  His brother chose to go out and throw his life away on booze and whores!  And now, he had come back to mooch off of him because all that was left belonged to the brother for his inheritance.  Besides, he should have to live with the decisions he made and pay the price for his actions.

Then, finally, there is the son whom we call the prodigal. We’ll call him Jesse for today.  Jesse was always bored on the farm.  He heard about others who got to see the world and about how much more exciting it was out there.  His father was kind of a dunce and did an ok job of raising him after his mother died, but he didn’t feel that close to his father.  Sure, dad tried to be close, but Jesse just wasn’t feeling it.  And his brother – well, his brother was quite a bit older than him and they didn’t talk much.  Whenever they did talk, it was mostly his brother telling him how he was doing something wrong.  He didn’t hate his father, but in some guilty secret way, he did wish that his father would die so that he could get his inheritance.  Life would be so much better when he could have his one third of the estate and get out of there.  Sure, it was unheard of and against tradition that he should leave, but to heck with tradition.  He would let his self-righteous brother deal with keeping tradition since he was so good at it.

He felt so out of place there and the urge to get out overwhelmed him to the point that he mustered up the courage and went and did what he had thought of so many times.  Yes, he realized that what he was about to do would be the same as telling his father to his face that he was dead, but he didn’t care anymore.  His brother raised a stink just as he knew he would, but his father acceded and made the wrath-inviting announcement that he would be selling the back 40.  He realized that he wouldn’t get top dollar for it, but he knew that his son wanted to get his money as soon as possible.  The townsfolk were shocked, but many jumped at the opportunity to get his land at such a cheap price.  Once the money was in hand, he took his donkey and headed out for his new and exciting life.

Well, as we all know, it didn’t turn out to be as exciting as he wished.  You see, Jesse thought his money would last forever.  It never occurred to him that someday he would have to work get a job and learn how to support himself.  He realized that the money was going fast and unlike in the beginning when he was spending it on whatever pleasured him at the moment, he became a little more frugal.  It wasn’t enough, however, and he eventually found himself destitute.  This is when he realized that because he had been living off of his father, he had really never acquired any skills beyond the simple tasks that he performed on the farm.  Had he been in his own land, people would have known who is father is and given him a decent job, but out here he was just another snot-nosed rich kid who blew all his money and was left to beg for work.  Eventually, he found a job doing the most demeaning thing a Jew could imagine – slopping out pig stalls.  He knew his father’s servants even had it better than he did.  He supposed that he could try going back home, but he wasn’t about to listen to his whiny brother say, “I told you so.  You got what you deserve and now you have nothing!”  After heat and the stench and the hard physical labor became too much to bear, he started rehearsing a speech in his head.  “Father, I’m sorry.”  No, not good enough.  “Father, please forgive me.”  Better, but not formal enough.  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you . . . .” Yep, that would work!  And so, he threw down his shovel, grabbed his satchel with what little he had left, and started for home.

I wonder which one I am.  I wonder which one Jesus wanted his listeners to identify with.  Maybe he’s telling me that I should be unconditionally loving and forgiving like the father.  Maybe he’s telling me that God is like this and when I stray, and like the prodigal son, choose to turn back and go home, God will be waiting to embrace me.  Perhaps, Jesus is warning me not to be self-righteously indignant like the older brother.  And just maybe – Jesus is saying that depending on the day, the hour, or even the minute, I am all three of these people.  Maybe Jesus is telling me, telling you, telling all of us, that we are indeed any of these people at any given moment, but most importantly, that we are all prodigals and that we are all invited to the banquet regardless of our differences or idiosyncrasies.

One Response to “The Prodigal Me”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    Very well postulated. Reminds me of the notion that we all have in us good and bad. I know I do. Sometimes cheerful romantic; other times irascible ogre! In Marsha Azumi’s book she shares the Indian grandfather’s “two wolves” battle within each of us, which cautions that the one we “feed” will win out as between good and bad. Bad isn’t evil. In the prodigal story above, there is good and bad (perhaps better to think positive and negative) in each character, or at least in their actions. So too with the rest of us. Hopefully we’re able to do more good than bad — i.e., be more positive than negative — and that we continually remind ourselves to feed the “good wolf” more often than the “bad wolf”.

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