A group of us, back in 1989, when we started at seminary, were told that should we be ordained, someday, we will discover that 95% of all the problems that come our way will either have to do with peoples’ false image of God or false image of self. Based on my informal information gathering after 25 years of ministry, I think the number is actually closer to 99%. So, let’s look at this classic scripture story of forgiveness to see if it can cast some light on who we most truly are while, at the same time, shedding images of God that really don’t help us grow spiritually.
In one of his books entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son, the late Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote a chapter on the younger son, the prodigal son. When you finish reading that chapter, you ask yourself, “How did this spiritual author, who doesn’t know me, write about my life so accurately?” Then he writes a chapter about the elder son who refuses to celebrate his brother’s return, and you say to yourself, “My goodness, he’s done it again. He’s just described my life through the lens of the elder son.” But if you finish the book, Henri Nouwen invites you to not only relate to one son, then the other, but—more importantly—to become the father. He finishes the book with this: In a moment I suddenly realized that my final vocation is not only to return home, but also to welcome people home by saying, “I’m so glad you are here! I’m so glad you are here! Come now. Bring out the beautiful cloak, bring the precious ring, find the best sandals. Let’s celebrate because you’ve finally come home!”
A key to all gospel spirituality is this: do not look at Jesus, but learn to look with Jesus. If you and I apprentice ourselves, ever so slowly, to looking with Jesus’ eyes, we will be looking at the world from God’s perspective. When I don’t look with Jesus’ eyes, or I don’t try to become the father in The Prodigal Son story, then I imagine a very different ending to this parable. It goes something like this. Upon his return, the father initially gives the cold shoulder to the younger son. Being a dignified father, whose honour has been insulted, requires proof from his irresponsible son of a true change of heart. Until such time, there will be no hugs or kisses and certainly no party. He then reads him a sermon on the dangers of recklessly sowing wild oats. Then, the father takes the son at his word, and actually hires him as a regular hired hand. He puts him on probation for a year or two with the other slaves until the family pride, or outraged justice, is satisfied.
If I allow myself to create the plausible ending that I just did, I will have destroyed the noblest picture of redeeming grace ever created and, worse still, I will have lowered God’s virtue to my feeble imitation of virtue.
If I stand in the shoes of the elder son and totally identify with his life, I will become bitter as he became and never know fully what it means to live in my Father’s house, the house of unconditional love. The elder son never accepted his own darkness but preferred to pretend it never existed. It is so easy for any of us to rearrange our lives in such a way that the darkness remains hidden. Or, so we think. In actuality, darkness that is not acknowledged tends to fester and govern our lives on an unconscious level eventually surfacing in another form. The elder son is not aware of his darkness. That is why he judged his younger brother, and criticized his father, and was incapable of compassion.
One of the things the prodigal son must learn is that as much as he wants to return to his father’s house as a slave, because of his poor behavior, he will not be allowed to. If the father accepts the son—on the son’s terms that he be treated as a slave—then it will be like the son is wearing a sign around his neck that forever says, “I’m the son that blew it.” This is not who he most truly is in the eyes of the Father. Besides, God has no vested interest in holding us to our sins.
This prodigal son is not a slave nor is he a refugee. He is the Father’s son. In the first reading from the Book of Joshua, we get a wonderful glimpse of the Hebrew people, our ancestors in faith, on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. Remember, they just completed 40 years of wandering in the desert, freed from the slavery of Egypt but not yet home in their own land. The Lord said to Joshua, “I’ve rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt…The manna you ate in the desert, you will no longer eat. You’ll eat from the crops of Canaan.” Why Canaan? Because Canaan is the Promised Land. You are no longer refugees wandering without a home. And since you are no longer refugees, you no longer have to eat manna, the food of refugees. I’ve brought you home to Canaan.” So now we know why the prodigal son is not given pods to eat like the pigs. He is given a feast. Like his Hebrew ancestors, he is now home. When you come home, you don’t come home as a refugee nor a slave. You come home as a child of God where a feast is waiting for you. God’s thinking is that if any son of mine was lost, surely this feast will find him. If any sister you know is dead, surely this party will bring her to life.
So, there is something to be learned by looking at the prodigal son. There are some lessons to be learned, as well, by looking at the elder son. But, when we learn to look with the eyes of Jesus—and in this case the eyes of God, the Father in the parable—we see a truth we may not have been ready to accept but a truth more wonderful than we ever imagined. The truth is: That my sin will never outweigh God’s love. That the prodigal son can never outrun the Father. That I am not measured by the good I do but by the grace I accept. That being lost is the prerequisite of being found. That living a life of faith is not lived in the light; it is discovered in the dark. That not being a saint here on earth will not necessarily keep you from being in that number when the march begins.
Fr. Phil Mulligan