I’d like to begin today by telling a story that is found in an ancient Indian Buddhist scripture called the Lotus Sutra. It is quite interesting because it it is very similar to the story of the Prodigal Son as told by Jesus. The version I am telling now is a shortened or summarised version and goes something like this:
Once upon a time a boy ran away from home and wandered about for many years becoming more and more poor and more and more confused.
The boy’s father loved his son very much, but had no idea where to find him. As time went on, the father became very rich.
Fifty years passed. One day, the son showed up at his father's palace. He did not know whose grand home this was, but wondered if he could find a job there. The father recognized his son, and set messengers to greet him. The father was overjoyed that his son had returned.
But the son misunderstood. He thought the messengers were trying to arrest him for doing something wrong and so he tried to get away.
The father saw his son’s fear and confusion. He realized his son was not ready to accept the truth, so he told the messengers to leave his son alone.
Later the father had some of his servants dress in rags. He had these servants go to his son and offer him a job shovelling cow dung. The son had been living so poorly for so long, he saw this job as a wonderful opportunity.
Over the years, the father showed great interest in his son. Sometimes he even disguised himself in dirty rags so that he could speak with his son and get to know him so that his son would not become afraid and run away from him. During this time, the son grew and changed and he was helped to become more and more responsible, taking on more and more important jobs on his father’s estate. The father praised him, encouraged him, increasing his pay, as the son grew to be more and more responsible. The father loved being near his son and seeing him grow and mature, but he never told his son his true identity because he didn’t want to scare his son away.
After twenty years, the father was old and near death. By this time the son was in charge of all of his father’s money and business. The son had become a responsible and a humble man just like his father, even though he didn’t know yet that it was his father.
Finally, just before his death, the father gathered all of his friends and all the powerful people of the city to his bedside. He revealed then the true identity of his son. The son inherited all of the fortune.
(The Parable of the Impoverished Son - From the Lotus Sutra Chapter 4, Belief and Understanding. For a full English translation of the chapter click here)
Like I said earlier, this story is very similar to the story in the bible of the prodigal son. But in this parable, we see that it has been so long the son had completely forgotten who his father was. He couldn’t recognise his father. He was even scared of his father even though his father only wanted the very best for him. And so the father had to help his son grow until he was ready to hear that he was the son of his father.
Indeed we are like that too. We are God’s children. In the book of Acts (17:29) in the Bible, it says “We are all God’s offspring”. The Greek word for offspring is genos from which we get the word genesis. Our genesis is in God. It is another way of saying, “We are God’s children.” But we don’t always know how to act like God’s children. Over time God needs to help us grow and become more and more responsible and more and more loving so that we can become more and more like God, full of wisdom and compassion.
And that is the conclusion that Henri Nouwen reaches in his book. Some of us may be more like the younger son in the story of the Prodigal Son. Some of us are more like the older son in the story. But in the end, we all need to grow into being more and more like the father.
And as Henri Nouwen says, Jesus shows us what true sonship is: He is free like the younger son without becoming rebellious. He is obedient like the elder son, without being resentful or becoming a slave. He does everything the Father sends him to do, but remains completely free. He gives everything and receives everything and so reflects the likeness of his father. And so when in John’s Gospel Philip says to him “Show us the Father”, Jesus responds, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”. (John 14:9).
Henri Nouwen says that perhaps the most radical statement that Jesus ever made is in Luke 6:36 “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate”. In these words, Jesus is inviting us to become like God. As Paul puts it in Galatians 4:7, God has made us God’s heir.
Our destiny is ultimately to inherit the fullness of God’s nature and offer to others the same compassion that God has offered to us. The return to the Father, is ultimately the invitation to become the Father, becoming transformed in his image, loving as God loves.
But how do we do this? Can I give without wanting anything in return? Can I love without putting any conditions on my love? Can I be kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked as Jesus suggests in Matthews Gospel? It seems like an impossible task.
I wonder if the answer is that ultimately it is not our own doing or something that is even possible for us to achieve in our limited ego strength, but rather it is the unfolding of God’s infinite compassion within us. The transformation into God’s image begins when we allow ourselves to be received and embraced and held by the love and compassion that God has towards us. The more deeply we come to know God’s loving compassion towards us, the more profoundly that compassion will flow through us towards others.
1 John 3:2-3 Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him. Amen.