Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Prodigal Sons


The word “prodigal” comes from a Latin verb meaning “to be extravagant” or “to drive away.” These two meanings seem to have little to do with one another until I consider that extravagance is a form of separating myself from others. When I am extravagant I turn others into the instruments of my pleasure. Others are only there to congratulate and affirm my largesse, to catch the crumbs I choose to throw their way.

So there was a father who had two sons. On the surface, these two sons seem very different, the older, righteous one, an upholder of decency and tradition, the younger, the extravagant one who throws it all away. And yet as I have reflected upon these two sons over years and years of reading this parable, Lenten studies of it, Henri Nouwen's wonderful meditations on Rembrandt's painting, these two brothers begin to blur until they are not so much two brothers, but two different sides of myself. I have a great capacity for extravagance. I’m an American, after all. I like good food and drink. I like throwing myself around and taking up space at the airport. But also as an American, which is to say, as the child of a Puritan heritage, I can also be very judgmental of myself when I do this, and fatally judgmental of others who just might get in my way.

It makes me wonder. It makes me wonder whether, in some manner, the two sons in this perfectly crafted story are not so much two individuals as they are different sides of the same one, a self at different ages and stages. Dostoevsky, that unsparing cartographer of the soul, talked about this as “doubling.” Carl Jung explored the human being as three part invention: ego, the part of myself that I own and which defines my personality, profession and way of being in the world; shadow, all those things I am not, but which I also am, the part of myself that I fear and don’t understand; and self, the being in which all these things are integrated and made whole.

A very famous public figure embodies these two characters with dramatic clarity and results. As a young man, i.e. in his younger brother stage, he was a drunk and a carouser. Later, he “came to himself,” joined the recovery movement and became the older brother, an upholder of tradition and a very powerful politician. Today, convinced of his own righteousness and unable to fully forgive or even integrate the wild man that he once was, he punishes all who would oppose him with an institutional ruthlessness that has not been seen in this country since white men tortured and lynched their dark skinned shadow brothers.

Missing in this struggle between the brothers, and especially in the story of the politician who bears the outward and visible signs of his nation’s psychic wounds, is the self that both seek to become. It is usual when reading the parable of the Prodigal Son to see the brothers as the sinner and the righteous man and the father as God. God who forgives. God who is so glad to see a repentant one that he brings the ring and the robe and kills the fatted calf, the God who is waiting to welcome us home. Because spiritual stories have an infinity of meanings, this is certainly a good way to read it.

But again, I wonder. Perhaps the father is not God, but the Self that the two incomplete and wounded brothers of ego and shadow seek to become. Perhaps the father is the integration of both. A life goes through many stages; impulsive youth, the stern and responsible years of middle adulthood, the wisdom of age. The stages of a fully human life are a trinity. By the time he comes home, the younger brother has explored his shadow side. He has seen what keeping up appearances leads to and he can now embrace a greater fullness of being. He has learned that when the means of keeping up appearances are gone, there is nothing left, for an obsession with appearances, no less than slavery, deprives us of our inner life. The older brother has so meticulously kept up his outer life and duty that he does not know this until his father broadsides him with a robe, a ring and a fatted calf, the material rewards of a life well lived given not as crown to him, but in gratitude for the return of his brother. In this moment, the older brother is revealed as just as obsessed with money as the younger one, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'

The older son refuses to join the feast. He is prodigal, too. He drives away all thought of reconciliation. His doctrine dictates that he must draw a line in the sand and cling to his vision of moral purity, even if he is being invited by God to do otherwise. In the name of his own correctness, he refuses to embark on his journey toward integration. It is clear in some way that this older brother, for all his being obedient and righteous, has refused God.

But where is God in this parable? If the father is not God, but the fully realized human being, then who is God? It was when I prayed this question that Jesus came to me. Jesus who stands between the warring parties. Jesus, who on the night the Israelites and the Egyptians faced off against one another, became the Passover lamb, the firstborn who died with the Egyptians and nourished the Israelites for their exodus. Jesus, who stood between the bulls of Rome and the rams of Judea and became the bread of heaven. Jesus, who when the sinner came home and it was time for the feast, became the fatted calf, that all who feed on him shall have eternal life.

It is not by our righteous deeds, our successes or our failures that God will find and bless us. It is by our willingness to join the feast, even when we feel so shafted that we can barely speak. When we lose community, it doesn’t matter what else we have, for without community, we have lost it all.

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