Lost and Found: The Drama of the Prodigal Children

December 8, 2002
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

from The Return of the Prodigal Son
Henry Nouwen

I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a Child of God, the Beloved of God? I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me – my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts – and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God.

It's almost as if I want to prove to myself and to my world that I do not need God's love, that I can make a life on my own, that I want to be fully independent. Beneath it all is the great rebellion, the radical "No" to God's love. . . . Like Adam's original rebellion . . . it is the rebellion that places me outside the Garden, out of reach of the tree of life. It is the rebellion that makes me dissipate myself in a "distant country."


You may or may not be "going home" for the holidays in the literal sense. Or you might be. You could be loading the kids and the presents into the SUV and hauling everything to your in-laws, or to your parents', or you might be prettying up the house in preparation for the prodigal sons and daughters who will be making their way home to you. It doesn't matter what the exact scenario. This time of year puts us all in touch with going home because it is so imbued with tradition, and tradition has a way of collapsing the past and the present together into one big, squirming mass of emotion, memory, yearning, pain and hope. The holidays involve a manner of "going home" whether we wish them to or not

How many times have those same decorations come down off the shelves? How many times have those Mormon Tabernacle Choir recordings been played – it used to be records, now on CDs (My favorite recording is out of print, and the cassette is so old that it sounds as though the choir is singing under water. But it just isn't Christmas until I hear that exact rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy!!") How many times have you rolled out that particular dough onto the flour-dusted cutting board and gone into a reverie of daydream as you cut out those same sugar cookies? Even avoidance can be a tradition: how many times may you have hunkered down in a protective solitude at the holidays, promising yourself you will never again be hurt by intimate relationships, and particularly by family? Solitude and refusal to participate are just as certainly traditions as trimming the tree can be.

How many times have you been assaulted by commercial Christmas music as you anxiously scanned the shelves in the stores looking for the perfect gift for friends and family? Particularly for those of us who aren't so good at expressing our love the rest of the year, those gifts can carry a tremendous amount of pressure. We feel they must serve as the fatted calf, the grandest statement we can that say "you are worth it! you are precious to me!"

I don't think there is any way to avoid "going home" in the soul sense this time of year, so I have chosen what is to me one of the most poignant stories of homecoming in western literature, the gospel story of the prodigal son. I invite you to see yourself in any one of the key characters as we sift through the tale together to glean some of its many riches.

Are you the younger son? Have you ever been? Oh, the arrogance of him, the expectations, the entitlement! He is the epitome of brash youth, so sure of the success of his venture into independent, self-reliant life. And insulting, too. "Hey Dad, give me my inheritance." In a middle eastern cultural context, this is actually equivalent to saying, "hey Dad, die already so I can get what's coming to me." Jesus knew how shocking that request would seem to his crowd of listeners. No respectful son would ever, ever ask for his inheritance and abandon his family for distant lands. The request is far more offensive than it may first seem to us.

Then there is the archetypal Younger Son experience of being beaten up by life, things don't work out, one realizes one might even starve on some level and begins to reassess what riches one had left at the father's house, or the family or origin, as we might say today. In the case of this particular younger brother he is quite practical. "Hey," he thinks, "even my father' servants have it better than this – maybe if I go and apologize I might get at least as much as they do!" The younger brother is heedless and prodigal, but he isn't completely stupid. He does realize, as we often do when we bite the hand that feeds us, that it would be a good idea to acknowledge his sin and to apologize. We don't know if the apology is sincere or merely good politics. Jesus doesn't say, and I think the genius of Jesus's simple parables is that he doesn't provide many psychological details and leaves it all open to interpretation, like any good rabbi would do. What we do know is that the younger brother goes home.

And then we have the father. Have you been the father in this story? Have you ever been loved by anyone the way this father loved his son? Have you ever managed to love anyone like this? This man is unconditional in his devotion. He is heartbreaking in his spiritual generosity and that sweetness that allows him to proclaim again and again, "My son was lost and now is found! That's all that matters!" In Rembrandt's famous painting The Return of the Prodigal Son the father is old, bearded, so gentle. He wears flowing robes of the warmest red, and he bends over his penitent son, who kneels before him shaven as bald as a prisoner, missing a sandal, his callused feet telling the silent tale of many miles' journey, his robes dirty and tattered – yet the father's expression lacks any kind of judgment, any "I told you so's," any superiority. There is something almost blurry about his eyes – a soft-focus that speaks of an intensely inner kind of vision – the vision of love.

I believe we would all like to be able to love this way. Without expectation, without grudge or resentment, without the accumulated influence of past wounds, slights, downright insults, unmet needs. It is a very difficult path to even attempt. If I love as the father loved his prodigal son, am I allowing myself to be walked all over? Is it not my responsibility to make sure I am instructive in my love, to teach the ones I care for how to be reciprocal in the relationship? Is the father in this story a mere doormat?

Jesus would say no, as it was his practice to teach this kind of love to his followers – the steadfast love that waits for no reciprocity. It's a beautiful ideal but I know very few people who manage to love this way. I know very few people who feel loved in this way. It is disappointing – perhaps even tragic that love is so often conditional – if you come home with a good job I will kill the fatted calf for you and we will celebrate! If you marry the right kind of person and have charming children I will welcome you with open arms! If you choose the kind of lifestyle that your mother and I think is acceptable, you will be cherished! I think of a friend who is an actor, director and playwright. Some years ago he was newly through with college and landed a wonderful job as the drama department head of a school. After years of waiting tables and trying to earn at least some of his money through work in the arts, it was an incredibly proud moment. He brought this news to his parents with great excitement and his father's first question, asked in a most suspicious tone, was "Well David, what kind of benefits are they giving you?" Again and again the child comes limping home after a long, difficult road of self-discovery only to be halfway welcomed back; welcomed home with so many conditions. Mother and father stand in the street with arms folded, promising entry only when the child has proven some kind of merit. This original wound gets passed through down through the generations.

Henry Nouwen asks, "Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere?" For Nouwen, the place of true love is the place of God's grace – the unearned love that Jesus taught is the birthright of every human being. And in Jesus's story, we can certainly guess that he meant us to see the father of the prodigal son as an incarnation of God – the loving parent who welcomes all children home no matter how wasteful they have been with their spiritual inheritance. The father may be a stand-in for God, but Jesus wants to suggest that we can aspire to have that kind of love for our children, our friends, and our community. The story is metaphor and model. It is poetry and possibility.

We will come together with family – chosen family or blood kin - over the holidays with these best intentions, I have no doubt. Some of us might be as appreciative of the warmth of family as the awakened-by-suffering younger son. Others will be as delighted and open and generous as the father. But many more will live in a grey area between alienation and acceptance, depression and delight. We will often swing between those emotions, because there is something inevitably swampy about family life that mires us down – it happens again and again and we find ourselves regressing into the same old behaviors as before: bickering, irritated and irritating, worried and meddling or meddled with, disappointed, hurt, or perhaps just tired. James Hillman writes,"We must remember that going home is always going back home. Going home may mean sleeping till two in the afternoon, or taking refuge in the bathroom, crying with mom in the kitchen, or just complaining as do the grandparents who fall ill during every visit. Going home, at whatever age, offers going back, regression. We don't want to admit that we have not ‘grown up,' and so blame the family for both bringing out our worst and then not indulging it enough." (A Blue Fire, p. 200)

(Thinking about the way Jesus rejected his family of origin in order to create a family of disciples – or chosen family – I have to think that he had some pretty remarkable insights into family systems for a first century man!)

Hillman continues to describe the common family homecoming scene, which may remind you of your own and which he fondly describes as "going down the family drain:"

"The debilitating energy loss strikes everyone alike as if a communal power outage. Everyone caught in repeating, and resisting, old patterns. Nothing changed, after all these years! No one can get out even for a walk to break the spell, the whole family sinking deeper into the upholstery… no one is kicked out, and no one can be helped. In the paralysis lies the profoundest source of acceptance. … Everyone goes down the drain because family love allows family pathology, an immense tolerance for the hopeless shadow in each, the shadow that we each carry as permanent part of our baggage and that we unpack when we go back home." (p. 201)

Which brings me to the third main character of the gospel story of the prodigal son who is worthy of our attention and perhaps our sympathy: the elder son. This is the guy who stayed close to home and the pathologies of family life Hillman speaks of, the guy who has a legitimate beef when he cries out to his father, "Hey! I've been here all along, never disrupted anything, never insulted you, never went off gallivanting and broke your heart – where's my party!?"
For those sons and daughters who stay close and stay loyal to the family of origin all their lives, the cry of the elder son speaks to their sense of invisibility. This is the child who probably listened for hours as the father grieved for the lost son. This is the child who never went on his own adventure or as Joseph Campbell might put it, "followed his bliss." This is the responsible child who never abandoned the father and the ancestral home in order to be blissfully wasteful, and this is the child who never learned the tender lessons of humility and gratitude from making that particular mistake. "Where's my party!?" he asks. "Who's killing the fatted calf for me?"

I feel for this son, and perhaps you do too, but his pain is not resolved in the story. You will recall that his father says, essentially, I love you too – you are equally precious to me and all that I have is yours - but we don't know if this explanation worked as it the healing balm it was meant to be. Perhaps the elder son stood in a jealous or offended stance at the sidelines of the celebration, waiting to be acknowledged, resentful of his younger brother's celebrity. Maybe he put away his anger and was able to be glad in his brother's homecoming; maybe his protest was a very temporary attack of temper and he was generally a great guy and partied all night, hugging his brother around the neck and making dozens of toasts to his health. We don't know. From our own perspective, knowing how painful it is to hold onto righteous indignation, we can only hope that he was able to forgive both his brother and his father. If he will not, and if he cannot, we know that he will indeed be lost without ever even having left home.

And so it goes, the door to the mythic place called home swinging in both directions as brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers come home and then leave, go out into the world and return a little sadder and a little wiser. At this holiday season may you be blessed by such homecomings and blessed by the leave-takings, too – all the while forgiving that the love you get from blood kin is going to be imperfect, flawed, very conditional and quite, quite human. There is no perfect love on earth yet, and until we achieve it, we will have to make our celebrations in appreciation for the imperfect love we do manage, and feast in anticipation that the best is still to come. So may it be, in the hope of the advent season, and may you blessed in it.