Strangers and Sons

While I was away with the students on retreat this week, I had some time to pray with the parable of of the Prodigal Son. I have always loved this parable, a love that grew only deeper after reading the brilliant work by Henri Nouwen entitled The Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. Nouwen's meditation takes as its focal point the arresting portrait rendered by Rembrandt of this poignant scriptural scene: the son throwing himself at the father's feet, the loving embrace of the father, the cold abyss that separates the older brother from the scene.


As I prayed this week, I thought back upon this portrait and the parable and saw a new theme emerging for me: Strangers and Sons. If you think upon it, both sons are strangers to the father: the younger son demands his inheritance, effectively telling the father that he wishes he were dead, and then leaves for "a distant country." What the son does there is not important, I reckon, either to us or to the father. The young man has made every effort to "un-son" himself and has, for all intents and purposes, made himself a stranger to the father.

A severe famine provokes a moment of great soul-searching. The young man looks upon his life and realizes that the swine he tends are eating better than he is. A stir in his heart reminds him of the love and graciousness of his father, a love he knows he has spurned and rejected, a love he cannot imagine reclaiming. Nevertheless, the estranged son resolves to return to the father and offer his services as a servant. No longer a son, no longer kin, the young man decides to approach his father not as a son, but as a supplicant for a job.

You know how the story goes from here: the father's eyes, perhaps weary from scanning the horizon each day for his lost son, alight upon a figure moving toward the family's estate. The eyes of love recognize the son and, with a hear seized with new joy, the father runs to the son and embraces him. Enveloped by the arms of loving hospitality, the young man cannot get a word in edgewise: the sins of the past, the terrible effrontery, the wasted money...these count for nothing when compared to the restoration of the son. The son "who was dead has begun to live" and this calls for a great feast, for a tremendous celebration.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I often feel for the older brother. He's done everything right, he's done everything that has ever been asked of him, and he's never been given even a young goat, let alone the fatted calf, to share with his friends. His years of loyal service seem chronically ignored. He feels entitled to his indignation, because on the face of it he is the good son, the one who does what good sons are supposed to do!

The irony of the story is that the true stranger in the parable is the older son. Despite having lived his entire life in the father's house, he is the one most distant from the father, for he has never allowed his heart to be touched and transformed by the father's boundless love. Physical proximity to the father betrays an infinite gulf between their hearts. The older son operates on an economy of merit, whereby you "get what you deserve." The father operates on an economy of love, a system organized not by merit but by grace.

An economy of grace is set not by external indicators such as supply/demand but, rather, by the generosity of the father. The father's choice to love is what is key to the story. Try as he might to make himself a stranger, to un-son himself, the father's love makes this an impossibility: the father's love has left an indelible mark on the son's heart and imagination, one that aches in a distant land and prompts him to make the long journey home. The central and main agent in the story is the father, whose love extends to both of his sons. Yet both are strangers to this love. One recalls it longingly in a distant land, the other continues to be estranged from it and ignores it despite his proximity to it.

Father's Day is a good time to think back upon the anchoring love of the Father in this parable. Too often, I fear, we "good" Christians can forget that even if we dwell close to the Father, we must not let our physical closeness get in the way of keeping our hearts and imaginations close to the Father. This parable reminds us that the key signature of the melody of God's Kingdom is unremitting, wholly undeserved, freely given love. We must always remain attuned to this key and work very hard to stay in tune, lest we mistake our "being in the band" for actually performing in concert with the rest of the symphony.

I share this because it is something I continue to struggle with: a sense of superiority or being better than others for doing "what is right" or living a better life. I have to keep reminding myself that God's love is not something I earn but that I have to accept - as all of us do - in order to really call myself a Son. God makes me, as God makes all of his, children. We cannot, even with our best and most sinful efforts, change that. We can only relax into it, accepting it, and rejoice in being brought into the Father's house. Bearing this in mind and on our hearts, we can always be ready to welcome our sisters and brothers home with the joy known only for those who were "dead but are now alive."
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