There was a man with two sons. The younger son said to his father, “I wish you were dead. Give me my portion of the inheritance and let me be free from the constraints of this family, this town, and this life. I don’t want anything to do with any of you anymore. I want to be me.
Writing about leaving home on the Feast of St. Nicholas feels almost blasphemous. The patron saint of children, the one who in our culture becomes Santa Claus, evokes in almost everyone warm thoughts of happiness, love, generosity, and family gatherings. Even if one’s birth family was not idyllic, “Leave it to Beaver”-esque in its living, we all have longings for that version of home and hearth. The younger son’s leaving violates all of the conventions of familial respect and responsibility.
The paraphrase I have offered is stark and jarring to hear, but this is, in essence, what the younger son is saying to his father. Father Nouwen cites work by Kenneth Bailey in which folk from different cultures, “from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan” reject the younger son’s request of his father for his portion of the inheritance. (The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.35) Jesus’ original hearers might have been so stunned by the younger son’s demand that it is possible that they heard nothing further. The request is equivalent to wishing his father dead and rejecting the home and family. Nouwen continues, “More than disrespect, it is a betrayal of the treasured values of family and community. The ‘distant country’ is the world in which everything considered holy at home is disregarded.” (p.36)
As a high school graduate, I wanted to get away from some of my family problems and begin to test my wings, which is part of the reason I chose to attend Sewanee for college. The University of the South was far from Chickasha, Oklahoma, a totally different setting and culture, and filled with a freedom which I did not think I had at home. In reflection, I, the older son, left while my younger brother stayed home when he journeyed through his college years. Perhaps for the first time in my life, upon reflection, I am beginning to understand the younger son’s leaving and the impact of my leaving on my family.
Jesus’ parables are so deep and rich that I do not believe it is possible to plumb the depths or completely enjoy the wealth of meaning for any of us in a single reading or hearing. I have encouraged you to re-read the parable each day; if you have not done so yet today, go back and listen to how God may be calling you to new insights as you read again the parable of the man with two sons. Read it aloud, slowly, and hear, perhaps for the first time, the Holy Spirit speaking to you today about your life.