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Come Home, all is forgiven

06 March, 2016 Luke 15:11b-32 Lent 4 By Rev Dr Christopher Page

Rembrandt - “The return of the prodigal son”
Rembrandt - “The return of the prodigal son”
“Coming home to your shelter. Coming home where I stay.
I go down in your life, give water and I won't turn away again.” ~Lizz Wright

There are probably two great parables in the New Testament.  They are the “Prodigal Son”, often referred to as the “Waiting Father”, and the story of the “Good Samaritan”. There are other great parables and stories as well, but these two seem to have caught the imagination more than any other.
Historically the prodigal son has captured our imagination more so than the image of the waiting father.  But in fact, while the son gets most of the “screen” time, it is the father who is central. It doesn’t take much to imagine what it would be like to be a prodigal child – someone who wants to explore the world on their own terms. Particularly a young adventurous person.

But there is also the father who first gives his son what he wants – his part of the inheritance –, sets him free to do what he wants to do, and then waits for his return.  But his waiting is not “I told you so” waiting.  He longs with love to be reunited with his child. Now that is imaginable.  I suspect that there are those in this community who have had that experience of waiting lovingly for a child, or perhaps even a friend, to return.  When we have loved deeply, separation can be painful.

As with all rich stories there are many layers.  On the surface it could be interpreted as a coming home.  Boy leaves home – boy messes up – boy realises the errors of his ways – boy returns home – father accepts him!  End of story.  But there is much more than that.  As I mentioned last week, a parable calls each of us to wander around inside of it. The story is not only about an ancient people in an ancient world.  It is my story today.

Living into the story
An article in this week’s “Age” newspaper reflected on the importance of stories in our culture and how unreliable our memories actually are.  Marcus Borg the Biblical scholar is fond of quoting an ancient American Indian aphorism: “I don’t know whether or not this really happened, but I know it is true.” That is the power of parables, they don’t need to have happened, because at their core is a truth that all people can recognise.

The painting by Rembrandt on the cover of the order of service does not do the original justice. The original painting is hung in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.  I have a friend who travelled to Russia just to see that painting.  The painting has also been made popular by Henri Nouwen’s book Return of the Prodigal.

The Waiting Father
First, the important point is that the father doesn’t primarily represent God.  The father, like every character in this story, is a part of you and your journey through life.  The qualities we observe in the father are qualities that we are each capable of and called to imitate.  And he is such an interesting fellow.  He acquiesces in his younger son’s request to give him his inheritance while he is still young and before the father dies. The father agrees, and the son calls out Yippee! Let the party begin. The father, perhaps against his own better judgement, sends the son off into the world to explore his own possibly heroic journey.

Recently, there was an interesting documentary on television that showed a practice among the Amish teenagers in North America.  The children live in a clustered, protected environment without any modern conveniences. When they were 18 years of age they were permitted to leave the community and live in the big, wide world, in many ways completely unprepared for what they would find.

The father in our story lets the son go, perhaps knowing that there was no way he could hold him back on the farm.  This apparently irresponsible act of giving the son more money than he could handle was perhaps an act of great wisdom.  For the father knew that the personality of this young man needed adventure, challenge and probably dramatic failure if he was to encounter his true self.

So he says goodbye to the child he loves and longingly waits for his possible return. Just to introduce the elder son here, we actually don’t meet him until the end of the story.  But again I think the father was perceptive enough to know that the eldest child needs a different experience to discover his deepest being.  He probably didn’t need to leave the family home; his journey may have led him to give up his overly strong sense of loyalty and duty and having the compulsion to always do the right thing.  That may have been the burden that he carried and he had to let go of it if he was to find his true self.

Rumi the ancient Persian poet said: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”

The Younger Brother
Now to really get the point of the story of the prodigal who leaves home and wastes his money – well, actually his father’s money – you have to get the point of the quote from Rumi.  We live in a world and a culture that are bound by a strong dualism between good and bad, right and wrong.  And that is helpful in our day-to-day living.  But there is a deeper truth in life than this dualism between being the good person or the bad person.  The story is quite clear that there is no condemnation of the younger son.  No criticism (except from the elder brother later) that the young son was bad.  He was on a journey that would yield in his life a greater truth; a more profound insight into himself and the world in which he lived.  But it was going cost him something.  In fact, a good deal of pain and suffering.

The poet and author Robert Bly tells the story in his book Iron John about the rituals practised by one of the Aboriginal tribes two hundred years ago.  When a boy of 12 or so was to be initiated into the tribe and the dreamtime there were several rituals he needed to pass through.  He had to spend a week by himself in the bush; kill an animal that belonged to his totem; and finally have one of his teeth knocked out.  Bly writes in his book how barbaric we moderns think such a thing is.  But he goes on to say, “Wouldn’t you be willing to give up one tooth to be initiated into the secrets of life and the universe?”

For this young man, and I suspect for each one of us, the only way we will ever come to the deep inner place of union with God and ourselves is to journey through a fair bit of pain.  Richard Rohr once said that it is only great love or great suffering that will truly change us. Here it is important to see that this young man must suffer to become himself.  But remember: a failure can be a gift that opens the world, or it can just make you bitter.  A great loss of money or a friend or a lover can expose us to a dark place where we may for the first time in our lives catch a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, and even in our great loss we are in a safe place.

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!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'

“When he came to himself…”  When he woke up to the truth about his condition, what did he do?  He turned around and went the other way and that other way was to return back home.  Back to where he had come from.  So you could say this wild expedition had been an expensive failure, a waste of time, because he was going to end up back where he started.  But isn’t it a glorious failure? Because the journey had transformed and changed him.

Much has been written about the mythic journey of the hero.  The call to adventure; the trial of courage; the exploration of the inner cave; the ordeal that must be overcome; and the road back home.  In part, this is the journey of the younger son.  He is the hero of this story.  Although the mercy, grace, forgiveness and generosity of the father should not be underestimated.  As I said at the beginning, we are the characters in this story.  You and I are the younger brother; the waiting father; and maybe the older brother – as told later in the story.  

At different times in our lives we may be more one than the other.  The younger son leaves home with the sense of excitement and adventure and returns home with the gift of his true self.  The father waits with love and compassion and even violates the culture, in that he gives this boy his inheritance and later insults the elder brother by welcoming the boy home when a good dressing down is in order.  And the loyal and dutiful elder brother must discover for himself how he might take the hero’s journey and find his true self.  The younger son’s leaving home may not be physical but rather inner and spiritual.  We all must find our own welcome home, but to find it as we have never seen it before.

T.S Eliot’s poem Little Gidding surely got it right:  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.

The younger brother comes home and all he can see and feel and experience is grace, love, generosity, and no judgement.  He has truly arrived home.

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