Finding Our Way Home (Luke 15:11-23)
There is a Hasidic story about a Rabbi Isaac of Cracow. One night Rabbi Isaac has a dream. In it, God tells him to leave his home and travel to Prague. There, beneath the bridge, he will find a great treasure. Isaac is far from superstitious, but this is the third time the dream has recurred. So he sets out on the long journey. Exhausted, he finally arrives at the bridge underneath which the promised treasure purportedly is buried. But soldiers guard the bridge day and night, and Isaac cannot dig for the treasure without attracting their attention. Hours turn into days. Finally, abandoning all hope, he turns to leave, empty handed. As he walks away, a soldier calls out to him. “Old man, for the longest time you’ve been hanging about, and now you’re leaving. What strange quest brought you here, and why do you now go?
“I had a dream,” Isaac confesses. “God told me to go to Prague, where I would find a great treasure buried beneath the bridge.”
“Fool,” the soldier replies, “I once had such a dream. God told me that I should go to -Cracow and look up Rabbi Isaac, I too would find a great treasure, buried beneath his stove.”
Thanking the soldier, Rabbi Isaac, returns home to find his promised treasure where it always was, hidden under his own hearth.
T. S. Eliot wrote: “ . . . the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
It seems that we all have to make the journey. This story of the prodigal is our story—yours’ and mine.
While many stories have universal truth to convey they must be understood in their own time and place. The Son’s request for his inheritance early was tantamount to wishing the father dead. This was a radical rejection and a heartless disparaging of his family and tradition.
I like to think of home as the place where we hear God tell us that we are beloved children. When Jesus was baptized he heard God say: “You are my beloved Son, on you my favor rests.” For us to leave home is to become deaf to that voice that tells us that we are loved unconditionally.
The voice of God is often muted by other voices that are loud and seductive. They convince us that we have to earn our way and prove our worth; that unless we are successful or popular or powerful we are not worthy of love.
We listen to voices that make earning love a competition. So we find ourselves always looking over our shoulder, comparing ourselves to others, grasping for more, giving no thought to those we have to climb on or over to get to where we think we need to be. We worry and fret and fearfully grab for all we can get. We brood over the success of others.
We follow that voice that tells us that we are loved if . . . if we are good looking or intelligent or athletic or musical or talented or whatever. We listen to the voice that says we are loved if we produce much, earn much, buy much, do much, achieve much. And we follow this voice all the way into the “far country.”
As long as we live governed by the operating principle of conditional love we will live as if we belong to the world and not to God. The world of conditional love always fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest cravings of the heart. The late Henry Nouwen put it this way: “Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs.” (The Return of the Prodigal)
Our false attachments and addictions keep us trapped in the false self. They keep us living with our illusions that happiness and fulfillment can be found by pursuing our selfish dreams and agenda. But we were fashioned to reflect God’s image. God’s wholeness and joy is reflected in our experience when we give ourselves to others in love and service, when we relate to one another through forgiveness and compassion
The Father, in our story, knows the son is making a huge mistake but the father makes no attempt to stop the son. The father could have refused the son’s request, but the father knows that love cannot be forced or coerced, it must be freely given.
Pain and hurt and suffering go along with freedom. The father experiences the pain of rejection and scorn, the pain of betrayal—but God’s pain is not the betrayal itself. God doesn’t have an ego need—it’s what the betrayal does to us that pains God. To leave home is to leave the only place where we can experience unconditional love.
God is so connected to creation, so much a part of our lives that God feels the pain we bring on ourselves when we pursue our selfish desires and cling to our false attachments. The father in the story does not say: “I am through with you. Go your own way.” This father will never abandon the one who abandoned him. And so he looks and longs and waits for the son’s return.
Ann Lamott tells a story that I think captures the heart of God our Father and Mother. She and her two year old son were staying in a condominium at Lake Tahoe. Because the area around Reno is such a hotbed for gambling the rooms come equipped with curtains that block out every speck of light so one can sleep during the day. One afternoon she put her son to bed in his playpen in one of those rooms where it was pitch black. He awoke, crawled out of his playpen and was at the door knocking. Somehow he managed to push the little button on the doorknob and locked it from the inside. He was calling out to her, “Mommy, Mommy” but she couldn’t open the door. She called out to him, “Jiggle the door knob, darling.” It soon became apparent to the little boy that he could not open the door and panic set in. He began sobbing. So his mother ran around like crazy trying everything she could think of, trying to get the door open, calling the rental agency where she left a message, calling the manager where she left another message, and running to check on her son. And there, in this pitch dark room was her terrified little child.
Finally, she did the only thing she could do, which was to slide her fingers underneath the door, where there were a few centimeters of space. She kept telling him over and over, to bend down and find her fingers. And somehow he did. So they stayed like that for a long time, connected on the floor, her little boy feeling her presence, feeling her warmth, feeling her love. (Journal for Preachers, Vol XXXIII, num. 1, 23).
This is the love of a parent. This is the love of God our Mother and Father reaching out to us even when we have locked the door from the inside. Even when we have intentionally shut God out because we loved the darkness more than the light, because we wanted to do our own thing and go our own way and pursue our selfish desires. Even though the mess we are in we made, God reaches out to us.
In our story the son finds himself a long way from home, in the “far country,” which is a metaphor for our rebellion and betrayal and entrapment. He squandered all his money and finds himself alone—empty and oppressed. He is in dire straights and finally comes to his senses.
He starts the journey home. His initial confession (Luke 15:17-20a) is a kind of half-hearted confession really. I get no sense that the son has come to face his bitter betrayal and disdain of the father. I get no sense that he hurts and suffers for the pain he caused his father. It still seems to be about him. He says, “I am starving to death. My father’s servants have it far better than me. I’ll eat crow. I’ll admit my wrong and surely my father will allow me to live as a hired servant.” He is thinking about his own well-being, not the hurt he caused his father.
When the Father see his returning son coming up the path, he runs to him, embraces him, overwhelms him with love and affection. The son says nothing about working as a hired hand (see 15:20b-21). One could speculate that at this point he realized he could get more. But I tend to think he was deeply impacted by the father’s unconditional welcome. I believe this is where the son is broken and changed, where he begins to feel the pain and hurt and suffering he has caused his father.
This is our story. Why is it that we have to come to the end of ourselves before our illusions are shattered? Why do we have to come to the place where our conniving doesn’t work any more, where there is no place else to run, before we face our betrayal, our false self, our failure to love? But if the “far country” leads us home then blessed be the far country.
The father throws a party, a great celebration: “And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate” (15:23-24). Here’s the last thing I want us to see: Coming home is not reliving the past nor is it going back to the same place: it’s joining God on a new adventure. Coming home involves a commitment to love the way God has loved us, it means sharing the joy, acceptance, and love of God, our Mother and Father.
The call of Jesus to discipleship is a call to love like God. Jesus shows us what true sonship and daughtership is like, what it means to live as a daughter and son of God. This is not an easy road. Jesus called it a narrow way.
Unconditional love is not an easy road. When we offer help we want to be thanked. When we give advice, we want it to be followed. When we give money, we want it used our way. When we do something good for someone we want to be acknowledged. Can we love without putting any conditions on our love? Without asking or needing anything in return?
The love of God is demonstrated in the self-emptying of the father. The father cares nothing about his reputation or his honor or how he will appear to other people. His love for the son makes everything else trivial and insignificant. What many people give their whole lives to becomes simply pointless in light of the magnanimous love of God. Our “little stories” find real direction and meaning when we begin to see how they are part of “the great story” of God’s creative engagement in our world.
Can we love like God? That is our calling as disciples of Jesus.
When we talk about letting go of things or setting limits or curbing our appetites this Lenten season we do not deny ourselves in order to earn favor with God. God is not grading us or keeping score. It is a self imposed disciplined that opens us up to experience and express God’s unconditional love.
Bring us to the place where we have no where else to go but to you. Bring us to the place where there are no more options, but to trust you. Bring us to the place where we come to our senses and start the journey home. Bring us to the place where we are open and read to experience your unconditional love so that we can begin to grow in your love and share your love with others.