Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Father

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of fatherhood recently, and not just because I am a father. Mainly it's because I just read this incredible book by Henri Nouwen called The Return of the Prodigal Son. It is a wonderful book and I highly recommend pretty much anything by him.

That being said, let me take you on my thought train, if you wish. Feel free to get off at any time, as this train does make frequent and unscheduled stops. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the scenery.

It all begins in Luke, chapter 15. The Gospel of St Luke. In the Bible. (Just in case you somehow didn't actually know that, which I really can't imagine.)

It is here that we find the parable of the Prodigal Son. But more than that, we find 3 parables in a row, set in a very interesting context. The chapter begins by telling us that Jesus is with the tax collectors and the sinners, and that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling about this. "Why", they basically say, "is He hanging out with such folk?"

And what does Jesus do in the face of such complaints? He offers 3 parables: that of the lost sheep, the lost drachma, and finally that of the prodigal son.

In the first, as you know, He says that any good shepherd would leave his 99 sheep who are safe in order to find the 1 that is lost. He then points out that the shepherd would rejoice in finding that one lost sheep. In the second He speaks of a woman who is rejoicing because she found a lost coin after searching her entire house for it. Finally, in the third, He talks about the prodigal son and how the father rejoices upon his return.

From a sheep to a coin to a child, He is not only giving us a series of things that are growing in importance to His audience, He is placing the lost individual above the other two, reminding us that while we celebrate the first two instances of finding something lost, we should rejoice even more with the third.

But let's look at that third parable again. After all, this is what got me started and led me to my ruminations on fatherhood.

We all know about how the son has returned and the father is celebrating. But what about the details? This is, after all, a Messenger of God Who is telling us this story, and the details often prove enlightening. The first two parables are quite short, and this third one is much longer, so there must be some reason for that. At least, I presume there is a reason for that. As usual, though, please don't take my word for it. Let's take a look at the parable itself.
“There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he rcame to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might ecelebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
As you can see, there are three central characters in this story: the prodigal son, the elder brother and the father. Moving from youngest to eldest, we can easily imagine ourselves to be in the position of the younger brother, who was prodigal. We can easily imagine ourselves in such a position, casting away all that had been given to us for a few moments of selfish pleasure. We can read into the story the concept that this son had effectively told his dad that he was as dead to him, hence the "give me my inheritance" line and the moving to a foreign country. I could go on about this, but Nouwen already does, and he does it so well.

We could also see ourselves as the elder brother, becoming angry at the thought of the younger brother being so easily forgiven, and even rewarded upon his return. We can see the injustice perceived by the older brother and easily find ourselves rising with similar anger in our heart.

But then comes the response of the father: "All that is mine is yours." This younger brother already received his inheritance, and squandered it, but the remaining wealth will go to the one who remained faithful. We are never told if the older brother went back in to the party, but we can readily see the father calling him to find gladness and joy where he can.

This, Nouwen tells us, and I agree with him, is the heart of the story. It is not merely a call to come back to a good life if we have strayed from that, nor is it to celebrate the return of those who have made such a journey. I think it is a call for us to find that compassion of the father deep within our heart and act on it every chance we get.

I could easily end this at this point, but there are a couple of other things that have caught my attention on this little journey of my train of thought.

The first is one of the last phrases that Jesus said, while He was on the cross: "Father, why hast Thou foresaken Me?" So often I see this as referring to some sort of indication of despair that Jesus may have felt at that particular moment. This just does not make sense. He was a Messenger of God, and He knew exactly what was happening. He chose, even during that tortured and troubled moment to offer us another lesson. He was quoting Psalm 22. I would encourage you to read it now, and see how it relates.

The second stop on this train of thought is the concept of compassion with the parable of the Prodigal Son. It seems to me that we are being called to rise to this station of divine compassion, and yet, at the same time, Jesus said "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword."

It was Baha'u'llah Who came to bring peace, the One Who came in the Glory of the Father. And here, in this parable, we can begin to see a little glimpse of what is He has done, and what it is that He is asking us to do. He is asking us not to be like the children in this parable, either wasting away our life and treasures, nor to act in self-righteous anger, thinking ourselves better for showing piety and obedience. He is asking us to grow into understanding the actions of others, and to still love them for who they are, noble children of a noble father, worthy of love, respect and compassion. He is asking us to be like that loving parent who loves their children under all conditions, and at all times. He is asking us to recognize our own maturity as a human race, and encouraging us to help others recognize it, too.

I think this is where I shall get off the train. I hope you enjoyed the ride. (Perhaps you can tell me what is further down the track.)

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