At a gathering of professional writers the group was polled to see what they thought was the best short story ever written. Perhaps surprising, by a large margin, the story chosen was from the Bible - Jesus’ story of the father and two sons. It is often described as the story of the “Prodigal Son.”
It could have been set in Cherokee County and renamed Country Roads and City Streets. Having lived in this county for more than 30 years, I’ve heard some of the stories of the young people who wanted to leave the “country” behind and move to the “big city” of Atlanta (or New York or Los Angeles). A wanderlust is part of all of us. Some are too fearful of the challenges that come with leaving the comfort zone of what we know. Others are too eager to try something new, to “spread our wings” and fly over new horizons.
The story Jesus told has three main characters – the father, the son who leaves home and the son who stays home. The father wants both boys to know they are loved. One tests his love by asking for the inheritance he should only get when the father dies. The father gives it to him, and he wastes all his resources in bad choices until it’s all depleted. When he realizes his mistake, he comes home and asks to work on the farm as a hired hand. The father welcomes him home as if he had never left and throws a party in his honor.
The son who had stayed home and worked hard beside his father returns to the house and hears the party sounds. When told about his brother, he gets angry because his father has never thrown him a party for his friends. When the old man comes out to ask him to join the party, he accuses his father of preferential treatment for his young brother. The father simply says, "You know I love you, Son, and everything I have is yours.”
The dilemma of finding ways to love two different kinds of children is such a reality we all understand why Jesus tells the story. So many lessons are woven into the fabric of the story. There’s a reminder that leaving the values we’ve learned in our homes is not always the kind of freedom we thought would be there at the end of the rainbow in our dreams. Simply trying to escape what we have or who we are isn’t always possible. The young son learned that the hard way; it cost him dearly in terms of his resources. The older boy played it safe but resented his brother for moving away and leaving him with the responsibilities. He learned that the safe way is not always as challenging and sometimes not as rewarding.
The father had his heart broken by both boys – one who failed to value his love and moved out and the other who stayed but was not truly happy with being at home. Neither boy fully understood the father’s love and concern.
Too many parents have felt the “failure” of rearing a prodigal only to discover that life brings them to the realization of what their parents shared with them. Others have felt a loyalty from their children without the joy of being loved. Parenting isn’t for sissies, but let’s not judge ourselves – or other parents too soon. In the end the outcomes may surprise us.
The 15th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke is filled with such wisdom.