31 – Staying Home
“when this son of yours came back”
Over a century ago George Eliot[i] wrote a novel called The Mill on the Floss. One of the main characters is a little girl called Maggie. In an early scene, Maggie is looking at a series of paintings of the lost son. She says to her friend, “I’m very glad his father took him back again, aren’t you, Luke? For he was very sorry, you know, and wouldn’t do wrong again.” Luke is not so sure and comments, “he’d be no great shakes, no matter what his father would do for him.”
George Eliot adds the response to this negative appraisal of the profligate son as she writes, “That was a painful thought to Maggie, and she wished much that the later history of the young man had not been left a blank.”
“She wished … that the later history of the young man had not been left a blank.” She is not the only one to think that. Periodically through the past century there have been attempts to offer a suggestion or two as to what possibly happened in the days and years that followed the wanderer’s return.
Milo Kaufman[ii] some years ago wrote a monologue of the older brother talking to a friend. The father has just walked back into the house disappointed and sad. His older son turns to his waiting friend and mounts his defense of his actions as he speaks about this returning tramp of a brother. His litany of complaint increases in intensity as he pours out his unresolved anger. It is then that his friend points to a figure coming out of the house. It is the younger brother. As the two brothers move closer, listen to the older brother as he speaks:
“What? Father is saving the place next to himself at the dinner, for me? Why would he do that? No, no, no, no, I can’t go in. I am not dressed. Your robe? No, I couldn’t put it on, brother. I – I haven’t bathed. Incredible! You have poured my bath. The servants should have done that. You demean yourself brother. Go on in. I cannot say; perhaps I will come in later.”
What a marvelous end to that evening. That is one of the endings that might have taken place right after our story ends. The younger reaches out to the older and makes what apologies he can.
But it is the long term that interests me more. What happened, not so much that night, but what happened in the weeks, months, and years that followed. Let me paint a variety of possible conclusions.
He Becomes a Saint
One of the possibilities is that the younger son came home that day, and stayed home, and in the months and years that followed he became quite respectable and responsible. He married one of the girls from the nearby village, and together they raised a family. He worked hard on his father’s farm, and after his father had passed away, on his brother’s farm, and became known in his community as an outstanding citizen. He found joy in the work he did, and often shuddered as he thought about the pigpen period of his life. He frequently reflected upon those equally unpleasant days of looking for work and not finding it, and new waves of gratitude would awaken in him as he found himself engrossed in work that demanded so much, but gave back more than it ever took. He thought often how exhilarating it was to have something to show for his efforts at the end of a day, compared to the wasted days in the far country. He ate with a relish the food that came to the table. It was great to eat well after working well, and his prayers in returning thanks to God became a benediction to all that sat at table with him.
He would attend the synagogue, finding a poignancy in the psalms of confession and of praise that he had never experienced before. He sang the songs led by the cantor much more vigorously than he had ever sung in the wine bars of that alien nation. He grew in appreciation of the deep wisdom in the warnings of the Torah. No longer did he consider them to be difficult in their demands, but only helpful in their counsel. When he died many years later, the community knew that a saint had lived among them.
He Becomes a Pharisee
There is, however, another possibility that is not so pleasant. The irresponsible son came home that day, and stayed home, and in the months and years that followed he became quite respectable and responsible. But something terrible began to happen. In the passing of the years he became quite self-righteous. Degree by degree he began to turn into a Pharisee just like his older brother had been. He began to look down his nose at those who could not tell a conversion story like his. He looked with disdain upon his older brother whom he considered to be impossibly legalistic. And as the years progressed, he became more critical of others than his elder brother had ever been.
Henri Nouwen,[iii] in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, tells the story of the personal journey of Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter. Rembrandt had a practice of painting himself into some of his paintings. It was not vanity. It was autobiography. He was sharing how he saw life and saw himself.
When he paints himself in his early days at about age 30, he puts himself into the contexts of wild revelry. In one painting he is a cavalier in a house of ill repute with a voluptuous woman in his arms and a tall glass half-empty lifted high, and a face flushed with debauchery. He is obviously drunk and lecherous. Rembrandt recognizes himself as a son on the run towards pleasure. And that is a picture of the artist’s early years. An extravagant spender in the pleasures of the day.
And the pigpen part of the prodigal life is also true of Rembrandt. In his wastefulness he lost everything he had possessed. His creditors took away his possessions; he was pursued by lawsuits for unpaid bills. His fame as a painter plummeted, and he ends his youth, bankrupt financially, socially, professionally and morally. The clothing of the cavalier has become the tattered clothing of a beggar. Rembrandt had fallen through debauchery into despair.
Rembrandt created paintings of the Prodigal Son more than once. It was a story that would haunt him all his days. He did his first portrayal of the Prodigal Son in 1636 at the very end of the foolish years. It is an etching, and in this work of art there is no doubt that Rembrandt scribes himself as the runaway, finally coming to his senses, and to his father’s house!
There is, however, a further phase to the life of Rembrandt. The debauchery is now over. The wild days are past. The biographers tell us of the man that emerged from that experience. He became respectable. He became industrious. But he also became hard to live with. He became bitter and angry with those around him. He became arrogant, knowing his artistic gifts were those of a genius. He was cold and aloof from the hurt of others. By slow degrees this prodigal son turned into an older brother. He had jumped from the frying pan into the far-worse fire.
This is not simply a Rembrandt story, however. The church is filled with those who have come through profligate pasts, and have become harsh perfectionists. They raise high expectations over the lives of others, and demand that we jump higher, run faster, and work harder, to prove ourselves grateful for God’s mercy. What an unhappy ending! May it not be so of any of us!
( But in defense of Rembrandt, the paragraph above does not represent the end of his story. 30 years after that first etching, Rembrandt paints the story of the Prodigal Son once more. He was close to his death when he painted it. It was perhaps the last painting he ever did. He was only 63 when he died, but he portrayed himself as an old man. The focal figure in the painting is obviously the father. He is almost blind. He is stooped over with the years of sorrow. But he is not an angry old man, querulous with the years. His eyes are tear filled, and his gestures are filled with compassion for his son. Rembrandt has moved from being a profligate, and from becoming a Pharisee, and has become a father reaching out to wayward sons.)
He Becomes a Dependent
There is a third alternative. This also is too sad for words. He is glad to be gone from that far country. He now knows he was over his head. The memories of his ricocheting through that Gentile world are still painful to him years later. He is more than glad to be home.
But he is still an irresponsible son. He is still a getter not a giver. He is a user, but not useful. He leeches off the family fortune. He is redeemed from feeding off the pigs to feeding off his family. He is saved, but he is no servant.
The words that he had crafted while in the pigpen were, “Make me as one of your hired hands.” But those words quickly pass out of memory when he finds himself wearing the robe, the ring and the shoes. If his father wants a son and not a servant, that’s fine with him. His slaving days are over. He may not inherit anything upon the passing of his father, but as long as his kind dad is alive, he will do fine.
In the months and years that followed he became just an extra mouth to feed. He is saved, secure, satisfied! He may be a son, but he is no servant. And that is a great tragedy!
In almost every religion of the world, including Christianity, there has been a long discussion of “eternal security.” The concern has risen for millennia over the question as to whether a devotee’s eternal security is conditional or unconditional. The phrasing often goes like this: am I secure because the omnipotent God is holding me, or am I secure because I am keeping hold of God?
In Hinduism the issue is captured by the metaphors the “cat-hold” or the “monkey hold”. When the mother cat carries her young, she holds her kitten by the nape of its neck, in her teeth. The kitten is secure because its safety is the entire responsibility of the parent. On the other hand, baby monkeys cling to the under belly of their mothers by the strength of their puny hands and arms. As the mother monkey swings from branch to branch, the baby hangs on for dear life.
I am not sure I like the either-or-ness of these images. The Wesleyan tradition has at times been inclined to defend the monkey hold as the crucial matter in the security of the believer. When anyone quotes the assuring passage, “Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling…” found in Jude 24; some are quick on the draw, and respond with their preferred passage from verse 21 of the same book “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” Those from the Reformed tradition have preferred the alternative reading. And so the battle of the Biblical bites has gone on for centuries.
May I suggest a different range of metaphors? When two lovers are locked in an embrace, the question arises, “Who is holding whom?” When two persons dance together, who is holding whom? When two people shake hands, who is holding whom? Are such persons hanging on for dear life, or embracing each other for dear love?
Hanging on seems to be such a faithless activity. It seems more like wrestlers who are hanging on to each other for fear that if they let go, the other person will do them wrong. Hanging on seems to remind me of people who are clutching and clinging too tightly, as though one were afraid of losing the other. I thought perfect love casts out all fear?
“Mere safety” has never been the goal of becoming a Christian. We are not to consider ourselves among those who have been saved from drowning, but now feel we must hang-on by a far too slender thread, terrified lest we fall back in and be swept away to our doom. When lovers hang to each other in that way, the word “control” comes to mind. Salvation was never intended to engender a compulsive possessiveness that causes us to live in eternal anxiety or insecurity.
The Goal of Christian Life
If the goal of the Christian life is not simply to land safely on the other shore, what is the goal? I have always found it fascinating that all the way through the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament there are no clear words about saints going to heaven when they die. The heavens are where God dwells, where the stars hang out, and where the birds fly. But nowhere are we told it is the place where the righteous dead go. There are some sporadic intimations that death is not the end, but there are no clear words in the Law or the Prophets or the Poets about our landing safely in heaven after we pass away.
It is even more strange when we consider that almost every other religion has made that a major focus of its faith. But when God reveals Himself and His ways to Israel, he does not wish them to be good so they can get to heaven, or avoid hell, when they die. Instead He wants them to be good because it is good to be good.
God wants to create a people who live in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life. But he wants them to be good for the right reasons, not for ulterior motives. Now there is no doubt that the saints of the Old Testament age went to be with God. Jesus removes this doubt when he declares to the cynical Sadducees, that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but of the living. (Mark12:26-27) And of course, his own resurrection was, for the Christian Church, the irrefutable proof that there is a resurrection, and that heaven is intended to be our final home.
But safety was never the goal. Intimacy with God, fellowship with our Father, the companionship of the Holy Spirit, loving God with all we are and loving one another, was always the goal, and the goal for every day and every moment of those days.
The goal was never that we would live out our days in eternal insecurity wondering if we would arrive home safely. Neither were we to operate on the presumption of a security based on mere legalities, which asserts that God and we have signed a binding contract, so neither we nor He can ever get out of it. The words of the song “Bind us together, Lord” were not intended to remind us of handcuffs. The closing words give the right intonation; “Bind us together with love.” “I keep falling in love with Him over and over, and over and over again” is the right way to interpret the words of the older song, “this bondage to love sets me perfectly free.” It is love alone that can liberates us from such anxiety and such presumptions.