I was in a group discussion the other day and someone made a passing reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son. I don’t like it, the speaker said, which jagged a piece of my heart from me. Now, I don’t identify as Christian, nor will I make any professions of being the least bit Biblically literate, but it is the story of the Prodigal son that made me fall in love with Jesus.
Now, falling in love with Jesus was not easy. It wasn’t anywhere near as easy as falling in love with George Clooney when he first appeared on Facts of Life, and then Roseanne, and then, heaven help me when he stood on the rock in those jeans and those cowboy boots at the end of his ER stint, but I digress. Nor, shall I add, was it as easy as falling in love with my husband. It was, it is safe to say, as difficult as managing to stay in love and in loving relationship with my husband.
I had heard that story of the prodigal son for years–haven’t we all? And it never made sense to me. Why was this son, who squandered his inheritance in ungainly ways, why was his father so pleased to see him? Like the responsible brother who stayed, I wondered where is the fairness in this? Why was there never a party for the one who stayed, and worked, and saved? Why should we celebrate the irresponsibility of the one who left?
It just made no sense to me, and so I set the story aside as another one of those Christian oddities. And then something happened. And then something else happened. And then, yet another thing happened. Yep. I became a mother, not once, not twice, but thrice. And somewhere between twice and thrice, we experienced loss. And suddenly, the story changed. It was no longer a story about fairness at all.
Nor was it a story about redemption–exactly. In that group discussion, some argued that the prodigal did not change within, but that he came home because his circumstances changed–from without. But I would argue that, yes, it is a story of redemptive change, as the son realizes as he is fighting with pigs for slop to eat, that were he to go home, he could work for his father, who treated his workers far better than how he was being treated here. He did not come home expecting the welcome he received, he came home, hat in hand, as it were, looking down and wondering if his father would a) remember him, and b) give him work.
But the father recognizes the son from across the fields and so great is his joy, so deep his love for his son whom he thought was no longer alive, that he calls for the slaughter of the fatted calf, calls for a party, calls for his son to be cleaned up and clothed.
If you are looking for fairness here, you won’t find it. What you will find is that thing that pulls at a parent from within, the thing that makes no sense, will never make sense, as long as poets and songwriters keep trying to do so. It is love. He is lost, and now is found.
Have you ever considered how you would feel if someone you knew was dead suddenly came walking across the fields? It would not matter what they had done in the meantime, at least not at first, it would simply be joy, at having in your hand now, what once was lost. I mean, come on, think of how you feel when you find your keys, or your bankcard, or an earring that you had written off as lost? Now, deepen that joy a thousandfold, right?
And so the story is to tell us that God loves us all as this, regardless of how we squander our bounty, our lives, our love. God loves us all this way. You will not find fairness here.
I think of this story today for several reasons, one of which is the mention in the group discussion. But another is in thinking of all the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings–all of them. Those who were killed and those who love them; those who were injured and those who love them; those who bore witness and those who love them; those who were “in charge” on this day of mass chaos–and those who love them; and then there is this hard one, the man who did this and those who love him.
Okay, so he is not a victim here–except of mental illness. And these acts are horrific. And still I wonder, what if it were me? What if I were the parent receiving that particular phone call? Should the parents have known? I can only imagine all the questions and pain and sorrow they must be going through, just as I can only imagine the pain of those parents whose children will no longer be graduating, or coming home for the summer … or ever.
Getting back to Jesus, though, to the story of the Prodigal, this is what makes sense to me now: that God’s love is what redeems us–whether that love is shown through the forgiveness of a father grateful for the return of a son struck by wanderlust, or whether that love is shown in the forgiveness of what seems unforgivable.
For me, I have to believe that Love is that strong.