Then he said, A man had two sons. And the younger of them said to the father, Father, give me that share of the fortune that belongs to me.
Those words are from a slightly different translation than the one proclaimed a moment ago. They make you wonder if the prodigal only wants what belongs to him (not what will one day belong to him), like saying, Father, give me that share of the tune that belongs to me..
We all want what belongs to us, what God gave us at birth, which is our very selves.
How to come into that inheritance – the whole of who you are – may well be a question at play in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it all ends in the same place. Whether the Prodigal runs off with what belongs to him – or with what will belong to him – he still manages to squander it all so completely he is lost.
And very likely, the other brother – the one who stays home and never leaves, the one who lives entirely within his father’s fold – is also lost.
Charles Peguy was a French poet who died in the First World War, and who also wrote memorable lines about this story. He believed it was the word of Jesus that had lasted the longest, the one everybody knows.
In Peguy’s telling,
“It’s the word that’s had the greatest luck.
Temporal luck. Eternal luck.
It has awakened in the heart a certain point of resonance
A special resonance.
It has also been especially fortunate,
It’s famous even among the impious.
It has found, even with them, a point of entry.
Alone perhaps it has remained driven into the heart of the impious
Like a nail of tenderness.”
That’s what hits you in this story: tenderness. Like a nail. It’s the wound your heart longs for: tenderness on the way to becoming mercy. Mercy relies most often on softening the heart. It is a kind of weakness: like having a weakness for the love of God.
And remembering how Jesus said a man had two sons, and how we know that story as if by heart, Peguy writes,
“And he who hears it for the hundredth time,
It’s as if it were the first time.
That he heard it.
A man had two sons. It is beautiful in Luke. It is beautiful everywhere.
It’s not only in Luke, it’s everywhere.
It’s beautiful on earth and in heaven. It’s beautiful everywhere.
Just by thinking about it, a sob rises in your throat.
It’s the word of Jesus that has had the greatest effect
On the world.
That has found the deepest resonance
In the world and in man.
In the heart of man.”
Those poetic lines suggest it’s the tender love of the father makes you cry, not only for the son, but for your own self, too. Both because you long for a similar love, and because you long to be that kind of love: tender, not wasting a word over who’s right or who’s wrong.
The strength of an argument is a dealbreaker when it comes time to forgive.
The oldest son wants to keep the quarrel going. The story ends without tellings us whether he chooses to let it go and enter the feast. I asked the children in chapel today: what do you think he did? Did he stay away? or did he go to the party?
Mostly they said they thought he stayed away.
But what do you want him to do? I asked. And they answered, Go to the party!
What brings on the feast in this story is the father’s weakness for it. He’d do anything to overcome the terrible distance that came with losing a son. He’d kill the fatted calf. Alienate the obedient child he’s never shared a dime with, to forgive the prodigal who left him. He’d dress that wayward child in the finest robe one more time because the one who was lost is found. And that’s all that matters.
You can’t get there – weak-kneed on the hill with the father – by hardness of heart or keeping score. You can’t get there by being right. Being right is often wrong. Hardness of heart only lands you on the side of contempt. And this world doesn’t need any more of that. It needs what it’s always needed: tenderness, feasting, the kiss of peace. Lots of kisses.
Seven summers ago I served as a chaplain on a vascular surgical unit, and by and large, the people I met were confined to hospital beds, many on their way to losing a limb. They were vulnerable and in pain, and yet they rose up daily to share the gift of their stories. Among the many who blessed me was a man named Bill.
His wife met me in the hall one day and asked me to bring up the subject of forgiveness. “Please talk to him about forgiveness,” she said. “I don’t want him to live like this,” Turns out, Bill was mad at their only child, a man named Danny, hadn’t seen him in years.
“A waste,” his father said. “A real loser.”
Speaking those words, Bill seemed momentarily strong in his bed. Puffed up with power. Eventually, I mentioned the Parable of the Prodigal. And somewhat reluctantly he gave me permission to come back that afternoon to read it out loud to him.
I went over it in advance of my visit, scanning every line for a possible key to Bill’s heart. I was surprised to note, though, that in the parable it’s up to the son to decide when he’s ready to come home, and that the father doesn’t go searching for him but waits for his return.
As miracles go, it seemed a little passive. I was hoping for a story that would make Bill want to rush out and kiss his son for the first time in years. I wanted what his wife wanted: to see him kill the fatted calf and cover his son with kisses.
Instead I was stuck with a father who merely waits on his son to come home. So, I read the story straight up, word for word as written, and what I noticed was how Bill’s eyes lit up with tears when I got to the part about the son coming home.
I realized, even though he didn’t admit it, Bill was already keeping watch for his boy.
On a whim, I asked him to imagine what it might feel like if one day Danny came home in the hope of his blessing. And that’s when Bill smiled: full-out. It wasn’t a smile he planned. It came as gift, but it was there, a hidden-away tenderness in the life of Bill. And though he quickly shook it off, I’d seen the in-breaking presence of God. And I’d seen Bill’s weakness for it.
Peguy was right: that story pierces the heart like “a nail of tenderness.”
What are we here for if not to be, or become, soft-hearted in the name of Christ?