Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Father's Grief

There is a story told in the New Testament of two sons; the elder stayed home and did everything his father asked, and the younger wanted to leave. 

In those days, upon the death of a father, the elder son got two thirds of the inheritance, while the remainder was divided among the younger sons. There was a provision in the law of the day that a son could ask for his share of the inheritance prior to the father's death - but requesting such a thing was, in essence, saying that the son desired his father's death. It was a very mercenary thing to do. Greedy. 

Many commentaries on this story look at the son leaving as the moment at which the son turned his back on his dad. 

Might I submit that this had happened long before the boy packed his bags - that the younger son had done nothing all of his life, or at least all of his teenage years, except to take whatever the father freely gave to him as his right, and still asked for more. He used his dad's name, his dad's wealth, his standing in the community, and that wasn't enough. He couldn't wait for his dad to die. And it wasn't happening fast enough. 

So he grabbed what he wanted and left the farm. 

From the dad's perspective, this son had turned his back on everything he had taught him. He robbed his dad of the help and care that would be his in his old age, by taking off and spending his money on frivolities and lascivious living. 

Did you know that the word "prodigal" means "wasteful"? It does! 

Did you also know that when a child in the Hebrew culture embraces a lifestyle with which the parent does not agree, the family has a funeral for him? That started many centuries ago and it still happens!

"Male Crying" photo courtesy of
David Castillo Dominici at
The father in the prodigal son story grieved the loss of his son ... as if he had died. In fact, the boy he remembered, the child who doted on his father's every word, truly no longer existed. He'd been replaced by a petulant, prideful, pathetic individual who only looked after himself and who ignored or rejected all efforts to make him see the error of his ways. 

The father mourned for him. Perhaps for weeks, perhaps for months and maybe even years his heart ached within him. At sunset and often during the day, he found his eyes straying unbidden to the gate, the place where he had watched his son's retreating form walk up the hill, then disappear over the top of it.  

Over and over he thought about those last few months prior to his son's departure. He blamed himself for not being able to teach his son right from wrong. He wondered if there was anything he could have done to keep his son from engaging in such selfish behavior. All the arguments, all the bitter words, echoed through his mind. Shame and anguish engulfed him. Once in a while, he'd hear reports of what his boy was doing out there - and his spirit was distressed, the grief as fresh as the very first day. He wondered if there would ever be an end to the waste, to the selfish actions by which the boy's life was characterized now. 

Yet, he'd had no choice but to let go... as painful as it was.

In the meantime, miles away, it took the natural consequences of those selfish actions to hammer the boy's pride and self-absorption into submission. The process might have taken years; we are not told how long it was. 

But one day - one day when the former heir had thrown it all away and there was absolutely nothing left - he realized that in wasting his father's riches and resources, he had wasted himself. He knew he had given up the right to be treated as a son. He knew his dad had already had a funeral for him. He knew that he didn't exist. 

He was a non-person. A second-class citizen. A servant. 

Yes, he had in reality made himself a servant to his own passions, to the grips of excess and then to the bony grasp of poverty to which his self-centered behavior had brought him. 

His mind dwelt on servanthood; he knew a lot about it. His father had many hired hands - they had enough to eat and more besides, and a warm and clean place to live. True, their lives were at the beck and call of their master. Yet their master - the father - was good to them. They were protected, cared for, fed, clothed and housed.

He, on the other hand, was feeding pigs. Swine - the most disgusting animal a Jew could possibly be asked to tend. He smelled of pig feces; the odor is one of the worst in the world of domesticated animals. His clothes, his hair, his skin reeked of it. Yet he was so hungry that he gladly would have fought them off at close range to get the pig slop that they received. Yet, he wasn't even allowed to share the pigs' food. Nobody gave him anything. Not one thing.

He wasn't aware how deeply his dad had grieved; in fact, he'd convinced himself that his dad didn't care about him the way a dad cares about a son. He'd done too much, wasted too much. Especially himself. 

Yet ... he was desperate.

He'd go back to the homestead, he thought, and ask to be hired on as a servant. Living in the servants' quarters wouldn't be so bad. It would certainly be a lot better than what he was forced to do now. And it was a lot better, he reasoned, than he deserved. 

When he left home, he felt entitled to the life he thought he'd been denied. When he started back, he felt beaten. Used up. Worthless. 

He was desperate. He was willing to go to any lengths to have a better life than the one he'd chosen, the lifestyle that had turned on him and devoured him. 

Before he rounded the crest of the hill toward home, before he was amazed to find that his father welcomed him with open arms and reinstated him as a full member of the household, little did he know how many long nights his dad had held close to himself all that was good about his growing-up years, how profoundly and constantly his father had missed him. His company, his voice, his smile, his laughter. 

His heart. 

The relationship he'd abandoned, wasted in the dust on his father's front doorstep, was waiting for him when he returned. The father made that perfectly clear. He knew it - though the enormity of the dad's forgiveness and acceptance overwhelmed him - as surely as he knew his own name. The sounds of music and dancing had returned to the house. He was so very grateful.

He stole a glance at the older man amid the festivities.

His dad's face was wet with tears. But he was smiling from ear to ear.

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