My sister, Natalie (name has been changed) was a child and teen who rebelled against nothing for no good reason. My mom had a way of keeping us in line without being overly strict about it. She was also, as a rule, a very fair parent. This didn’t matter to my sister. She still had to get her point across, no matter how ridiculous it might have been. When secretly dying Easter eggs in the kitchen one year, she dropped dye all over the new linoleum floor. Her answer was to cover it with a towel. When asked why she was standing on a towel, her answer was, “What towel?” She did the whole Goth/dress in black thing when it was still considered “punk.” She came down the stairs one morning, having dyed her hair black in the shower. She pierced her own ears multiple times, having somewhere between five and six piercings in one ear. So, my mother would say, “Is that a new hole in your ear?” to which my sister would say, “No, it’s been there all along, you just never noticed it before.” Apparently my sister didn’t consider that my mother would catch on, as her memory was (and is) quite good, and she would realize Natalie was not born with six holes in one ear. She told lies – all the time – big lies, not little or moderate ones. One of her lies ran the risk of putting someone in jail, without cause. She invited trouble, announced she was emancipating herself at sixteen and then moved out, and spent several years of her life in problematic situations. She was pregnant and living with a drug dealer who reportedly grew marijuana in his closets and had a dog who tore up baby clothes. She was one who came forth, time and time again, with horror stories, dramatic events, and complicated encounters. Once she moved away from where we lived in New York, she would come back to visit from time to time. It was always something new – new self-destructive behaviors, destructive jobs that put her at risk (and one of which made her permanently ill), destructive relationships, and constantly destructive choices. With her, nothing was ever simple.
I remember watching my mom with my sister. She is eight years older than I am, and she is the only sister I remember watching grow up in any semblance at all, as my other three sisters are more than eleven years older than I am, and two of them were in their twenties, grown, and out of the house before I was even born. When I was little, she was my favorite sister. She was fun and funny, and that rebellious streak gave her a quirky quality that was entertaining to a little kid. As I started to get older, I got tired of her. The quirkiness became embarrassing and her self-destructive tendencies made it impossible to ever relate to her on any kind of level. She was dominating and controlling, and had an incessant need for attention. I used to wonder where it came from, as she certainly wasn’t a neglected child. Sure, my father was abusive, but he was to all of us, and he made a special effort with her and one of my other sisters that he didn’t make with the rest of us. Time after time after time, Natalie had issues. Time after time after time, my mother interceded, prayed, helped, reached out, and advocated for her healing…until one day, my sister just didn’t come back…and my mother had to let her go.
I learned years after the fact that right before my sister’s departure, she spoke of visions and signs she was seeing in the spiritual realm. My mother urged her to come to where she needed to be, but she refused. I never thought about it at the time, but in hindsight, it must have been such a difficult thing to watch the gifts of God go undeveloped. She was not a stupid person, by any means; at one point, she talked about being a lawyer. Watching my sister walk away not just from her and the family, but from God as well, must have been something difficult to see, beyond words.
My sister was my mother’s “prodigal.”
Just tonight I heard another mother’s words, her heart, her pain over the choices her prodigal children made and are making. It took me back to my mom and the experience she had with my sister. Then the Lord took me to the Word within my mind and the story of the “prodigal son.” We’ve all heard about the story of the “prodigal son.” To many of us it’s a nice story that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, blah, blah, blah. We think about the story in judgment of the son and his unwise choices. We look down on him. We don’t consider the story in its context or the purpose in that story. We don’t think about the father. We don’t think about ourselves.
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. – Luke 15:11-13 (NIV)
The man in this story was asked by his prodigal for his share in his father’s estate. There’s a facet of this we don’t ever consider. This man worked all his life. The estate was his work, his legacy, his portion. He worked hard to give his best for his children, like so many parents. He wanted them to have everything they could, and to want for nothing. He didn’t work for himself, and he certainly didn’t work to watch his investment fall by the wayside into squandered living. Yet, he gave his prodigal his share of the estate.
We all know that the father knew the son was going to squander it. His plan was to get off that farm and go experience the “good life.” He was going to drink. He was going to carouse. He was going to have the best clothes, the best shoes, the best of everything. He would eat and have more than his fill. This life, this labor, this farm work his father did was beneath the prodigal. These were his aspirations in life that we know he brought up every time something happened that was less than what he wanted for himself. This pursuit was a carefully executed plan in the works for long before he ever left home.
Even though I have no natural children, I have dealt with the rebellious spiritual child and know how difficult it is to watch someone create a plan totally against what God has for them and then have to step back, allowing them all they need to walk in that plan. The father in this story is the definition of “tough love.” Sure, he knew such a life was not what his son needed, but he also knew his son had to figure that out for himself. Parents today talk too much. They try to reason with their children and persuade them to see things from their perspective. The heart is right – it is to avoid their children heartache and pain. What they don’t realize is some things need to be learned the hard way, through heartache and pain. Both natural and spiritual parents need to recognize a prodigal when they have one and step back, allowing God to teach them through consequence. It doesn’t make it any easier to know they will gain an invaluable spiritual education from the hard road they take. However, when in these situations, the answer is to give what is allowed according to precept and allow them to go their own way.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. – Luke 15:14-16 (NIV)
We can gather that a great number of years passed in this story. The prodigal didn’t leave home, spend all his money in a week, and the famine start the week after that. There is a long pause of time in here where we can note something important: The father did not chase after his son. He didn’t constantly try to find him to send him a birthday card, make sure he was well-cared for, or that he had enough money. In other words he did not enable him. The son had his goal in mind and his father left him to do that. I know, without a doubt, that the father thought about the son. I am sure he had times when he wondered where he was, what he was doing, what was going on in his life. The temptation was there to chase after his son…but he resisted that temptation because the son would never learn if he knew dad was trying to intervene. He had to let go of his son and let God work out whatever needed working out. This doesn’t mean he stopped caring, it means he accepted his limitations and didn’t try to do for his son what his son had to do for himself.
To let go does not mean to stop caring, it means I can’t do it for somebody else. (Al-Anon Family Groups)
The going was great until the prodigal ran out of money, and then there was a famine in the country. He wasn’t prepared for a lean time, or a time when things would be out of his plan. Same is true with all prodigals – they have their goals and ideals, but they don’t have their preparations. Well, desperate times call for desperate measures: the prodigal winds up at what twelve-step programs call “rock bottom.” When someone hits “rock bottom,” they cannot fall any farther down. There is nowhere left for them to go, except to admit they’ve reached a point where they need help. In the prodigal’s rock bottom, he had to hire himself out as a laborer, doing the work I am sure he felt once was beneath him. He was sent to tend to the unclean, that which, according to Jewish custom, was not even considered fit for eating. Even in that mode, he still didn’t find what he needed.
The prodigal had to address his situation. That is the end result of rock bottom. Before someone reaches this point, they don’t feel they have to make a decision about their situation. They carry on in a state of denial, thinking things aren’t where they may really be and talk themselves into believing they are in actuality all right. The point of rock bottom is different for all prodigals. For some, they hit the thud of a pebble while others have to hit a boulder over and over and over again. The point isn’t what brings the individual to rock bottom…it’s that, through that experience, they finally reach the point where it’s time to do the right thing. Prodigals, dealing in rebellion, can walk as very selfish people. They don’t do the right thing readily and have a hard time seeing to do the right thing in a situation, even if the situation is hurting them. Rock bottom makes them see the truth about themselves and others, and yes…even those who love them.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. – Luke 15:17-20 (NIV)
The son had to humble himself…something very difficult for him to do. He had his plan, and had to face that his plan didn’t work. In the eyes of the culture of his day and even by our standards today, he wasn’t worthy of his father’s love. He wasn’t worthy of being called his son, and having squandered the inheritance, he was no longer a part of the promise (think Esau and Jacob). Setting back after so many years would cause him to lose face and also risk great rejection from his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.- Luke 15:20-24 (NIV)
The father’s hurt, anguish, and pain comes down to this moment when he realizes his prodigal has returned. The pain he went through all those years was a type of the anguish and distress God experiences when He has to let any of His prodigals go their own way and discover for themselves where their own ways will lead them. That hurting mother or father, spiritual mother or father, grandmother, relative, or other person in the prodigal’s life comes to a deep and profound understanding of God’s love and His mercy toward all of us. He provides the best for us through creation and through salvation in His Son, Jesus Christ, the perfect offering for sin. Watching people walk away from God’s most perfect gift doesn’t bring God joy and pleasure, it grieves Him in a way none of us can describe. Watching people walk to Him brings forth a joy and gladness we can’t easily understand, either. The return of a prodigal of any sort is a joy and blessing beyond measure to the heart of God.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” – Luke 15:25-32 (NIV)
The majority of the church today could fall into the category of the “other son.” We don’t talk a lot about him. In some ways, he was probably very justified in how he felt. He spent years at his father’s side, laboring in a way and paying a price to be the “good son.” It must have felt like a slap in the face to have spent so many years as the responsible one. I think something else underlined this brother, however. I think he was jealous. He was jealous and envious because his brother got to do things and live in a way that he would have loved to live…but was too “upright” to do so. In his eyes, his brother got to go off, do everything he wanted, and then came back once he got into trouble…and was even rewarded for that. He was angry because his brother got the good life, and he got to work hard. He judged the worthiness of his brother to receive his father’s love. Are we not like that now in the modern church? We spend so much time moralizing we fail to do people any good. People fall into sin. Things happen in people’s lives that lead them down a path they should not always go. And over here in the church…too many of us hate them for the “good time” they get to have while we have to stay over here, all proper and upright without so much as a party! We point fingers, condemn and fail to help the prodigals. The prodigal didn’t just have a father, he also had a brother – which means that now prodigals don’t just have biological or spiritual parents, they also have brothers and sisters in Christ. Do we rejoice when God blesses them, or do we scoff and act angry because we don’t get the portion we want?
We never know what God is doing in someone’s life, or the way in which He will reach someone. This is why we must watch our judgments of others. We don’t know what people went through to reach the point they’ve reached, and we may not see what an earthly, spiritual, or heavenly parent may see. We also forget that being a prodigal is about more than just running off and doing physical things that one may want to do. A prodigal can take any form. There are literal prodigals, as my sister was, and as are many children of parents I know. There are spiritual prodigals, those who rebel and run from their call at any cost, out of disobedience, fear, or both. There are emotional prodigals, people who just want to escape and don’t want to face the realities of life and the consequences of behavior. No matter the type of prodigal, finding their way back to our Father always rates the joy and celebration of finding them back where they belong – in the place of restoration..
We’ve all been someone’s prodigal at some point, even if we are God’s prodigal, and nobody else’s. Some prodigals may never make it back; my sister is one such case. Some natural and spiritual parents always live with the pain and sorrow of having to make difficult choices and step up as parents, allowing God to work in ways that may not make sense to us in the flesh. Behind every returned prodigal is a loving parent who made the difficult decision to trust God with their children and trust Him for their life and peace in a deeper way than any of us can ever imagine. Lift that parent up, don’t make the prodigal’s parent the enemy. Often we pray for the prodigals, as we should. Next time you put up your prayer…also pray for their parents as well, their strength, and their peace of mind as they rely on God, the ultimate Father, always handling, dealing, watching, and yes, loving, His prodigal children. He too waits for the day when they will be alive again, and no longer lost, but found.
(c) 2011 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.