Like a menu from a New Jersey diner, there’s something for everyone in what we know as the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). We could look at it through the lens of the elder son, who followed the rules and did what was expected of him, and we could understand his irritation when someone who broke the rules and squandered his life still ended up with an equal share of everything.
We could look at it through the lens of the father, who is nonjudgmental and generous to both sons without reservation, discrimination, or distinction. He violated the expectations that went with being head of the family. He broke the rules that maintained order in society, holding nothing back in his love for the one who deserved it the least.
We could look at the parable as Luke intended, through the lens of the religious establishment, the “pillars of the church,” who did what they were certain God required and were offended when the worst sinners got the same reward as the most faithful. How dare God let sinners into heaven before us?
But today I’m going to look at it the way most of us are introduced to it, through the lens of the younger son, who rebelled against family and social norms, squandered everything he had, hit rock bottom, and came crawling home with nothing to show for his life but failure and the hope of starting over. I’m going to look at it as a parable of growing up.
The younger son took everything that was coming to him and traveled as far from home as he could go. I can’t blame him for that; it’s what I did when I left a career in publishing and went to seminary. I left my home in the Midwest, where I had spent all my life and where I had developed a very Midwestern view of life, and I headed for New York City, the Big Apple, to find an environment as different as possible from the one I had known. And there I hoped to find what God was calling me to be.
Who doesn’t do that some time in life, in some way? Breaking away from the forces that formed us is an opportunity to become the unique persons God creates us to be. If we don’t undergo such a process of individuation, in fact, our lives will be stunted, and we’ll never grow to full maturity. So we take the resources we’ve been given, and we start exploring new dimensions of life we haven’t yet encountered.
We call the younger son the “prodigal,” and the scripture does tell us that “he squandered his property in [immoral, unprincipled] living” (v. 13). But doesn’t that sound like the older brother’s viewpoint? Doesn’t that sound like what the establishment would say, those responsible for guarding society’s values? There’s no hint the father thought of him that way. All we know of the father is that he loved his younger son and showed no hesitation in letting him travel his own path, wherever it would lead.
The younger son, I think, did exactly what he needed to do, exactly what God moved him to do. He followed God’s nudging toward the moment “when he came to himself” (v. 17), when “he finally came to his senses” (NLT). He came to the eye-opening, breakthrough moment that Nicodemus was never able to reach (John 3:1-21).
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, struggling to understand what Jesus had been saying, but he seems to have been trapped in the tradition in which he had been raised and trained so well. He had been there so long and was so committed to it, he couldn’t see past it to something new. The younger son in the parable simply left his tradition, all he had been taught about life. But rather than hitting bottom, he hit the narrow gate that led to an entirely new encounter with life, an encounter so new it was like he was born again.
There are ways of growing that seek to grow more deeply into what we already know. There are ways of learning that seek to learn how to achieve the life we’ve planned for ourselves or that others have planned for us. But as Joseph Campbell said, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
To grow in faith, to grow into the fullness of an original, authentic life, Campbell said “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” That’s what it means to take up our cross and lay down our life – the Greek word for life here is psuche, the whole constellation of images and viewpoints that shape our self-understanding – “to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Have you ever had such a “coming to yourself” experience? Are there ways you need to “come to yourself” today, so that you might find the new life God has waiting for you? We’re probably never ready for such big moments. Not many of us really want our life to change radically. But those big, life-changing moments will come by God’s grace, usually when we least expect them, usually when the life we’ve been living just can’t go on any longer.
“It may be,” Wendell Berry wrote, “that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” If we are really growing in God’s grace, there will come a time when what we know will no longer suffice, when the way we’ve been living will no longer satisfy.
It may come in a single, sudden moment of breakthrough awareness, like it did for the younger son. Or it may come as the sound of a gentle whisper, as it did for Elijah when he was hiding in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:4-18 NLT). It may come as a spasm of regret, or as a nagging boredom, or as a persistent curiosity, or as a question that will not leave you alone. However it comes, when it comes, rise and follow it wherever it leads, knowing that God is with you.