[originally submitted for small group discussion for one of my Bethel courses…]
Thanks to the incessant chirping of my wife’s dying cell phone, I was roused from an aborted slumber sometime in the 4.00 hour this morning. These are the mornings where I am envious of my wife’s sleep-through-bombing-runs pattern, and the subsequent frustration of realizing, all over again, that I have my mother’s if-you-wake-up-you’re-screwed sleep paradigm.
I often joke that I am the world’s lightest sleeper, when I was a baby, napping in a crib, some relatives and family friends thought it would be cute to watch me sleep. Their presence in the room would interrupt that, regardless of how quiet or still they would be.
On mornings like this, however, there are no jokes about sleep because a lack of sleep isn’t funny. At least not until later.
So I roused myself and got out of bed, did the husbandly thing by plugging in my wife’s noisy little, um, cell phone, poured some leftover coffee, warmed it in the microwave and began to face the day as I usually do: my morning reading. News, financial news, reading overnight e-mail, Facebook, etc. It’s been a fairly uneventful morning in the world, so I decide to take advantage of the extra waking hours my wife’s phone gave me (not bitter, not at all…) to go to school. So I picked up [Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son] and started to finish this week’s assigned reading.
I’m quite chippy this morning (in case you didn’t notice), and I find myself with little room for silliness. Then, in the midst of my reading, came Nouwen. p. 82:
“The story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for me and who doesn’t rest until he has found me. He urges and he pleads. He begs me to stop clinging to the powers of death and to let myself be embraced by arms that will carry me to the place where I will find the life I most desire.”
While this reads perfectly fine, something occurred to me that I otherwise might have missed: Nouwen has completely wandered off the reservation of the parable, the painting, the central point of the book. And when I began to write how Nouwen has gloriously missed the point…
…my computer crashed.
So I went to the kitchen, muttering things I probably ought not to mutter and thinking worse, poured another cup of coffee, warmed that in the nuker, and started over. And I’ve made it this far without the magic smoke disappearing from my laptop. I think we’re going to be ok.
Here’s the beef I’m having with Nouwen: there isn’t anything in the parable to suggest that the father begged or pleaded with his son not to leave. In fact, here, in the middle of the chapter, he has abandoned his subject matter [the elder son] to go on a romanticized missive about God’s love in relationship to him!
The reality as found in the parable is far more chilling: the father gives his bratty little child what he wants. This is not to suggest that the father is immune from sorrow, mourning, even frustration or anger over the matter, such characteristics would make this father less than human, much less the creator of humans. He has given his son what he asked for, and the son doesn’t let the door hit him in the butt on the way out.
In this parable, dialogue only takes place where it is necessary, and the father says nothing, part the intention of the story-teller, part indicative of an unspoken caveat to his son. It seems Nouwen has either (charitably) missed this fact or (uncharitably) is ignoring it. I find it to be of utmost import, for if God were one to beg or plead for his son to stay, it would betray the fact that our God is fundamentally insecure about his ability as father and as creator.
In the case of the Good Shepherd, we see a shepherd leaving the 99 to go after the one, but the 99 are already penned up. This imagery may work in a book about the Good Shepherd, but not here in the story of the prodigal. (Moritz’s caution about reauthoring the text [to fit our prejudices and biases] looms large here.)
Few fathers and sons are touchy-feely, tender and affectionate, Nouwen’s understanding of the father and son resembles a toddler, not a grown (or even adolescent) son. Further, his understanding of the father seems more like a mother. There’s nothing wrong with God having maternal qualities (after all, he is gender-neutral) but, again, that has nothing to do with a painting or a parable. I qualify my statement about the touchy-feeliness of fathers and sons to include a clause where, under certain circumstances, fathers and sons will be more physcially affectionate: for example, a soldier returning from war, or a rebellious son returning home. Outside of those circumstances, there is little room for insecurity or outright affection for the man of the house.
And, as the story reads, those special circumstances are not prevalent until a broken and empty son comes home. To me, the cold, stark reality of a God who, under the great weight of sorrow, allows his children to take their inheritance and squander it is more meaningful than a God who treats his children as though they are perpetually three. (Moreover, if God is this way all the time, why is there resentment on the face of the elder son?)
We still have liberty, even the liberty to nail Jesus to the cross. Only the hopelessly pretentious would think that would somehow reimagine the nature of an almighty God. If for nothing less, it is the squandering that makes outright affection and celebration possible.