It is a familiar story. A father had two sons; one of them went off and ran his life into the ground. He hit rock bottom and was left with nowhere to turn but home. So he set out. The father received his son warmly, embraced him, forgave him, and welcomed him back. There was joyous weeping and feasting. But the other son would have none of it. The other son resented that so much was made of his brother’s homecoming; why should this one who caused them such pain be all but celebrated?; when had he, the one who had served the family dutifully, faithfully – when had he himself been thanked even? It is a familiar story, a story many of us take to be our story. We are the prodigals and God the loving Father who looks upon us with mercy. We are the estranged ones whom God receives and embraces. (Or maybe we are the elder brothers who, over years of selfless devotion and sacrifice, have grown fatigued of it and embittered.) It is a familiar story: of sin and forgiveness, of falling and rising, of repentance, of redemption, of grace. But for all its great religious themes, for all it teaches us of God and of salvation, it is also a story about a family. It is a story of the love and the worry and the frustration that come with family life. It is a story of relationships, of the blessings of relationships and the trials of relationships, of the rending and the mending, of the tending of relationships.
It is a story of relationships that speaks perceptively and truthfully and with a ‘Boy, have I been there!’ sort of realism: Anyone who has ever been in the wrong and known it can relate to the prodigal son’s having chosen his words with care and rehearsed his apology to himself and hoped it would be heard as he intended it: ‘I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.’” As he knew (and as maybe you have experienced), when another is hurt or angry, they might be sensitive or reactive; they might hear something other than what is said. They might suspect expressions of remorse to be insincere. A lot rode on his getting it right, on his ensuring he did not touch a nerve without meaning to. So he did well in approaching what no doubt was to be a difficult conversation with intentionality and thoughtfulness. And anyone who has ever been wronged but ached in love for things to be made right can appreciate why the heartsick father fell over himself in his haste to forgive, why, sensing in the son’s return a vulnerability born of desperate hope, sensing a softening and an opening there – why he interrupted his son and cut him off in the midst of the apology he deserved but took no delight in. The prodigal got only so far as ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…’ before there was a welling up of tears and the older man let that be enough. No need to heap humiliation upon humiliation. And later in the story, when the other of the two sons heard of what had happened and, in rage, spoke contemptuously to his father of ‘this son of yours’, he was kindly and gently corrected: ‘this brother of yours,’ his father replied. Who we are for each other, who we need to be for each other, who we feel we should but cannot be for each other, what we owe and can expect of each other – these are real questions which pose themselves to us as we share our lives.
It is a story about a family – a story of the pulling apart and the pulling together, of the pain and the recommitments, of the going separate ways and the giving ourselves to one another again that come with family relationships. And while the movement of the story arcs toward reconciliation, and climaxes with rejoicing – with the father exclaiming, saying of his son ‘he was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!’ – not everyone was rejoicing. Not everyone was reconciled. We are not told how the elder brother responded to his father’s words or whether he finally joined the family in celebrating. Maybe the elder brother stomped off, or maybe he forced his father’s hand by shooting back, ‘It’s either him or me.’ Maybe he went inside out of respect for his father but stayed far from his brother and said nothing to him. Maybe he greeted his brother politely (if not coolly) and kept the peace, acting and then going on acting as if the past was the past, while inwardly he seethed. Maybe he was torn; maybe he held in tension his own deep belief in forgiveness and second chances with the distrust he still felt, and maybe in time, maybe some months or some years later, only when the change in his brother proved itself, maybe then he was able to move beyond what had been. The point is: we do not know and can only imagine. It is a story that may or may not resolve neatly. It is a story that may or may not have a happy ending. And the not-knowing, the not knowing fully or finally whether the harm was irreparable, whether the loss was irredeemable, whether the wrong was unforgiveable, whether the distance was unbridgeable, the wondering, the wondering what will happen next and what the future holds for this family – all that, too, has the feel of realism and the ring of the familiar. That, too, is a story that many of us might take to be our story.
However much we hope and pray that all would be well in our families, many of us have been burned or betrayed by loved ones who have lost their way; many of us are scared or unsure of what it would mean to receive them back. Many of us find ourselves unable to forgive. Many of us cannot just make nice and move on. Many of us wrestle with painful and impossible decisions: when and how to draw the line and hold to boundaries, whether to save family members from themselves or let them suffer the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes. Many here know the story of the prodigal who plays his father for a fool, the prodigal who crawls home to a kindly, well-meaning enabler, milks a second-chance for all he can, and then walks off once more with half the inheritance. Many here have seen prodigal daughters and sons squander every advantage, spurn sensible guidance, and persist in making dangerous choices. Many here have been asked to lie for, to cover for prodigal sisters and brothers, to protect them from feeling the repercussions of their actions even as they grow more and more and more reckless. Many here have felt the confusion and the pain that come when prodigal fathers and mothers appear only to disappear again. Many here have shared their lives with prodigal husbands and wives who stray and wound and devastate.
And it is okay to not know what to do. It is okay to be overwhelmed and uncertain. If you are weighing choices, all of them sad and terrible and costly, if you struggling to hold your family together – the last thing you need is to feel guilty, or to feel the moral pressure that comes with facile, easier-said-than-done sort of calls to mercy and reconciliation and forgiveness and healing. Sometimes there is abuse and diminishment and humiliation and unbearable heartbreak. And sometimes, then, your inner elder brother is your friend. Sometimes enough is just enough. Sometimes the most compassionate thing to do is to cut a person off. Sometimes it is not safe or good to stay. Sometimes you have to get out. Sometimes destructive and self-destructive behaviors simply cannot be endured. Sometimes saying goodbye and letting go is a grace. I believe in mercy and I believe in reconciliation and I believe in forgiveness and I believe in healing, but I also believe in wisdom and I believe in recognizing when you are in over your head and when you cannot give someone the help they need and I believe in not ending up in the hospital. The open-endedness of this story, the not knowing and the wondering what is next – this is how the scriptures acknowledge that there is no one, right path through the pain and struggles we experience in our families. There is hard, agonizing discernment about what to do. There is seeking out the counsel of those who have walked the road before or have professional expertise to offer. There is prayer. There is trying and failing. There is waiting and seeing. There is deciding and then second-guessing yourself. There is saying ‘I’m sorry’ and saying ‘I forgive you’ and saying ‘I love you’, and there is saying ‘This is the last time’ and saying ‘I told you never again’ and saying ‘You are on your own now’ and saying ‘I know you cannot see it this way, but it is for your own good’. And there is grace – grace for you even when you cannot give grace now. And there is hope. Sometimes there is, hope. There is not always hope, but there is, maybe counterintuitively, there is a kind of hope that comes in understanding that. That is the story of the love and the worry and the frustration that come with family life. That is the story of relationships, of the blessings of relationships and the trials of relationships, of the rending and the mending, of the tending – and even sometimes of the ending of relationships.