Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Am I the lost son?

When reading the story of the lost or prodigal son, I have always struggled to really identify with the lost son. While I acknowledge that I sin and fall short of God's glory, nonetheless I cannot picture myself as the son in the story because I cannot relate to the description of his experience. I have not strayed far from home. I have not indulged in wild living. To quote the words of Henri Nouwen:

"It is strange to say this, but, deep in my heart, I have known the feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all sorts of things I condemn. I called their behavior reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn't have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself."

It may seem strange to speak of envying sinful behavior. But for one who hasn't lived a wild life, sometimes I cannot appreciate the depth of God's love because I don't really appreciate the fullness of his forgiveness. As Jesus said to the Pharisee in Luke 7, "He who has been forgiven little, loves little." As long as I look at the lost son and see someone completely foreign to my experience, I cannot enter into the story and appreciate the magnitude of either his lostness or the love that welcomes him home.

Reading Nouwen's book The Return of the Prodigal Son opened my eyes to this story in a new way. Nouwen points out that a homecoming such as the one in the story must be proceeded by a "home-leaving." He reminds me that I have a home in the loving embrace of my heavenly Father. But I become the lost son if I choose to leave this home and seek my identity and my home anywhere else. "Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one," writes Nouwen. I can relate to this, because I know that I have done and still do this. How or where I seek this other "home" isn't really the issue. The issue is that I become the lost son because I reject that which God offers and seek to replace it with something, anything, that the world offers. Instead of hearing God's voice which calls me his beloved son, I choose to listen to the voices that tell me I must prove my worth. I must earn the right to be called his son. My fear of rejection, of being unloved and unwelcome, drive me further and further from my one true home. As Nouwen says:

"I am so afraid of being disliked, put aside, passed over, ignored, persecuted, and killed, that I am constantly developing strategies to defend myself and thereby assure myself of the love I think I need and deserve. And in so doing I move far away from my father's home and choose to dwell in a 'distant country'."

As I read this I recognized the extent to which I am, indeed, the lost son. I may not have thrown away my father's inheritance in wild living, but nevertheless I have chosen many times to reject it or to exchange it for the worthless garbage of this world. And the world has given me nothing lasting in return. Having understood better that I have indeed left home, like the lost son, I can now better appreciate the process of his return. I hope to share some thoughts on that in the near future.

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