Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Prodigal Love



"It's mine anyway. Why can't you give it to me now?"

Simeon gazed out the window at the hayfield. It was high summer, and the hay had just been mown, lying in messy but straight rows all the way to the fence and the woods beyond. From a distance Simeon heard Abel's voice shouting out instructions to one of the field hands. Abel must be wearing a fine sheen of perspiration, bits of hay clinging to him, his shoulders bronzed by weeks spent in the fields, laboring side by side with all the hired men, refusing to assign them any task he would not share. Seeing the patterns in the hay, hearing his older son's voice, Simeon clutched the windowsill. He must not see me cry, he told himself, and somehow managed to postpone the sorrow brewing behind his eyes.

"What's the hurry? You just turned eighteen. You've got your whole life to enjoy your part of the estate. Stay with us a little longer, help your brother bring in the harvest. Then if you still want to leave, we can have a proper feast, send you off in style."

Ben made the back-of-the-throat indignant noise that only teenagers can make, the noise that speaks volumes about how old-fashioned their parents are, how slow they are to understand what really matters to a young adult on the cusp of independence. He could have left it there, taken Simeon's answer as a "no," turned on his heel, slammed the door, pouted in his room until suppertime, perhaps continued sulking into the next morning before coming back to repeat his request. Instead, he pressed on: "Are you suggesting I wait until you're dead?"

The words hit Simeon like a hod of bricks, and he winced, bit his lip. "That is," he replied slowly, measuring each word, "the way it is usually done."

"Well I don't want to wait! I want it now, while I'm still young! You could last another ten years, and then where would I be? Probably married off, raising children of my own, tied down to whatever fraction of this old place was mine. I'd never get away, never see the world, never have any fun!"

"Abel doesn't seem to mind..."

"Of course he doesn't! All he cares about is pleasing you, being the responsible one. He's already an old man. He's never lived, and he never will."

Simeon's knees weakened. He could not stand here any longer. He turned slowly, eased himself down into his chair, looked up into his younger son's face. Benjamin's cheeks were bright with the passion of his argument, the righteousness of his request, the urgency of his plan. He seemed to have no idea how much this was hurting his father; or, if he did, he just didn't care. Simeon allowed himself to sigh once, deeply, wearily, feeling the last vestiges of middle age evaporating. He looked on his child, and loved him, and allowed him to break his heart.

"All right," he said. "Send Hosea in here, and I'll have him count out your inheritance from the treasury."

Ben's eyes brightened, and he fell to his knees in front of his father, kissed his hands, then ran from the room. Minutes later, there was a polite knock on the door. Simeon wiped his eyes, blew his nose, called out hoarsely, "Come in."

The butler entered, closing the door behind him. Seeing the distress on his employer's face, he asked, "Is everything all right, sir?"

Simeon shook his head. "No. And it never will be again. Go count out half of what we've got in the treasury, and give it to Ben. He's leaving."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

Hosea excused himself. Simeon pushed himself out of the chair, turned back to the window, and watched the hands turn the rows of wheat into sheaves.

Ben left before sunrise, before anyone was up, taking a heavy sack of gold with him.

For weeks, months afterward, Simeon spent his days in his rocker on the front porch, staring down the path to the highway. The servants brought him his meals, refilled the water jug from time to time, but at his request, left him alone otherwise. All the business of the estate was now in the hands of Abel, and he ran it efficiently, treating the workers fairly, keeping the books balanced, impressing every other farmer in the local co-op. This pleased Simeon, but the pride he felt for his older son was tempered by his grief for the younger one.

Autumn came, and the harvest was complete, but there was no feasting. The days grew shorter, the nights became chill. News came to the estate of famine in the neighboring province, and Abel sent a cartload of grain to the provincial capital, only to have it hijacked on the way by bandits. The workers returned on foot, covered with bruises, oxen and cart gone, lucky to escape with their lives. "They looked so hungry," said one of them as his wounds were tended. "I could count their ribs. Maybe it went to the right people."

"Maybe," said Simeon, struggling to hold his imagination in check. He's fine, he told himself. All that money he took with him, he's got to be eating well. He wished he could believe it.

Two weeks later, Simeon was at his post again, a blanket wrapped around him against the briskness of early winter, wondering if it was time to give up the vigil, accept that he would never see Benjamin again, when he saw a traveler on the highway stop at the gate, turn, and begin walking down the path toward the house. Simeon squinted, trying to make out features. The traveler was moving erratically, seemingly incapable of walking in a straight line. His shoulders were hunched, his head down. He could not have looked any less like the vital young man who had run off in the middle of the night without saying goodbye; and yet, deep in his heart, Simeon knew.

"Ben!" He threw off the blanket, ran up the path, his own legs feeling more strength than they had known in many months. "Ben! Ben! Ben!" He nearly collided with the emaciated traveler, folded him in his arms, kissed him on his forehead. "Ben! Oh, my dear boy! You're alive!"

Ben pushed himself away from his father, and sank to his knees. "Father, I have sinned against you and God. I'm not worthy to be called your son. Please, if you can, take me on as a hired hand."

"Enough of that! Get up! Come inside! My son, my son, my dear son! You're alive!" He pulled off his coat, wrapped it around the young man's shoulders, and hustled him into the house. Hearing the commotion, Hosea came out of the kitchen, his mouth falling open in amazement. Simeon struggled to keep his voice under control and give the instructions that were bubbling up from his heart: "Call the whole household together. It's high time we had a feast!"

"Are you certain, sir?" asked the butler. "The normal time for a harvest feast was a month ago."

"Of course I'm sure! Can't you see? My son was dead, but he's alive! He was lost, and now he's found! Now get him cleaned up and dressed in something presentable. He smells like a pig farm." Smell or not, Simeon wrapped Benjamin in one more embrace and planted one more kiss on his forehead before letting him go. Then he danced off to his own bedroom, where he stripped off the drab clothing he'd been wearing in favor of something more festive.

Simeon was just finishing trimming his beard there was a loud rap on the door. "Come in."

In walked Abel, still in his work clothes, a scowl on his face. "Is it true, Father?" he demanded.

"Is what true?"

"You're throwing a party for that...that...wastrel?"

"You mean your brother?"

"Yes!" He spat the word out.

"You don't think I should?"

Abel strode over to the window, thrust a pointing finger out at the fields beyond. "Every day but the Sabbath, I'm out there from dawn to dusk, sometimes later, working by lamplight, keeping this farm on its feet by the sweat of my brow and the ache of my muscles. When I come in, I spend another hour or two at the books. I've been doing it since my bar mitzvah, and lately I've been doing much more of it, because you've spent every waking minute pining after him." The fury was beginning to give way to grief at the injustice he was feeling, but he kept going, his voice becoming hoarse. "Not once have I asked for anything, not even a night off with my friends. And now this...this..."

"Wastrel," Simeon said.

"He comes back after squandering half the estate on whores, booze, and gambling, and you welcome him with open arms, and throw the party of the century!"

Simeon gazed upon his older son, and loved him. "Oh, my boy, my dear boy," he sighed. "You're right. I have taken you for granted. Without you, this farm would have fallen to ruin. But thanks to you, we all have enough to eat and more, and we can pay a decent wage to everyone who works here. You're always with me. Everything I have is yours. Hear that, Abel: All of this is yours. Ben took his part and lost it. You've taken yours and grown it into far more than it was when he left.

"But you have to understand this: Ben is also my son, and he's back. We have to celebrate. It doesn't change anything about the estate, but it's what we're going to do. Your brother is alive. Now please, Abel, my right hand, the one who will rule this little kingdom long after I'm gone: celebrate with me. Because your brother was dead, and now he's alive. He was lost, and now he's found."

* * * * *
 
This parable from the book of Luke is often called the gospel within the Gospel. There is no need to allegorize the story of the Prodigal and His Brother; it stands solidly on its own, evoking a wealth of emotion and significance in any audience. It taps into a universal experience: the moment when teenaged narcissistic entitlement exploits parental love to the breaking point. Young people can be bracingly oblivious to the hurt their thankless demands inflict on parents, teachers, and other mentors. And yet we love them, and we wish the best for them, and we send them on their way knowing that things will never go as well for them as they think they will. Then when they come home, broken by the cold reality of the world, finally ready to listen to our wisdom, we welcome them with open arms, call up the family and friends, throw a party, so relieved that they've come home. We know they'll be gone again soon, perhaps a bit less stupid, a bit more cautious, and hopefully a lot more grateful. But even if they're not, even if they come limping back to us again and again from failed business ventures, broken marriages, flunked college courses, lost jobs, we will always be thrilled to see them. And someday, just maybe, they'll say thank you.
 
Of course, they're not all like that. It's usually younger siblings who play the prodigal. The older ones tend to be protectors of the household, defenders of the family faith; and yes, we can be quite resentful of the eagerness with which our parents welcome them back, no matter how miserable they've failed in their latest pursuits.
 
 But that's not really what the story is about, however much it resonates with oldest siblings like me. At its heart, this is a simple tale of a broken family that has miraculously escaped permanent bereavement, and of the joy of welcoming home a lost child. It's a story worth telling over and over again, personalizing it in any way the teller wishes. The original can be found here: The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother. But just as I've done, I encourage you to tell it in your own words, inserting yourself into whichever of the three principal roles best fits you. You don't have to be a believer to do it: the only reference to God is on the lips of the prodigal son as he begs for his father's mercy, a plea that is brushed off because it's trumped by the father's joyous relief that his son is still alive. Chances are you'll find yourself in more than one of these roles as you pass through life: after decades of seeing myself in the older brother, I found myself for the first time in the father's shoes as I retold it tonight.
 
Whichever member of the family you see yourself in--prodigal child, responsible sibling, grieving parent--I encourage you to live with this story and let it speak to you, for you, with you as you reach out to your own children, your own parents, in love that overcomes grief and resentment; for there is nothing that compares to recovering a lost child.
 

No comments:

Post a Comment