The parable of the prodigal son (also known as the lost son) is a famous story. A father left his inheritance to two sons. The younger of the sons was itching to go out and use it, to spend it: so he went abroad, and wasted his money on whores and fast living. Meanwhile the older son cautiously bade his time and tended to his father’s land. Eventually, of course the younger son ran out of money, so he took on back-breaking work. But the pay was barely enough to live off. He was starving, and eventually came to the realization that if he were to survive, he would have to return and repent to his father.
So he came home. And rather than facing the wrath of a very angry man, his father was overjoyed and held a massive celebration for the returning son. But his brother was less pleased by his reappearance. “You never allowed me a calf so I could celebrate with my friends. What gives?” To which the father replied, “I always have you around. But we had to celebrate: your brother was lost and now is found.”
I was always troubled by this parable. It seemed to me to jar against my understanding of religiosity. Clearly, the father is God. We can tell this because he is the one to whom the son repents, the one whom he has most obviously wronged, and is the provider of the inheritance. The question is: who are the sons? I think this parable has a lot to say about where we stand in our religious lives. And I was troubled because I was the older son. Be cautious; do not spend money superfluously; stay close to home. Don’t do anything to offend God; keep his commands; carefully respect his teachings. Stay inside the lines.
For a long time, I felt I must be misreading this story. I did not know how to interpret it. When I read it, I could only hear one thing, and it was one thing I did not want to hear. In order to know God, you have to leave him and be in the world. You have to die, to be reborn and to return to Him again.
The older son stayed on the farm in order to maintain the land, in order to keep working and keep the father happy. The older son stayed, because he thought his father wanted him to. In other words, the son stayed on the farm because of fear of the outside. But in all his quiet, hardworking life on the farm, did he ever really grow close to his father? Did he ever really learn to love him?
The younger son, on the other hand, yearns for life – and life to the full. He wants more than his father has simply given him – he wants to create a life of his own. So he takes the money he is promised and does his best with it – and fails. He utterly fails. The turn-around point is when he has been hungry for so long and he remembers the bread in his father’s house. Just simple, plain, delicious bread. After having scrimped and saved in agonizing labour just to feed himself, the son realized that all that was given to him was given by his father’s grace. It was not because of his attitude, not because of his works, but because of the fundamental nature of their relationship as father and son.
So who learns the better lesson? The dutiful son who lives within the law? Or the one who yearns for life in the fullest?
This story, then, is a call for us to doubt. We have to leave behind the coloring-in and paint-by-numbers life to create real art. We have to leave behind the philosophies and the beliefs we are brought up with in order to find real faith. It does not matter what our start point is. It does not matter whether we start with the truth or not. We have to leave it behind, test it and make it real. This story is about inner salvation. It is about courage in the face of doubt. It is about recklessness, it is about freedom. We have to go out into the scary world, and sometimes we have to spend a long time working in a pigsty in order to realize how good we have it. This story is call for us to stare death in the face and embrace it, knowing that we will be resurrected once again. We have to know the pain of separation from our parents in order to appreciate the grace we receive from them. We have to be willing to let go of the comfort of our homes to face the outside world (whatever that might mean) with courage. It is only then that we can finally say, ‘This is my choice. God, I love you more than anything in the world.’