Most of us have heard this story that Ted just read for us many times. We may know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Even if we haven’t heard this story, if we’ve ever heard the word “prodigal” used–and it’s not all that common outside “church-y” contexts–it’s probably attached to the word “son”–”prodigal son.”
Actually, the word “prodigal” never appears in the story, did you notice? It’s probably in the heading that got added to the text and translation, but it’s been added from one of those many, many layers of tradition and understanding that stand between Jesus and us. Probably a more appropriate heading–if you felt the gospel should be divided up by headings–would be, “The Parable of the Lost Son,” following the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin that come right before it. Jesus told these stories about “lost” things and people after the Pharisees and scribes “were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
“So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you find it?” …”Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”….And then, “There was man who had two sons… …who both ended up lost in the wilderness,” he might have added–the wilderness of losing sight of who they really were.
Have you ever been in that wilderness? The wilderness of waking up one day and realizing you had made a terrible mistake….that what you thought you had wanted most really wasn’t? Some people wake up in a job like that, or a marriage like that, or a lifestyle like that, or an addiction like that. Oh, my goodness, how did I get here? Oh, no, I never thought it would be like this….I thought I would be happier….
It’s an age-old dilemma, obviously, as we’ve just read this ancient story about the two sons who found themselves in the wilderness of estrangement. But today it is perhaps even more common, because everywhere we turn, we are being called, beckoned, seduced, sold on a product or an image or an assumption or a view of reality; and, if we stop to think about it, or really check in with our deepest selves, we realize that is NOT what or where or how we want to be. It may be right for someone else, we even say, but it’s not right for me. That’s if we ever stop to really notice.
It took being in a pigsty–the most unholy, unkosher place for a good Jewish boy to be–his stomach roaring with hunger to finally bring the younger son “to his senses,” as one translation puts it, or even more accurately, “to himself.” “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” He remembered where he had come from, a household where servants were given more than adequate food to eat, from a father who allowed him to run after all those things that he thought would make him happy so he could find out for himself. “He came to himself.”
I’ve read some commentaries that say that this younger son then connived to wheedle his way back into his father’s good graces, made up a story that he rehearsed, and then most likely gloated when the old man bought the line. But I don’t see that in the story. I find it equally plausible that he had to tell himself over and over again that he had screwed up–that he had “sinned against heaven and his father”–and that that, rather than an excuse, was going to be the first thing on his lips when he got home. And that’s as far as we see or hear from this younger son, because the father–the real prodigal in the story–the one who was excessively extravagant with his love and generosity–takes over the heart of the story.
Then, of course, there’s the elder son, the one who had spent his life in joyless obedience, who we never see “coming to himself.” Perhaps it is unreasonable and unfair to expect this of him in this highly structured and stratified society with its emphasis on the family as the immovable core. But he had wasted his father’s love just as surely as his younger brother had wasted his father’s money. He had thought love was a limited quantity, so if his father showed love to his younger brother, surely that meant there was less or nothing left for him. He found himself in a wilderness of his own making as surely as his younger brother had.
How do we survive such a wilderness? If it is of our own making–by our mistakes, our mis-judgments, our foolishness, or even our immaturity–how do we “un-make” it? The clue may be in what happened to that young man in the pigpen. “He came to himself.” We can “come to ourselves,” take a good, hard look at where we are, but perhaps more importantly, who we are. We can be mindful, in other words. Again, like all the other practices of resilience we’ve looked at this season of Lent, it’s most helpful if we practice this “pre-emptively,” that is, before we head into the wilderness.
So, a couple more of the qualities or practices of resilient people are first, to learn from failure, AND secondly, to lead from your strengths. The younger son certainly recognized his failure and learned from it. He then used his innate strength of courage (after all, he had been brave enough to leave the known world of his father’s house) and headed home to face the music.
You may be reluctant to talk about your “strengths,” in case that’s too much like boasting, but you might think of them as gifts–given to you by God. On the bottom of the announcement side of your insert, you’ll see what may have been mysterious if you read it before: it says “Website for character strengths: www.viacharacter.org” If you enjoy this sort of thing, you might go to this website and take the free survey–it takes about 15 min.–and it will give you a list of 24 character strengths that you have, in order from top to bottom. These may be things like honesty, spirituality, forgiveness, love of learning, appreciation of beauty, fairness, gratitude, that sort of thing. If you don’t “do computers,” you might ask a trusted friend or family member to tell you what they think your top strengths are.
When you’re in the wilderness, it’s helpful to know and to call on your strengths. One of my top signature strengths, for example, is gratitude, and I told you last week about using gratitude to help me through the wilderness of Bruce’s hospitalization 15 years ago. And remember other resilience practices we’ve talked about – ask for help, call on your choir, don’t lose sight of the positive and the possible, learn from failure.
Of course, as I said, the real “prodigal” in this story was the Father, whose overwhelming strength was his Love, love freely offered to both his sons, amazing grace, for neither son “deserved” it. God’s love is like that, Jesus said. Belden Lane, in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes describes what it is like to discover that Love in the midst of wilderness experiences, even when it’s the last thing we may be looking for or expecting–
…Ever distrustful of grace, I assent more readily to being destroyed than to being loved. It’s too much to presume that I might be the object of God’s deepest longing, profoundly loved by that which frightens me most. Why am I drawn to desert and mountain [or ocean] fierceness? What impels me to its unmitigated honesty, its dreadful capacity to strip bare, its long, compelling silence? It’s the frail hope that in finding myself brought to the edge–to the macabre, stone-silent edge of death itself–I may hear a word whispered in its loneliness. The word is ‘love,’ spoken pointedly and undeniably to me. It may have been uttered many times in the past, but I’m fully able to hear it only in that silence. [cited in Niles, Almanac of the Soul, Feb. 13]
Sometimes the wilderness turns out to be a gift, the gift of no escape from the Truth, and fiercely, wondrously, ruthlessly, that Truth is that we are loved. That even now God is waiting with open arms to embrace us from wherever we have wandered from our true selves. “This one welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said about God. The same is true today. We are welcomed to this table where God invites us to eat and drink and be filled with God’s very self. Even if once–or twice or a thousand times–you were lost, now you are found. Let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark