The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming – Part 1: The Younger Son

The younger son said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.” So he left the place and went back to his father. (Luke 15:12-20)

The Younger Son Leaves

Implicit in the “return” is a leaving. The immense joy in welcoming back the lost son hides the immense sorrow that has gone before. The finding has the losing in the background, the returning has the leaving under its cloak. Only when I have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can I come to a true understanding of the return.

The evangelist Luke tells it all so simply and so matter-of-factly that it is difficult to realize fully that what is happening here is an unheard-of event: hurtful, offensive, and in radical contradiction to the most venerated tradition of the time. The son’s manner of leaving is tantamount to wishing his father dead.

The implication of ‘Father, I cannot wait for you to die’ underlies both (the division of the inheritance and the right to dispose his father of his part) requests. The younger son speaks about a drastic cutting loose from the way of living, thinking, and acting that has been handed down to him from generation to generation as a sacred legacy. More than disrespect, it is a betrayal of the treasured values of family and community.

In essence the son says that he can do a better job on his own than together with his father and brother in asking for his piece of the inheritance.

Leaving home is, then, much more than an historical event bound to time and place. It is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to.

Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests” -the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, the second Adam; the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light.

When I hear that voice, I know that I am home with God and have nothing to fear. 

Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.

The true voice of love is a very soft and gentle voice speaking to me in the most hidden places of my being. It is not a boisterous voice, forcing itself on me and demanding attention. It is the voice of a nearly blind father who has cried much and died many deaths. It is a voice that can only be heard by those who allow themselves to be touched.

Sensing the touch of God’s blessing hands and hearing the voice calling me the Beloved are one and the same. Something very tender, called by some a soft breeze and by others a small voice.

But, there are many other voices, voices that are loud, full of promises and very seductive. Soon after Jesus had heard the voice calling him the Beloved, he was led to the desert to hear those other voices. 

Almost from the moment I had ears to hear, I heard those voices, and they have stayed with me ever since. And they say: “Show me that you are a good boy. You had better be better than your friend! How are your grades? Be sure you can make it through school! I sure hope you are going to make it on your own! What are your connections? Are you sure you want to be friends with those people? These trophies certainly show how good a player you were! Don’t show your weakness, you’ll be used! Have you made all the arrangements for you old age? When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When you are dead, you are dead!”

It is not very hard for me to know when this is happening. Anger, resentment, jealousy, desire for revenge, lust, greed, antagonisms, and rivalries are the obvious signs that I have left home. 

I am so afraid of being disliked, blamed, put aside, passed over, ignored, persecuted, and killed, that I am constantly developing strategies to defend myself and thereby assure myself of the love I think I need and deserve. And in so doing I move far away from my father’s home and choose to dwell in a “distant country”.

At issue here is the question: “To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?

The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain “hooked” to the world -trying, failing, and trying again.

It was love itself that prevented the father from keeping his son home at all cost. It was love itself that allowed him to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it.

The Younger Son’s Return

What were the inner consequences of the son’s leaving home? The sequence of events is quite predictable. The farther I run away from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the Beloved, and the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations and power games of the world.

The younger son became fully aware of how lost he was when no one in his surroundings showed the slightest interest in him. They noticed him only as long as he could be used for their purposes. But when he had no money left to spend and no gifts left to give, he stopped existing for them.

Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common.

It was this complete lostness that brought him to his senses. He had become so disconnected from what gives life -family, friends, community, acquaintances, and even food.

In retrospect, it seems that the prodigal had to lose everything to come into touch with the ground of his being.

Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation.

One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness. The question is, do I truly want to be restored to the full responsibility of the son? Do I truly want to be so totally forgiven that a completely new way of living becomes possible? Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and renewing. As long as I want to do even a part of that myself, I end up with partial solutions, such as becoming a hired servant.

Jesus goes up onto the mountain, gathers his disciples around him, and says: “How blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness.”

These words present a portrait of the child of God. It is a self portrait of Jesus, the Beloved Son. It is also a portrait of me as I must be. The Beatitudes offer me the simplest route for the journey home, back into the house of my Father. And along this route I will discover the joys of the second childhood: comfort, mercy, and an ever clearer vision of God. And as I reach home and feel the embrace of my Father, I will realize that not only heaven will be mine to claim, but that the earth as well will become my inheritance, a place where I can live in freedom without obsessions and compulsions.

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