Strange how you can read a story again and again and not notice something. I have read and reread the so-called story of the Prodigal Son since I was a kid. And it never occurred to me to ask the central question, “What was his problem?” Perhaps because I was the first and only son of my father and mother. Jesus may well be hinting at it when he says, “And the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the property.” The younger son.
Now it is interesting how the Old Testament is full of stories of the younger son and his problem. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Essau. What is the problem of the younger son? He is born number two. And that is even underlined by the problem of the inheritance laws of that culture. Torah law, the very law of God, laid it down that the oldest son was to inherit two thirds of the estate when Dad died.
So the younger son is born one down. And aren’t we all, in one way or another. Born into families where there is already someone bigger, smarter, more powerful, if only our parents. Born into communities where there always seems to be someone bigger, brighter, better. Life very quickly leads us to question where we are on the pecking order, how much we count. It is sort of the original human condition.
And it is a condition that parents and siblings, play-mates and strangers quickly work to reinforce. Can’t you be a little more thoughtful? You’ll never amount to anything. You are going to grow up to be a lazy bum. Can’t you get anything right? If you don’t work harder, you will never get anywhere. You don’t have the brains you were born with. You really are a mess, awkward, shy, clumsy, stupid, stuck-up, odd, weird, lazy, snooty, nerd.
Just words I have overheard over the years, thankfully not all about me. Overheard from the lips of those who have told me, told me how they heard them again and again, back when young, or even later, heard them and still hear them, rattling around in the back of their brain, making them feel inadequate still, even in the midst of affluence and accomplishment, making them feel like frauds, words hanging in there in self-doubt and uncertainty if not guilt and shame, making it awfully hard to be positive about themselves all the time, up-beat about life. A fixed attitude toward our self that we become frozen in.
A man said to a friend, “My wife and I had a fight last night.” “How did it end up?” “She came crawling to me on her hands and knees.” “What did she say?” “Come out from under that bed, you coward!”
Words! Words that others pound into us, words we learn to say to ourselves. Words that do us in, inflicting painful memories of rejection and defeat. Words that haunt us, rob us of life, keep us from creative labor and hopeful living.
What does it take to give us back our lives again, erase the old words of guilt and judgment and condemnation, release us from their power, liberate us to begin again fresh and new. Well, how does our young friend deal with the problem. “Father, give me my share of the property. I’m out of here.” Now this was an outrageous thing to demand, even in that culture, ask father to execute his will even before he was dead. But the son decides that he will take matters into his own hands, manage life on his own.
Isn’t this often the way we approach the problem of status and importance, sense of self-worth? Double our effort to prove ourselves, to Mom and Dad, to the crowd, to measure up, become champion athlete, star student, society figure, CEO, supermom, and so erase a bit the self-doubt and defensiveness. Only to find that none of our busyness will completely erase the negative attitudes floating around below the surface, infecting our spirits and forcing us to put on a front. Sooner or later we discover that it does not work, we cannot climb our way out of our lack of self-worth.
He tried it, this fellow in Jesus’ well- known story. And where did it lead him? To a life increasingly isolated, slipping into a loss of discipline and direction, alienated from the strangers in a strange land, until finally he finds himself without worth or hope in the most desperate and menial of labors. It’s what the old story calls the sin of pride, all the way from the Garden of Eden until now. I will be my own god. I will manage my own life. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” And it does not work.
So where does he turn as his life spins out of control, and he loses all sense of who he is. Where do we turn. In these days when we do get up the courage to admit that we can’t manage life all on our own, we tend to turn to the secular therapist. Now it is no disparaging of the therapist to say that it is not his job to give us back a self that is supremely confident of worth. It is appropriate when we need help with buried memories of rejection, or in ordinate need or internal conflicts that are immobilizing us. As Freud once commented, it may free us up for the normal miseries of life.
My favorite story of the limitations of therapy, told to me by a fellow therapist concerns an 84-year-old businessman who lived with his grown children. Didn’t say much, just shuffled around the house, and they felt he needed help. To please them, he went to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said, “Lie down on the couch and we’ll talk. If you have something to say, fine. If not, maybe next time.” The couch was so comfortable, the old man fell asleep, and the doctor wakened him fifty minutes later. “That’s our hour. $100 please.” The old man paid and went home.
The old man came back every Tuesday and Thursday, and the same thing happened each time. He never said a word, fell asleep on the couch, paid his $100 and went home. After several weeks the old man came in one day, sat down on the couch and said, “I have something to say.” “Finally,” cried the psychiatrist. “What is it?” “I was wondering,” said the old man, “do you need a partner?”
Only when, as the story puts it, he comes to himself, do things change. Only when he remembers who he is for all he has done to mess up his life, still a son with a life waiting back home. Only then does he make the move of recovery. Only as he runs to a father, who has been waiting for him to return for years, a father who runs down the road toward him like no self-respecting patriarch would ever run. Only when his rehearsed speech “Father, I have sinned…” is interrupted with words that war against the doubt and self-loathing within. “Quick. Fetch a robe, the best we have, and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill it. For this son of mine was dead and has come back to life.” Only then does he know who he really is and how much he is worth. And the festivities began.
Now we need to note at this point that the father Jesus is talking about in his story is no human father. Many human fathers could not pull off what he did on that ancient road. Try but rarely manage it. But God as Father can and does—the gender here is not important— God as father can and does. There is only one salvation from the words that infect and warp and diminish our lives as we move about in the world out there, and that is another word, a word we turn back to from time to time like this time, a word as powerful as a word from God himself — which it is. A word so deceptively simple that I am sneaking up on it for fear you will say, “Oh, that again” and pass on. It is the word of the Father, “You are loved, infinitely, passionately, whole-heartedly and forever by the one who placed you in this world, to whom you belong, for whom you are to live, and to whom you will one day return.”
New words against old words that had torn at his heart and diminished his worth, words from within, words from without, words of others or of his own making. New words now from his Father. Words about one who is always there for us, no matter how distant we become in running our own affairs, managing our own life, often missing the mark over the years, waiting to welcome us home.
Now, let me say quickly what this does not mean. “You are loved” does not remove the consequences of life apart from God. He lost precious years of humiliation and despair without relationship to the Father. “You are loved” does not mean you will get your way in life. “You are loved” does not mean you will be protected from the sufferings and troubles of this world. “You are loved” does not mean you will be granted special favors. “You are loved” does mean that the Eternal God knows you, cares about you, will never leave you, is always there waiting for you, counts you as important as any other human being, and, as you trust him, will give you the strength to face anything that comes your way with courage and joy.
“God loves you.” You can’t prove it. Life doesn’t always look or feel that way. Certainly those around you will not always treat you that way. But if you will, like a child turning home at close of day, simply hear and trust this word thrust upon us by Jesus, this revolutionary, scary, unprecedented word, think it and sing it until over the years it gets into the very marrow of your soul, whatever lingering self-doubts will gradually lift and life will take on incredible freedom and great joy.
What does it feel like to go home to God? One story that tells it better than most. A man writes, “It actually started with my father’s death when I was three years old. Though I couldn’t remember him as I grew up, there was that indefinable sense of rejection within me. Difficult to understand, much less explain, how a child somehow feels abandoned by the mother or father who is distant, absent or who dies. Mother loved and cared for me. But without realizing it at the time, I know now that I suffered from not having a father’s love. Every man I came in contact with as I grew up became an adversary to overcome. He was a competitor in business, a challenger on the tennis court, someone before whom I had to prove myself.
In the summer of 1981, after a sales conference in Arizona, I went out on the hotel’s tennis court to relax. As I lobbed a shot over the net, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I played for two more hours and it went away. The following winter after splitting wood one Saturday, I stumbled into our kitchen bone tired. “Lee, you are absolutely gray,” my wife said. These were signals, but Lee Buck wasn’t listening. I was still driving, trying to prove myself, trying to win. I received my comeuppance in March, 1983. In Rochester, New York, where I was for a speaking engagement: a massive heart attack, my entire body wracked with pain. I later underwent open heart surgery. The surgeon worked on me for eight hours and that night I groggily awakened in the recovery room unable to move.
“But there in that darkened recovery room with its pulsing beepers and winking lights, I surrendered myself finally to the love of God. I realized that he was my real Father, not the earthly being I had so long resented and to whom in a crazy way I had tried to prove myself for years. At the age of sixty, for the first time in my life I knew the unconditional love of a Father. And deep within I was able to forgive my own earthly Father — and myself. A male nurse thinking that my tears were those of pain, gently wiped them away and tried to sooth me. As I looked at him I knew that my old driving spirit toward others was finally gone.”
What does it feel like to turn home to God? Let me suggest that this is our story not once but daily. With each morning we arise and go out into the far country and so often the drive takes over to assert ourselves and do it our way, crank up our energy, and manage our own affairs, inevitably to find at one point or another that it is not working well, not quite as we planned. And the answer is the same as it was in that long ago far country. To come to our senses, recognize that God waits for us, and return in quiet and trust to Him, to the forgiveness which frees us to make a new start, and the strength to go at it tomorrow again.
Fred Buechner puts it so beautifully in a little meditation entitled “The Longing for Home.” “I believe that it is when that power is alive in me and through me that I come closest to being truly home, come closest to finding or being found by that holiness that I may have glimpsed in the charity and justice and order and peace of other homes I have known, but that in its fullness was always missing. I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it. I believe that the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is. I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through this world….
And the festivities began.