I’d like to begin today by reading a very short anonymous poem about leave home:
It is written on a post card from two parents to their daughter. In the address section is written: the Great Unknown, Far, Far Away and the poem reads as follows:
We trust you.
We love you.
Mom and Dad
In those simple words is captured a whole range of thoughts and sentiments. A deep sense of love and care that has been nurtured and treasured over the daughter's lifetime, from her conception through childhood and teens and into adulthood… Dearest daughter, we love you. A sense of anxiety and worry over what could potentially go wrong. Be careful. The sense that she has grown and matured and has developed the skills to make it on her own. We trust you. And reading between the lines, the underlying sense of sadness that inevitably comes with having to let go expressed in the address: The great unknown, far far away…
We trust you.
We love you.
Mom and Dad
Today we continue our preaching series on the Return of the Prodigal Son, a reflection on the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 15 but also a reflection on a book written by Henri Nouwen reflecting on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name.
As Henri Nouwen reflects on the full title of Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, he writes that implicit in the return is a leaving. Returning is a home-coming only after a home-leaving, a coming back after having gone away. He writes: “The father who welcomes his son home is so glad because ‘...this son was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found’. The immense joy in welcoming back the lost son hides the immense sorrow that has gone before. He writes that only when we have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can we come to a true understanding of the return.
In Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son, the sorrow and pain of leaving is depicted most profoundly in the rags of the son as he returns. But the depth of pain and sorrow are not just the son’s who has discovered the harshness of life outside of his father’s embrace. The sorrow is indeed also the sorrow and the anguish of the father who has watched his beloved younger son leaving home not as a means of growing to full maturity, but rather with a desire to avoid taking responsibility. With sorrow in his heart, the father has had to watch the son leave, knowing that disaster is surely awaiting the son, but it is the only way he will ultimately grow. Knowing also that if he tried prevent his son from leaving, he would lose his son’s love anyway. If you love someone, you will in the end need to set them free. Like Jesus who doesn’t run after the Rich Young Man, the father in the parable does not run after the son, for the son needs to make the necessary mistakes that will hopefully in the end lead him back home.
Henri Nouwen tells how Kenneth Bailey offers a penetrating explanation of the gravity of the son’s leaving. He quotes Kenneth Baily who writes:
For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morrocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while his father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same… the conversation runs as follows:
Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?
Could anyone ever make such a request?
If anyone ever did, what would happen?
His father would beat him of course!
The request means – he wants his father to die.
The implication of the son’s request is ‘Father, I cannot wait for you to die’. As Timothy Keller writes, the request shows that the younger son loves his father’s money more than he loves his father. It is the father’s stuff that he wants, not his father’s love.
The son’s leaving is therefore more than just an offence to the father, it is a heartless rejection of the home in which the son was born and nurtured and a break from the whole tradition upheld by the larger community of which he was a part.
One could say it is an act of profound self-centeredness and a betrayal of the treasured values of family and community that have nurtured and formed him, as he chooses to dispose of his father’s assets and leave for a distant country rather than to give back out of gratitude for all he has received in life.
But this parable is not just about leaving home in a literal sense. It is meant to be read as a parable, a metaphor for those times when we feel disconnected from the inner life of our own spirits. And so Henri Nouwen writes that leaving home is much more than an historical event bound in time and space. Rather, it is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows. Leaving home means ignoring the truth that God has fashioned me in secret, moulded me in the depths of the earth and knitted me together in my mother’s womb. Leaving Home is living as though I do not yet have a home and so must look far and wide to find one, when all along I already have a home in God’s gentle embrace.
Henri Nouwen goes on. He says “Home is the centre of my being where I can hear that voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests”.
To leave home for a distant country as the prodigal son does, is to cease to hear that voice of God that whispers our name and calls us the Beloved. And in it’s place to seek other ways to fill the void that is left. Leaving home means seeking, in other things, and in other people, a depth of satisfaction, contentment and love, that only God can bring.
To leave home in a spiritual sense, is to cease finding our fulfilment in things that are of eternal and enduring value and to put our hope and our trust in things that are impermanent, passing and of fleeting value.
By contrast, if we find ourselves deeply rooted in the world of the spirit, and grounded in a sense of the eternal, then it is possible to appreciate and enjoy the fleeting joys of life, because we are rooted in something deeper. Is that perhaps what it means to be in this world but not of this world? But when we fail to root ourselves in our true inner home of the spirit, then chasing after the fleeting joys of life becomes like chasing after the wind as we read in Ecclesiastes. It is a recipe for desperate, futile, empty and addictive living as the younger son very quickly discovers as he finds himself hitting rock-bottom feeding pigs and longing to eat their food. We can only appreciate the joys of our outward senses in the material world when we are rooted in the more enduring and deeper joy of the spirit, our true home.
As I suggested earlier, the fatal mistake of the younger son in this parable is that he wanted to enjoy only the good things of life. Leaving home was an exercise in avoidance. He was trying to avoid growing up, trying to avoid the pain and the difficulties of life as an adult and so soon he finds himself far away from his father’s love, living alone, in a pig-sty in a distant country. And there he discovers for himself that pain and struggle in life cannot in the end be avoided. When we live our lives trying to avoid the pain, the struggles and the responsibilities of life, we end up in even greater pain and suffering than we were avoiding in the first place.
We all find ourselves from time to time living in distant countries away from ‘the love of the father’. To live in a distant country is a metaphor for the dead-ends where we have searched for love, affirmation, value and satisfaction, but found only emptiness, broken promises and constantly shifting sands. Henri Nouwen writes: “I am the prodigal son, every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father?”
Henri Nouwen writes that it is not very hard to know when we are being dragged into a distant country away from our true spiritual home. Fear, anger, resentment, greed, anxiety, jealousy, a sense of barreness and emptiness are all signs that we have left home, perhaps daydreaming about becoming rich, powerful and famous, and in the process disconnected from the inner voice of love that is already whispering: “You are my beloved, on whom my favour rests?”
What are the times in your life where it has felt psychologically or spiritually you were living in a distant country?
What are some of the dead-ends you have found yourself over the years?
What are the places and occasions in your life where you were hoping to find satisfaction and contentment, (perhaps even unconditional love) but only found emptiness, like you had been chasing after the wind?