Prefatory note: In much of what I write below--in this post's continuation or "extended body"--I owe so much to my reading and re-reading of Stephen Mitchell's inspired reflections on Jesus's tale of the prodigal son (in his Jeffersonian Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Harper, 1993) that it's hard, in retrospect, to pick all his thinking, his examples and imagery, from my own. I hope I've given him sufficient credit in the text as well as here. In the interest of narrative continuity, I have chosen not to clutter that portion of the text with as many quotation marks as it technically deserves. The story at its heart belongs to him, to me, and to neither of us.
When I was eleven years old I had a beast of a paper route. It was the kind of beast that had red, predatory eyes even in the soft dawn of morning. I was folding and carrying on my bike and heaving toward peoples’ front porches a free shopping news filled from front to back with ads. That paper made up in weight for what it lacked in content. It was as if half the world had something to sell, and had chosen this particular paper to convey the news, in bold print and big colored pictures, to the other half of the world.
The bale of papers left on the corner for me to distribute was the size of a bale that might have been left for an elephant who hadn’t eaten in a week. And my route seemed to cover roughly the United States west of the Mississippi: including both the Sierras and the Rockies, if you can imagine them with tract houses cheek by cheek.
In short, if it had occurred to me to put my situation into church language—which it actually did, if you can believe it of a boy raised in a minimally observant Episcopal household—I didn’t exactly feel that I was doing God’s work.
I happened to notice one morning when my rebelliousness was reaching an intolerable pitch, that the truck which dropped off my elephantine bale of papers did so beside a long, tall and dense evergreen hedge. I realized that those six feet of dense evergreen provided adequate cover, in a large number of places, for bales even as big as mine. I convinced myself that I was doing virtually everyone a favor by depositing the bales in the hedge, and conveniently forgot that I was continuing to be paid for my labors. My freedom lasted about two weeks before somebody missed his shopping news, and I had to pull every waterlogged bale out of the hedge, and return my ill-gotten wages. My mother let me know that I was headed down the slippery slope to a life of crime.
But it’s the other part of my solution to this paper route from the Underworld that I want more to describe. Before I discovered the irresistible hedge—while I was still trudging my rounds—I began to talk with God. At least I assumed it was God, before I later reflected on how the whole misadventure concluded. These talks were not aloud. I was too shy for that. These were silent conversations in which I mostly put questions and waited for answers. I was old enough to realize that my active imagination may have been at work, so we agreed on a secret word that only He could speak.
I have tried, but I don’t remember much of the content of those talks, of that listening for the voice of God, that search, on ground I suppose as likely as any, for His Kingdom. I don’t think the talks had anything to do with my paper route. They touched upon the subject of fathers, present and absent (my own had died only a few months before), on fear in the nighttime, on anger and what only later I came to understand as forgiveness. I remember that we spoke of loneliness, and the kind of companionship one might experience even when one thought oneself alone. We spoke more than a little about Jesus, I think partly because I was preoccupied with fathers and sons, and because some of the stories of Jesus’s life, and the stories he told to others, had begun to exercise their mysterious hold on me.
It’s been a very long time since those talks, a lot of time for puzzlement, disbelief, interpretation—too much time for interpretation. I’ve come to think of much that I call interpretation as close kin to whatever it was that led me into that thicket of a hedge. I’ve never lost the love of asking questions, or listening for answers, or of Jesus’s stories.
I can talk and write more clearly now than I could at the age of eleven. For example, when I was eleven I was sure than God was a noun; now I’m more inclined to think of God as a verb, and the Kingdom of God as a path rather than a destination.
When Andrew and Peter first encountered Jesus, they asked him, “Rabbi, where are you going?”; and he answered, “Follow me.” That has always been for me one of the simplest, hardest and most moving exchanges in the Gospels. Andrew and Peter meant the question simply and literally enough. Jesus's response dramatically raised the stakes. There was no way to tell them where he was going.
There is another simple exchange: another touchingly straightforward question, and another answer that continues to echo long after it is spoken, maybe the essence of gospel, of the good news.
“....someone asked Jesus, ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ [there’s the noun]
“Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God will not come if you watch for it. Nor will anyone be able to say, ‘It is here’ or ‘It is there.’ For the kingdom of God is within you.” [listen: there’s the verb]
Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son
The Prodigal Son. Let me share a familiar story Jesus told, among the stories that help us to grasp what it is to follow. (There, of course, is the verb as well.) They are such familiar stories that it helps if you can read or listen to them as if you’ve never heard them before. So I’ll tell it just a little bit differently; though basically as Jesus did. Oh, and one other thing that is helpful in listening: Jesus doesn’t ask us to do this, but it seems consistent with learning to follow. Imagine, as you might with the characters in a dream, that you may be each of them, all of them, not only the one who first seems most familiar to you. It’s your dream, all of it. I think Jesus is saying that this story is our story: all of us, all of it.
Like Stephen Mitchell, I think this story is "one of the tenderest and most compassionate in all literature." It conveys both the heart of Jesus’s teaching, and the following for which he asks, which are one and the same.
Once there was a man who had two sons. And the younger one had ants in his pants. He said to his dad, ‘Father, let me have my share of the estate.’ So his father divided his property between his two sons. We’re not told how old the sons are, just that one is older than the other, that the younger asks for his share—no more, no less—and that the father lets go, effortlessly, without question or hesitation or equivocation, without conditions. That’s our first tip that he’s an unusual man, and an unusual father.
Not many days afterward, having turned his share of his inheritance into money, the younger son left and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered all that inheritance in riotous living. He didn’t kill anyone, or join the Roman legion, or do heavy drugs, or anything else really bad; he just made a mess of his life and lost all his money. After he had spent it all, a severe famine arose in that country; and he was destitute. He went and hired himself out to a fellow in that country, who sent him to his farm to feed the pigs. And he longed to fill his belly with the husks that the pigs were eating, since no one would give him any food. Very few had any food to give, and those who did were afraid that the famine might catch up to them.
Talk about feeling like a motherless child a long way from home! Cut off from any real connection with other people, reduced to taking care of pigs; even, in his desperation, longing to eat the pigs’ food. And there, at that moment, in the trough, in the sty, comes the start of a kind of turning, or metanoia. When we give in to how lost we are, when we abandon all our flotation devices, and sink like the stones or the husks we’ve become, to the bottom of our lostness, then we can begin to rise, to come to ourselves, to find our path. I imagine you’ve heard it: “The only way out is in and through.”
I'll repeat what I wrote recently: The theme of turning or redemption is central to our Jewish−Christian tradition. The movement is that from life to death to rebirth. There are no short cuts: from one level of consciousness to a transition that is nothing short of death, thence to an experience of rebirth or renewal that is qualitatively other—larger, fuller—than the life one previously knew. One unity of being and purpose is broken, undone: the soul, in effect, impounded. It cannot be redeemed, or even held beyond its time, without becoming some poor, hapless shadow of itself. Let’s call that: half-way on this journey. Another, more traditional name for it is purgatory.
Back to the young son. “And when he came to himself [those are Jesus’s words], he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough to eat, while I am dying of hunger. I will get up [he’s been lying down with the pigs, remember] I will go to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Let me be like one of your hired men.’ And he got up, and went to his father." As Mitchell puts it, he’s begun to come to clarity, to wake up to his truer self.
Jesus doesn’t tell us how long he had to hike, but you can bet it was a long way, and a painful journey, with lots of time to think more about his sorry adventures, lots of time to think about his family, lots of time to rehearse what he was going to say to his father, lots of time to feel shame.
Shame is usually a big part of coming to oneself, and it can be excruciating. (Like virtually all other feelings, there is useful shame and destructive shame.) T.S. Eliot writes about this time in “Ash Wednesday,” his special poem about turning: “This is the time of tension between dying and birth.” And Eliot writes later of the experience of shame, in one of his Four Quartets called “Little Gidding”:
...the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to other’s harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
So yes, a long trek, along a path this young man knew somewhere way back in his mind, but a path along which he was also slowly picking his way for the first time. He was suffering now, in this purgatorial stage, from a kind of blurred double vision: diplopia. He was like the man whose doctor said, “Read the chart.” And the man answered, “Which one?” He was like the person coming home from the pub seeing four yellow lines instead of two.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His father had been looking all this time. He had, as we say, eyes to see and ears to hear, and he was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, and threw his arms around him, and kissed him. How do I put the beauty of that running and that hug and kiss? Safe to say that’s not what fathers commonly did in those days, nor often enough now. And his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ The son is stunned: those are the same words he thought up while he was still lying in the pig sty, just beginning to wake up, and he doesn’t know his father’s been awake all the time.
But his father doesn’t even let him stutter out his last line. His father said to his servants, ‘Quick, bring out the best robe we have, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat and make merry. For this son of mine was dead (indeed he was), and he has come back to life; he was lost, and he is found.” And they began to make merry.
The shame and degradation, the wallowing lostness of the son are being shed, the two of them—father and son—become one in the healing, washed in the father’s joy. The experiences of forgiveness and forgiven-ness come together, are sealed in a loving embrace, the dancers and the dance.
You know there’s a third act to the play, a shadow cast over the rejoicing, another pain to endure, another redemption to accomplish. My colleagues and I saw it often enough in psychotherapy: when one member of a family gets well, another may get sick. Worried parents come in to the school’s counselor or principal to see what can be done about the fact that Billy has been picking fights on the playground, and just punched his fist through a glass door, or stole some money from another student’s locker. In ten or fifteen minutes with Billy’s parents, the principal or counselor learns that Billy is more the current symptom than the problem, that in some sense he has been chosen to act out the family’s problems. And a long and often painful disentangling and reweaving begins. Or so we hope. So we intend.
Were it not for the love and compassion of this father, we might see something like that here, with the older son. (We should ask, by the way, as Stephen Mitchell does, where is the mother in this story? For the father acts like both rolled into one. Jesus’s relationship with his own mother would bear some attention; I recommend Stephen Mitchell's book for that.
The older son had been out in the fields, working; and on his way home, as he got closer to the house, he heard music and dancing, and he called over one of the servants and asked what was happening. The servant told him: ‘Your brother has come home, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has him back safe and sound.’ That made the older brother angry, and he wouldn’t go inside the house. But his father came out and tried to sooth him.
It was a hard job. His son said, ‘Look: all these years I have been doing your bidding as a loyal son. I’ve never disobeyed you. Yet you never even gave me a goat, so that I could feast and make merry with my friends. But now my no good brother comes back, after spending your money on whores, and you kill the fatted calf for him!’ (Killing the fatted calf is a very big deal.)
Now: here is another turning point. You can imagine so many things that could go wrong. The father doesn’t want his joy and generosity spoiled by the older son who was going to get two-thirds of his property anyway (that’s the way it got split up in those days). Who was he to remind his father just as this celebration was getting under way that he hadn’t thought to reward normal filial loyalty with the gift of a goat?
And the older son is at a turning of his own. He’s telling the truth. He’s not smug or prideful. He’s been obedient as he should, and now he feels hurt and resentful. He’s been treated unjustly. He really has. His father hasn’t done for him what he’s doing for his wastrel brother. He has a point, and it’s a dangerous moment. His father could have sent someone to call him home from the fields. Earlier, he could have been more attentive to his older son’s need for appreciation and love. But if we get too tangled up in this kind of family psychology, we miss Jesus’s point. Listen to the tenderness of the father’s response to his older son:
“The father said to him, ‘Child, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But it’s proper to make merry and rejoice, for your brother was dead, and he has come back to life; he was lost, and is found.” I hope—I imagine—that his son can see the tears in his father’s eyes.
I agree with Mitchell's summary of this parable. "I don’t know that there has ever been a more heartfelt and beautiful statement of the reality of resurrection."
Forgiveness is probably the most distinctive of Jesus’s teachings. He mentions it, in the stories that have come down to us, only a few times, and the parable of the prodigal son is a miracle of its accomplishment. You remember Peter, wonderful straight-talking Peter with a literal mind like a rock, asking of Jesus, “how often should I forgive my brother if he keeps wronging me? Up to seven times?” And Jesus’s response, “Not just seven: seventy times seven.” In other words, it isn’t a matter of counting, Peter. There is no mention of forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son. The father’s heart has long been open. The son didn’t have to do anything to earn his father’s forgiveness; it’s simply there, in his running, in his robes flapping, in his sandals slapping on the ground, in the whole body of his embrace, in his father’s face, which looked like the rising sun, before his boy can open his mouth to ask. His father’s heart has long been open.
Coming back to life, becoming found, awakening fully, isn’t done in one critical moment. It takes time, more than a single night of feasting. But that said, let's imagine such a shortened version:
The younger son wakes up the next morning, after the party. He’s a little bit hung over. He wonders if yesterday is still true today. Then he smells breakfast cooking, and he comes downstairs. There’s his father, and his brother too, welcoming. Still a little wobbly, he sits down at his place at the table, and notices a small scroll on his plate. He unrolls it, and finds his brother’s painstaking handwriting. Here’s what it said:
….he will raise you up on eagle’s wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of his hand.