The Prodigal

One of the best-known stories of the New Testament is the Prodigal Son parable.  I remember learning this parable early on in my Sunday School career.  I wonder if most of us do not identify with that story?  I never really felt like the prodigal.  He was the one who grabbed his inheritance much too soon, ran off and blew it on lousy choices.  And then when things got tough, he decided to go home.

There is a part of the prodigal’s action that is funny.  He reminds me of the kid in the class who has so much going for himself.  Often he is charming, a jokester, and sometimes shyster.  He can simultaneously be admired and loathed.

However, there is that part of the prodigal’s action that is lamentable.  It is clear from the outset he is hurting his father.  He is being irresponsible.  There is a feeling of “wrongness” about everything he is doing.  He continually squanders his possibilities in dumb ways.  I never really felt sorry for him at any point.

Often people like me identify with the older son who stays home on the farm, obediently works at the job, takes care of dad, and inwardly seethes at younger brother’s arrogance.  We feel like we are in the “right,” but this is a tricky place to be.  While legalistically this might be true, there lurks a kind of poison in our rectitude.

This whole parable scene ran through my head yesterday as I opened an email from a student I had in class a year or two ago.  He was a prodigal.  He sat in the back of the room.  Clearly, he was bright and gifted.  He was funny and charming.  He was young---in years and maturity.  He was a bit of a shyster, but his peers really liked him.

What I did not know was his plan to take off.  At the end of the semester he had announced he was “outta here for a better place.”  Part of me felt sad.  (Sometimes I think I can make everything turn out ok!)  Part of me said, “Ok, good luck…and God bless.”  I never expected to hear from him again.

But some time later, I received an email from him.  Of course, he was doing “alright,” as he said (still needing to do some spelling work!).  He told me how much that class on Contemplative Spirituality had meant to him.  I both knew it had and was surprised.  His email was both an attempt to reassure me and to ask for help.  Much of ministry is simply being present.

And then yesterday came his latest email.  I was touched.  He said, “in the span of taking the Contemplative Spirituality class, I grew so much and learned so many valuable things.”  Was this authentic or the shyster?  I tend toward the authentic.  He went on to ask if I would write a recommendation because he wants to come back and finish school!

Suddenly, I felt like the father figure in the prodigal story.  The kid is coming back.  I felt like throwing a party!  I have no clue all the things he has done since he left.  And today that does not matter.  All I know is he cannot be the same kid who left.  That kid would have said he would never come back!

I am convinced if we tested his knowledge of what I taught in Contemplative Spirituality, he would flunk.  But I would like to think something he learned stuck.  And in my own spiritual understanding, I will claim somehow there was a Spirit moving in the class that continues to move in his life.  And he has paid attention to that Spirit.

I claim that same Spirit moves in you and me.  If we will listen, pay attention, and respond, that Spirit will take us to good places.  And good places have good people who usually are good in their ministries.

Tomorrow I write the recommendation so the prodigal can come home.

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