Several weeks ago I heard the Bible story of the prodigal son for about the hundredth time. It is the one in which we hear about a man with two sons that choose different paths when they get old enough to each have a share of their father’s money. One son stays at home and helps his father with the family business. This guy, who we’ll call Robert, works hard and shares in all the profits. He has a good life.
The other son goes on a journey and spends his share of the money on getting high and getting laid. This son, who we’ll call Jerome, ends up in the gutter. He has no money, no food, no place to live. He decides to return home when it dawns on him that his father’s workers have a better life than he does. He heads on home. He plans to ask his father, who we’ll call Poppy, to let him work in exchange for food and a roof over his head.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. When Jerome is within sight of the house, an employee of Poppy’s sees him and rushes to tell Poppy that Jerome is on the way. Does Poppy lock the doors and refuse to speak to Jerome because he has squandered his riches on selfish pleasures?
NO HE DOES NOT. Poppy is so excited that Jerome is home, he runs out to meet him and calls for a huge party to celebrate Jerome’s return; the best food, wine, and music for his lost son.
When Robert hears about all the hoopla, he gets a bit huffy. After all, he’s been working hard during the entire time that Jerome’s been out living it up.
I have to admit. I always kind of identified with Robert. I am, for the most part (let’s forget about that brief period in the late 70’s) a person who follows rules, does the expected, pays my taxes and contributes to The American Way.
So I have always been like, “What the heck, Jerome? Where have you been while I’ve been working for the old man? You don’t see me having wild parties and living like a queen. Poppy never threw ME a party. He never ran out up the road to meet ME after a hard day of work.”
I get it now.
Jerome was lost. He indulged himself and made some bad choices. His decisions laid him low. He was humbled. He was willing to start at the bottom to try and redeem himself. With deep humility and a hopeful heart Jerome presented himself, with all his sordid past, to his Poppy.
I imagine Poppy had missed Jerome and all the unique things about Jerome that enriched Poppy’s life and the lives of others. Poppy’s world was poorer because Jerome wasn’t in it. Poppy was overjoyed that the son he thought he had lost finally found himself and came home. Such a beautiful outcome. (And once Robert figured out he’d have someone to help him with the work to make his life easier, I bet he was pretty happy, too.)
It seems to me that we middle-class Americans forget that many of us have been Prodigal People at some point in our lives. But we remember that we were taught to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” We learned the idea that hard work will result in a good life, a life we must deserve. Too often, we find it difficult to share our abundance with people we perceive as undeserving: people who are poor, uneducated, homeless, formerly incarcerated, from another country, somehow different than us. Sometimes people have made decisions that have been hurtful ,and may have had painful and difficult lives. But in a huff like Robert, we close our eyes and shut the door to these members of our human family. We are poorer for this.
I am especially aware of this tendency to shut the door during this election year. Conversations and speeches of a number of Republican presidential candidates are filled with bitterness and hatred. I am particularly saddened to hear this from candidates that espouse Christian values.
Whatever your religious or non-religious beliefs might be, Jesus Christ was trying to tell us something with his story of the Prodigal Son. I think he was telling us to open our hearts, minds and piggy banks to rejoice and be generous when an economically disadvantaged person wants to enroll in college courses; when a person who has been incarcerated looks for a job; when a victim of violence seeks shelter from fear or abuse.
My question is: how will we, as individual voters and as a nation, choose to treat our own Prodigal People?
Let’s be like Poppy. Rather than being depleted, we will all be richer.