A week ago Friday I flew down to Atlanta for some brief work reviewing some grants for The Fund for Theological Education. I’ve mentioned before that I lived in Atlanta for a year during the college era of life. Four friends and I who graduated from Hesston College decided to live together in the city for a year and have our first experience of life out in the real world, with jobs, figuring out how to survive on our own. One of my friends, Matt, remained in the area and continues to live there, so he picked me up from the airport and we had the afternoon to be together. We drove by the old townhouse where we used to live and reminisced on some of the stories from that year. When you get five 20 year olds living together who have never lived in a city before, never lived on their own before, and never had a regular job before, there are stories. Part of what we were really proud of at the time, but which makes for some pretty funny stories now, is how frugal we were. We spent money on just the bare necessities and had some creative ways of making due with what we had.
One luxury item that we each decided wasn’t worth spending any money on was mattresses. Only one of us actually slept on a normal mattress. The rest of us – not so normal. My friend Matt slept on an old air mattress and about once every couple weeks or so he would wake up with his bed deflated and have to spend some time the next day finding the most recent leak to plug up. Our friend Shem slept on a twin mattress that my parents had donated to our cause. They were pretty much done with it because it was one of those mattresses with the heavy plastic exterior, designed for kids while they are being potty trained, so whenever Shem would move around on it there would be the loud crinkling of old plastic. I somehow managed to get through the whole year with sleeping on the floor, with a little floor mat and a couple sleeping bags underneath me. The best set up was from my roommate Dan, whose idea enabled him to bypass using both a mattress and a clothes dresser. He would fold his clothes neatly into stacks of even height, then lay his covers over them and sleep on them. When he needed to pick out an outfit in the morning he would pull back his covers and remove part of his mattress and then rebalance the stacks.
There’s this story in the book of Joshua about the Israelites finally coming to the promised land and setting up camp and eating the Passover together. And then it says, “on the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.”
As I look back on it, this stage of life for us, this setting out into the world, this attempt to find a place in the wider world outside of familiar territory, was something like that. Something like making the transition from a life where manna miraculously appeared on the ground – mom’s cooking always being there when meal time rolled around, having bills paid and buildings maintained by somebody else, walking into the college cafeteria and piling up a ready made meal and then sending the dirty dishes away down a conveyer belt – making the transition from a life of manna, to the life of having to work the ground ourselves and eat off the produce of the soil and our own labor. And for a while there we were so happy about the income and bank accounts that we finally had in our name that we didn’t want to spend it on anything as superfluous as a mattress.
We wouldn’t have been conscious of it at the time, but our experience that year, our Atlanta quest, was a part of this universal human experience of leaving home. Setting out into the world to find oneself, to define oneself more broadly than the confines of one’s upbringing. To discover the unknown, and, in the process, to become known to oneself, to see if there is a Promised Land out there. Ever since Genesis recorded that “a man will leave his father and mother,” people have been leaving home for adventure, for marriage, for war, for school, for work.
Normal Rockwell’s painting “Breaking ties,” shows a father and son sitting side by side by the family vehicle. The blue collar father, solemn, slightly hunched and leaning forward, staring off to the side and down at the ground. The son, fresh hair cut, new suit, suitcase packed, wide eyed, gazing expectantly off into the distance that will soon be his new world.
The film Into the Wild, about a college graduate giving away all his savings, leaving his family and setting out on the road to eventually attempt to live on his own in the Alaskan wilderness is one of the more recent versions of the story.
Even if one never moves away from the home property, ends up living their whole life in the house where they were raised, psychologists tell us that there is an inner process of leaving home which must take place for healthy human development. It is a part of coming to know oneself as an independent, self-determining human being, part of a community yet an individual.
Our Western version of the leaving home story has a strong inclination toward exalting the individual above the community. We know all about this leaving home process, and, in the United States, a nation of immigrants, we have a high value on making one’s own way in the world, breaking from the ties of the past and remaking ones life according to whatever aspirations one may have. It’s been one of the reasons so many people around the world have been drawn here.
So we tend to hear this parable of the prodigal son in this light. And the prodigal son is kind of a failed version of the one who sets off into the world on his own. He doesn’t make it. He wastes his money. Makes poor decisions with the company he keeps. Rather than climbing up any kind of corporate ladder he descends down the ladder, ending up feeding pigs and not making enough money to even feed himself. He comes back home to dad, with his tail between his legs, in need, and in shame.
This is a big part of what is going on with the parable, but there’s also quite a bit more – more that Jesus’ audience, living in a traditional society that valued the community over the individual would have picked up on.
What we look for in a parable is affected by what we’ve come to call it. We know this parable as the parable of the prodigal son, with him as the main character, but the way Jesus introduces it, we are told to pay attention to three different characters: “There was once a man who had two sons.” If Jesus were to give his own parable a title, it might be something like, “The father and the two sons,” or, “The prodigal family,” or, he could have just called it, “God’s dysfunctional family.” The occasion for the parable is that the tax collectors and sinners are drawn to come and hear Jesus’ teachings, and the Pharisees start grumbling about the shady company Jesus has been keeping. There is obvious tension between the riff-raff and the religious folks. Rather than pit them against one another, or choose between one or the other, Jesus tells a parable in which both have a place in the same family, the same home, held together by the persistent love of a father.
There is more involved here than simply an adolescent leaving home to discover the world. Asking for an inheritance early would have been a serious disrespecting of his father. Kenneth Bailey talks about this part of the parable and says this: “For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows: Has anyone ever made such a request in your village? Never! Could anyone ever make such a request? Impossible! If anyone ever did, what would happen? His father would beat him, of course! Why? The request means – he wants his father to die.” (Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, Eerdmans, pp. 161-162)
The son appears bent on not only leaving home, but burning every bridge possible to the place that has formed him up to this point. This is emphasized even further as he is said to have traveled to “a distant country,” somewhere in Gentile territory outside of the bounds of his people and customs. There is a notable descent into disgrace and further estrangement from home as he squanders the money he had just gathered from his father. He certainly isn’t very frugal. He has no more money, there is famine, he hires himself out for menial labor, and ends up feeding pigs and even stooping lower than the pigs themselves, wishing he could at least have the pig’s privilege of having something to eat. Jews would not have had contact with pigs, and to be in the position of envying a pig would have been about as low as it gets.
If the younger son erred in denying the community and family and leaving home under the worst possible circumstances, the elder son erred in never leaving home at all. Whether by choice or by perceived obligation, he had never made the outward or inward journey of leaving home. And so home for him becomes a both a prison from which he feels he can’t escape, as well as a fortress that he feels he must protect. It’s the only place he knows and his identity is completely wrapped up in what he has come to believe home must represent. So there’s no place in his world for the return of the younger brother. There’s no grace, there’s no identification with the brother’s struggle, no impulse to celebrate the one who had chosen to separate himself from this place. For anyone who has been in the church their whole life, never having questioned what the church has offered and never having explored other expressions of human identity and religious community, just laboring one’s whole life in the work of the church, there is an extremely powerful tendency to become the elder brother. At home in some ways, but in other ways never having discovered the true meaning of home and what that can mean for others searching for such a place. It’s a real danger for us church folks.
TS Elliot has written this: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” (Little Gidding, The Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot
It isn’t clear just when the point of conversion is for the younger son. It’s possible that it happened at his lowest point, when he decided he would return to his father, go back home, and confess his sins and ask to be treated as one of his hired hands since he is no longer worthy to be called his son. It’s also possible that that point is just another instance of the son trying to manipulate his way through life for his own personal gain. What is a little more clear is that whatever attitude or excuses or genuine confession that this son had in his head when he makes his way back home – these are completely swallowed up in the embrace of the loving father – who had seen him from far off, as if he had been keeping a daily vigil of looking off into the horizon, and, upon, seeing the smallest familiar figure in the distance, does what no self-respecting first century father would ever do in public – he takes off running, maybe a dead sprint, with his robes hiked up to his waste, looking and acting more like a doting mother than a solemn patriarch, running all the way to his son and embracing him, and kissing him.
The last thing we hear from the younger son is him getting interrupted. He begins his planned out speech of confession to his father only to have his father interrupt him by starting to shout instructions to the servants to get a party started to celebrate his son who has come back to life. Being embraced by the loving parent, such a beautiful picture of God, precedes any confession on our part. We do not confess in order to be embraced. We are embraced, we are celebrated, we are rejoiced over and honored in order that we may begin to find our confession of how little we deserve this and how ridiculous it is that we are treated with such grace and love.
The last thing we hear from the elder son, he is still unconvinced, still listening to his father plead with him to join in the celebration and open up this home of theirs to the one who was lost but has been found.
The experience of the two sons, and those words of TS Elliot, “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time,” point toward a full picture of this process of leaving home. That leaving home also involves returning home and finding that we now know the place as if for the first time. The full circle path of becoming reconciled to that which we felt we could not live with – now discovering that we cannot live without it.
The dictionary definition of prodigal is “exceedingly or recklessly wasteful,” “extremely generous; lavish,” and “extremely abundant; profuse.” With this definition, it would appear that the most prodigal character of all is the father/mother figure. The one who recklessly allows all of the children to find their own way, even if it is hurtful, who blesses them when they leave home and blesses them when they stay home, who abandons all good sense to run and greet the one returning home and exerts extra energy to convince the other to welcome this one back; who wastes a perfectly good fatted calf to throw a lavish party for the children. Complete, prodigal, abundant, love. This is where we discover who we are, what we were made for, what it means to be human. This is our true home.