The Prodigal Son
American folklore includes a story of a young man who left home shortly before the economic depression of the 1930s. Angry with his parents and frustrated by life on a farm, the young man wanted excitement and adventure. So, seeking fame and fortune in the city, he left home. Unfortunately, the stock market crashed, employment became scarce, and instead of wealth and fine living, the young man found himself living as a pauper. Nostalgic, he thought of his home and family and how they loved and took care of him. Yet, in all the years he’d been away, not once had he contacted his parents. Now, whilst wishing for their forgiveness, he was too ashamed and proud to admit that he had been wrong and to ask to be taken back into the family home.
Times were hard and the young man had no place to live and little food to eat. Facing destitution, he finally found the courage to write to his parents. He acknowledged his mistake, apologized for causing them distress, and admitted he was too scared to ask for their forgiveness in person lest they should reject him. Despite his dire straits, the young man had saved enough money to pay for a train journey home. So he asked his parents, if they could forgive him, to tie a white handkerchief to the old apple tree near the railway track on the day he would be on the train passing that spot. If he saw the handkerchief from the train, he would know his parents welcomed him back but if he didn’t, he would return to the city.
The young man boarded the train on the allotted day, and the closer it drew to his village,the more anxious he became. Eventually, he managed to bring himself to look out the window. To his utter amazement, he saw not just one handkerchief, but the whole tree festooned with white handkerchiefs.
There is something of this young man in everyone. Most of us have harboured feelings of regret that we were not better human beings at some point in our lives. And when it comes to the quest for eternity within ourselves, no doubt we have been struck, from time to time, by the magnitude of our imperfections. “Be therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus advised and we wonder, “How?”
The mystics are aware of our feelings of guilt and remorse and whilst they do not wish us to become complacent, neither do they wish us to indulge in self-reproach. They know that if we forgive ourselves, we will feel happier and, therefore, better able to turn our faces to the light. God’s forgiveness of, and love for, errant human beings is thus a common theme within mystic literature. Like a loving parent, the divine welcomes us with open arms, irrespective of our mistakes. In the Christian faith, the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son are perhaps the best-known stories exemplifying God’s love and readiness to forgive. The former conveys the divine’s concern for each soul. Representing the Master, the shepherd does not rest until, from his flock of many, he has found the one that has gone astray. The latter recounts the primeval story of the soul: its departure from God, its spiritual sleepiness in the creation, its awakening, and eventual return to its origin – the divine home.
In the parable of the prodigal son related by Jesus, the younger of two brothers leaves home after asking for – and receiving – his inheritance. Squandering this and becoming so pitiful as to be willing to eat the food he is feeding pigs, he eventually decides to return home. The young man is humbled and repentant and, fully intent on begging his father for forgiveness, is even willing to be his father’s servant. Expecting to be scorned by his father, the young man is amazed to be welcomed back with celebration and fanfare.
‘Prodigal’ means ‘wasteful’ and ‘extravagant’. Whilst these are apt adjectives for describing the behaviour of the young son who, upon prematurely obtaining his inheritance,fritters it away, the word ‘prodigal’ is intended to symbolize humanity squandering its greatest potential – human birth – on the sensory panorama of the world. The aim of the parable, however, is not to dwell on our weaknesses but to emphasize the possibility of changing direction. We can make a commitment to reversing our outward-oriented attention and, like the young man, set about returning to our Father.
In the parable’s concluding section, we learn that, even before the young man has reached home and had the chance to ask for forgiveness, it is the father who, upon spotting his son in the far distance, is overjoyed and rushes to embrace him, totally oblivious to the son’s outrageous behaviour. This suggests that, irrespective of the child’s misdeeds and without judgement or admonishment, the Father is always ready to welcome the wayward child. We never need to feel unworthy of God because He is all love. We can forget our past, look ahead to him and our spiritual goal. Feelings of guilt and unworthiness are forms of self-absorption, distractions of the mind, which prevent us from devoting our attention to the spiritual quest. Though it is natural from time to time to entertain such feelings, they are not in themselves a positive step. In fact, our search for God’s forgiveness originates from the wellspring of the divine spirit deep within us. We are merely responding to his call, heard faintly at first but undeniably urging us home. Therefore, as one gnostic writer counsels:
and that which has bound you will be dissolved.
Save yourselves, so that your soul may be saved.
The kind father has sent you to the Saviour,
and given you strength.
Why are you hesitating?
Seek when you are sought;
When you are invited, listen, for time is short.
Abridged from The Prodigal Soul: The Wisdom of Ancient Parables