Several years ago I was teaching a class about today’s gospel (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32), the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As soon as class was finished a man who had been sitting in the back of the room started coming toward me. I could tell he was upset. He was probably in his mid-seventies and had been very attentive during class but hadn’t said anything.
What about the bath?
“What about the bath?” he demanded. “You didn’t say anything about the bath. Why didn’t you talk about the bath?” I told him I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He became more agitated and said, “You know where that kid had been!” “Yes,” I said, “in the pig pens of the distant country.” “And you know what he smelled like and what was on him.” “Pig poop,” I said kiddingly. He did not think that was funny. And then he said, “He was dirty and smelly. The father would never hug him, kiss him, or put a robe on him until he first had a bath. Why didn’t you talk about the bath?”
I told him that a bath was not part of the story but he didn’t believe me, so we read the story together. When we got to the end he started weeping. He said, “All my life I thought this story said that he had to take a bath before he could go home.” I asked him, “And have you, all your life, been trying to get clean enough to go home?” He nodded in silence as tears ran down his face.
I think we often hear this story as one about good and bad, right and wrong. The younger son is often judged and labeled the bad son for what he did, a kid who needs to clean up his act. That’s how this gentleman in the class saw him. And that’s how the older son in the parable sees him. But what strikes me is that’s not how the father sees him. Instead of judging and labelling him as bad or wrong he says, “[He] was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
What if we saw ourselves and one another like that instead of labelling and judging? Haven’t there been times when you felt dead, lifeless, absent from your own life? Haven’t there been times when you were lost and you couldn’t make sense of your life, who you were, or where you were going? And haven’t you sometimes done some crazy things trying to figure it all out?
What if this parable isn’t prescribing right and wrong, what we should and should not do, but is simply describing what your and my growing up looks like? What if it’s not a story about getting clean for someone else but a story about coming clean with ourselves, facing up to ourselves, and learning to take responsibility for our life? What if growing up means leaving home, spending time in the pig pens of the distant country, and then returning home a bit more mature and grown up?
Growing up is never easy and, whether we are two, thirteen, thirty, or eighty, we are always in the process of growing up. So I want to use the prodigal son and his experience of leaving home, the distant country, and returning home as a lens through which to see and reflect on our own lives.
Think about all the leaving or separation that has to happen for growth to occur. A baby separates from mother and leaves the womb. The terrible twos and the crazy adolescent years are both about leaving, the child separating from parents or caretaker in order to mature psychologically and emotionally. When we graduate, begin work, marry, join the military, take a new job, or retire, some type of leaving or separation is happening.
Sometimes we leave by choice and other times we leave through the circumstances of our life, the actions of another, the consequences of our words or actions, our self-betrayals and the ways we do violence to ourselves or another.
Sometimes leaving home means leaving a physical place, but not every home is physical and not every leaving is geographical. The death of loved one, a severe illness or disability, a divorce, can all take us away from home. Other times we leave the values and messages of our family, old ways that are so comfortable and familiar that they become our stuck places, a particular world view, patterns of behavior that are destructive to ourselves or another, religious beliefs and sometimes the church. We leave home in a thousand different ways.
When have you left home? And what was that about? How did it happen? What did you have to let go of and leave behind?
What does leaving look like in your life today? What are you separating from? What home are you leaving? And what home do you, for your own growth and well-being, need to leave but haven’t, and what’s keeping you from leaving? Why do you stay?
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, “The price a human being pays for growing into an autonomous adult is leaving home” (Kushner, God was in this Place & I, i did not know, 71).
The Distant Country
Leaving home takes us to the distant country. The distant country is the in between place. What was is no longer and what will be is not yet. It’s the place where the prodigal son “spent everything.” He’s run out of resources. I’m talking about more than money. He’s bumped up against his own limitations. He knows what it’s like to feel powerless, to not have it all together, and to experience vulnerability. And who among us here today doesn’t know what that’s like?
He’s living amidst a “severe famine.” At one level he needs something to fill his belly but at another level what he really needs is something to fill his soul. There’s an emptiness within him and maybe for the first time in his life “he began to be in need.” He began to recognize his need of something deeper, larger, and more authentic. He began to recognize his need of meaning, hope, wisdom, courage. I know what that’s like, don’t you?
The distant country is where we have to do our interior work, and it’s usually messy and stinky. But no one else can do it for us. Maybe that’s why today’s gospel says about the prodigal son, “And no one gave him anything.” He’s got to do his own pig pen work and there are no shortcuts.
The distant country always asks a task of us. It’s about recognizing our limitations and powerlessness, feeling the hunger of our soul and discovering what we really need, and, as I said last week, reimagining our lives to be more and larger than our history. That’s not an excuse or reason to turn away from or ignore our past. It means dealing with the pig poop of our life. That’s when the prodigal son “came to himself.” That’s the point when his life shifts and he starts getting things turned around.
The distant country is the place where, if we do our work, transformation can occur and transformation is always about growing up.
What’s the distant country for you today? And what task is being asked of you? What’s the pig poop you need to deal with in your life today?
In the distant country the prodigal son “came to himself” and said, “I will get up and go to my father.” I think this is about more than his physical father. I think this journey home is about him reclaiming the divine in his life; seeking connection, meaning, and transcendence; and experiencing himself as part of something larger than and beyond himself. It’s the continuation of him coming to himself. And it’s a sign of growth.
Look how the father responds: compassion, a hug, a kiss, feasting, and celebrating. With each of those the father reveals and calls forth something. They reveal the father’s acceptance of his son and call forth the son’s acceptance of himself. They reveal the father’s love of his son and call forth the son’s love of himself. They reveal the father’s forgiveness of his son and call forth the son’s forgiveness of himself.
That’s how I want us to finish this Lent. That’s the kind of growth I want in my life, don’t you? I want us to arrive where we started and know the place [and ourselves] for the first time” (T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”).
When has that happened to you? When have you returned home? What was your experience of that? When have you been lost and then found, dead and then alive? In what ways are you returning home today? And if something is keeping you from returning home today, what do you need to do, reclaim, or let go of today to return home?