Today’s assigned Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Rev. Dr. Catharine Gregg, our priest at Grace Episcopal Church here in St. George, talked about how each of us are all the characters in the story. If you don’t know or recall the story, Jesus tells of a wealthy father who has two sons, each of whom will receive half of his property when he dies. The younger son wants to head off to the big city and asks father for his half in advance, which he gets. The son goes off and spends it all and ends up destitute. He realizes his error and decides he can be poor back home instead of in the big city. The younger son heads home and apologizes for his stupidity. His father is thrilled to see him, and throws a big party. The older son, who has been slaving for Dad for years while his wastrel brother has been gone partying, is not happy at all. He is full of resentment.
Does any of this sound familiar? Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have taught us that when we dream we are all of the people in the dream, coming together in one “story” that may or may not make sense. And in the same way, all of us are all of the people in the Prodigal Son parable. I know that I am, or have been, all of them at various times in my life. How can this be?
I’m a father, and have had two prodigal children. One is my child, one a stepchild, but have experienced the father’s situation with each. One spent years on the streets, using and abusing drugs and his body in various ways. We wouldn’t hear from him for months at a time and Gail would never know if he was alive somewhere or dead in a ditch or a pauper’s graveyard as a “John Doe”. Eventually he came home and kicked the things he was abusing and has become successful in a career and continues to learn and grow as an adult, father, and employee. We were not as immediately celebrating as the father in the parable, but we’re also not The Father. But we have continued celebrating in the long run.
My daughter also spent years as an addict to methamphetamine and assorted other unsavory behaviors. We feared for her life as well, as many meth addicts die from the effects of the drugs. We also feared that she might spend many years in prison. Fortunately she was arrested and finally got straight with the help of a program in the county jail. We were so happy when she kept on the proper path and eventually found the right man to help parent her son and to provide her with another child in the near future. The prodigal children have come home, and we’re blessed by that. We know that all too many don’t come home.
I’ve also been the older brother in this story. I’m actually the oldest of six siblings. Although none of my five younger brothers and sisters have had lives that would qualify as prodigal, there have certainly been times when I had resentments or bad feelings to each of them. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and there have been many times I wished I had any or all of their strengths. In the long run I believe I’ve gotten past those feelings, and instead now have more than a little survivor guilt, as three of them have already died of cancer in their fifties. There have been plenty of other times in my school and work life where I’ve really resented that someone else got something I wanted, but didn’t get. Over the years I’ve learned that life is not fair, and often remind others that “If your mama promised you life would be fair she was lying or stupid”. Fortunately neither of my parents taught me that life would be fair.
I’ve also been the younger brother, even though I was biologically the oldest. I went to several colleges and changed majors several times before finally settling on a major as an undergrad and in grad school. As our father died two months after I graduated high school, I went to college on scholarships, loans, and a little bit of money from Mom. However, she was home teaching school and raising five children on very little money. Although I never heard it at the time, when I came home for holidays my siblings were happy since they said when I came home they had meat for supper. Mom confirmed that in later years that they frequently didn’t have meat since it was expensive, or if they did it was hot dogs of something else very inexpensive. So here I was, the unknowing prodigal son who came home to visit, and not even stay. Although I was married before the youngest got to college, I have been told that continued to be the situation when I came home with a wife and son.
I’d never realized before that I was all of the characters in the Parable of the Prodigal Son before, but as I was listening it really sank in. Even at 70, I hope to keep on learning like I did today.