In his wonderful book and Bible Study entitled The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller reminds us that the word prodigal, the word we attach so often without understanding to the wayward child, is actually a better description of the father, recklessly generous! The reckless generosity is shown first when the child, a son in this case asks for his inheritance and leaves home. Much attention has been given to the insult and disrespect shown by the son, how he was in effect wishing his father dead by asking for his inheritance while the father was still alive….
As I have pondered this parable over the last few days, I return again and again to the words of self discovery that are thought, maybe out loud by the son, and described wonderfully in the phrase, when he came to himself/ when he came to his senses, when he saw things as they were. He discovered himself, and in that discovery he knew where he belonged even if it meant returning as a servant and not a son, he wanted to go home. Perhaps deep down he knew that he was in fact wanted, and loved, not for what he could do, earn or give, but because of who he was. Perhaps he needed to leave home to discover this, and perhaps it was the knowledge of this that led the father to be so recklessly generous with him. Maybe the son didn’t leave home and get lost, maybe he was lost at home, unsure of his status and where he fitted in. I wonder how many of us feel that at times, and may even be feeling that now. Maybe he was followed around by a sense of inadequacy, a sense of not being who his culture demanded him to be. Maybe he was different, maybe he was neuro-diverse, maybe he was queer (LGBTQI), maybe he was a sensitive artistic type and not cut out for life on the farm, maybe he was disabled in some way, not strong like his father and brother, I could keep on adding to the list, I am sure you can come up with your own possibilities.
Whatever was driving him though he needed to leave, to get away, to find himself. The father seeing this did the unthinkable and gave him his inheritance, not a part of it, nor some pocket money to allow him to go off for a few weeks, but all of it, setting him completely free.
I wonder how the young man felt as he left, did he go in the morning, with a wave and a look back over his shoulder, or did he leave in the dead of night hoping nobody would see him and try to stop him? In my imagination it is the latter, he needed to go, and whatever was making him different weighed heavy upon him like a cloak of shame.
As he walked ( or rode) away each mile taking him further from home he was looking out for the far city, a place of freedom and release, and upon arrival he threw himself into life there, using his inheritance to gain friends, to pay for parties and the like, interestingly here he is mirroring in some way the reckless generosity of his father!
Sadly though his friends turn out not to be real friends, for when the money runs out they abandon him, and the son seeks out work feeding pigs, he had come to the end of himself, he could no longer fill in the hurt of his reality with parties and fine clothes, or whatever else he’d spent his money on, there was just him, his growling stomach and a bunch of pigs. It is here too that his thoughts turn to home, and maybe seeing and accepting himself for the first time he turns for home, speech ready.
What a fortunate young man he is, for although he is nervous about returning, something in him tells him that he will be accepted, if only as a servant, and how fortunate he is that his recklessly generous father has not changed in character and is waiting for him, and showers him with acceptance and love.
Here we are given the picture of the father God that many haven’t encountered or known, to quote Nadia Boltz-Webber from her recent sermon:
I may not be remembering this exactly right, but it feels to me like in the conservative church I was raised in, most of the sermons I heard growing up were about how God set life up to be like a moral reward and punishment system. Like we are all rats in some kind of cruel cosmic lab experiment – receiving shocks from God for going the wrong way and little reward pellets for going the right way in an existential maze.
How wonderful it is that the son had something in him that remembered his father as that recklessly generous man who knew that in order to find himself he had to let his son go free.
I wonder how many of us have gone through life with a sense of not fitting in, of not being enough, of lacking something, and not knowing who we truly are. I wonder how many of us have been brought up with a notion of a God who watches us like lab-rats in a maze. I wonder how many of us have felt the pressure of cultural expectation so heavily that we have been unable to accept ourselves for a long time?
I suspect that for some leaving home is enough, and they don’t need to blow everything and end up with the pigs, because they find a true home, a true welcome, and true acceptance away from the toxic atmosphere they were raised in.
But, this son needed to return, he needed to forget the father (God) he didn’t believe in and meet the father (God) who believed in him. He found himself in returning. However we find ourselves, it is a journey we need to take it may or may not mean leaving home, and it may or may not mean returning, our greatest need is to know that we are accepted and loved, we are not the worst thought that we have thought about ourselves, nor are we the worst thing that someone has whispered into our ears, or spoken about us, we do have a creator, mother, father, divine other who loves us just because, and that is our home. When I feel most lost, this is the reminder that I need, I have a home, and that home is love, it is acceptance, and it is true freedom.