From The Prodigal God
“He set off for a far country.”
It is important to read Jesus’s parable of the lost son in the context of the whole of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than hope for the world.
In Jesus’s parable the younger brother goes off into a distant country expecting a better life but is disappointed. He begins to long for home, remembering the food in his father’s house. So do we all.
“Home” exercises a powerful influence over human life. Foreign-born Americans spend billions annually to visit the communities in which they were born. Children who never find a place where they feel they belong carry an incapacity for attachment into their adult lives. Many of us have fond memories of times, people, and places where we felt we were truly home. However, if we ever have an opportunity to get back to the places we remember so fondly, we are usually disappointed. For thirty-nine years my wife, Kathy, spent summers with her family in a ramshackle cottage on the shores of Lake Erie. The very memory of that place is nourishing to Kathy’s spirit. But returning to the actual, now-dilapidated property is a gut-wrenching experience. It won’t be much different if someone buys it and puts up new condos on it. An actual visit to the place will always present her with a sense of loss.
Home, then, is a powerful but elusive concept. The strong feelings that surround it reveals some deep longing within us for a place that absolutely fits and suits us, where we can be, or perhaps find, our true selves. Yet it seems that no real place or actual family ever satisfies these yearnings, though many situations arouse them. In his novel, A Separate Peace, John Knowles’s central character discovers that summer mornings in New Hampshire give him “some feeling so hopelessly promising that I would fall back in my bed to guard against it. . . I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because those mornings were too full of beauty for me.” In East of Eden, John Steinbeck similarly says of the mountains of central California that he wanted “to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.”
The memory of home seems to be powerfully evoked by certain sights, sounds, and even smells. But they can only arouse a desire they can’t fulfill. Many of the people in my church have shared with me how disappointing Christmas and Thanksgiving are to them. They prepare for holidays hoping that, finally, this year, the gathering of the family at that important place will deliver the experience of warmth, joy, comfort, and love that they want from it. But these events almost always fail, crushed under the weight of our impossible expectations.
There is a German word that gets at this concept – the word Sehnsucht. Dictionaries will tell you that there is no simple English synonym. It denotes profound homesickness or longing, but with transcendent overtones. The writer who spoke most of this “spiritual homesickness” was C. S. Lewis, in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory.” He refers to many similar experiences like those described by Steinbeck and Knowles, and then he says:
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself. Now we wake to find we have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken in.
Our life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.
There seems to be a sense, then, in which we are all like the younger brother. We are all exiles, always longing for home. We are always traveling, never arriving. The houses and families we actually inhabit are only inns along the way, but they aren’t home. Home continues to evade us.
Why would “home” be so powerful and yet so elusive for us? The answer can be found as we examine one of the most pervasive themes of the Bible. The experience we have been describing is the trace in our souls of this larger story.
In the beginning of the book of Genesis we learn the reason why all people feel like exiles, like we aren’t really home. We are told there that we were created to live in the garden of God. That was the world we were built for, a place in which there was no parting from love, no decay or disease. It was all these things because it was life before the face of God, in his presence. There we were to adore and serve his infinite majesty, and to know, enjoy, and reflect his infinite beauty. That was our original home, the true country we were made for.
However, the Bible teaches that, as in Jesus’s parable, God was the “father” of that home and we chafed under his authority. We wanted to live without God’s interference, and so we turned away, and became alienated from him, and lost our home for the same reason the younger brother lost his. The result was exile.
The Bible says that we have been wandering as spiritual exiles ever since. That is, we have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings. Though we long for bodies that “run and are not weary,” we have become subject to disease, aging, and death. Though we need love that lasts, all our relationships are subject to the inevitable entropy of time, and they crumble in our hands. Even people who stay true to us die and leave us, or we die and leave them. Though we long to make a difference in the world through our work, we experience endless frustration. We never fully realize our hopes and dreams. We may work hard to re-create the home that we have lost, but, says the Bible, it only exists in the presence of the Heavenly father from which we have fled.
This theme is played out again and again in the Bible. After Adam and Eve’s exile from the ultimate home, their son, Cain, was forced to restlessly wander the Earth because he murdered his brother, Abel. Later Jacob cheated his father and brother and fled into exile for years. After that, Jacob’s son, Joseph, and his family were taken from their homeland into Egypt because of a famine. There the Israelites were enslaved until, under Moses, they returned to their ancestral home. Centuries after this, David, before he became king, lived as a hunted fugitive. Finally the whole nation of Israel was exiled again, taken captive to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar.
It is no coincidence that story after story contains the pattern of exile. The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal son is about every one of us.