2020 Trinity IX – Prodigals and Prodigies

Postulant Ken Kubo
9 August 2020

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” – St. Luke 15:24

There is a standard line in any coming of age movie – “you can’t go home again.” It acknowledges that the flow of time, like a river, goes one way and even if you were to step into that river at the same place, neither you nor the river are exactly the same. Yes, “Pocahontas” is playing on Disney+. In fact, though, even if you stay at home, change still happens. Two brothers choose different paths, one to go and one to stay. And after driving himself into his big, bright separate future, the one who went squanders his inheritance and, down on his luck, has to come back in shame. The word “prodigal” comes from prodigere literally meaning to drive forward and, in use, to consume or squander. It implies at least recklessness if not licentiousness. And so this is often called the parable of the Prodigal Son. But what makes the tale remarkable is not the prodigal – we’ve all heard his story many a time – it’s his father. When you hear this parable, do you feel a little sorry for the son who stayed and perhaps even agree with him a little that injustice is being done? His loyalty and living within the rules of the house are apparently not appreciated. Not only does the father withhold judgment, mockery, and lecture for the prodigal, he meets him with compassion and throws a party. And yet as shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel, Our Lord’s teachings and actions are completely consistent with this. Remember His words that one repentant sinner would cause more joy in heaven than ninety-nine who needed no repentance (St. Luke 15:7). The sheep in the fold are already safe and protected; they do not need to be rescued. Every stray brought back into the fold has been wrestled back from danger and the Enemy without. This does mean that Our Lord values the rest of the flock any less. It’s because every individual is of value that God reached out time and time again to His chosen people only to see them fall out of touch within a generation or two – “they stopped calling, they stopped writing; I guess it’s time to send another prophet!” The father tells the loyal son that he’s already getting the good life and is being rewarded constantly with security and favor for his right living. His wastrel son at least came back of his own accord without a shepherd to fetch him and that alone would be cause of celebration – that he came back with his head screwed on straight is icing on the cake. The prodigal is not valued more than his brother – but also not a whit less.

Instead of a lazy troublemaker, imagine if the father had an amazingly gifted child, reading early and able to recite and discuss what he had read. He might term him a prodigy – a word that looks quite similar. Prodigy comes from a totally different root – prodigium, meaning an omen or sign of something to come. For child prodigies, the term is used to reflect their early abilities as a precursor to great things in the future. Consider Alexander III of Macedon who studied under Aristotle until around age 16, inherited his father’s throne at 20, and created one of the largest empires of the ancient world by the time he was 30 – undefeated in battle and well-deserving of the appellation “the Great.” Yet the gifted can cause their own unique problems. Remember the stress of poor Mary and Joseph trying to find their twelve-year-old son who stayed behind to talk shop with the elders in the Temple. In hindsight, this was of course a clear omen of their son’s teaching ministry that lay ahead. The problem with most signs is that we only understand them after the fact. Consider the labels on the items in your pantry with “sell by” or “best by” dates. The fact is that the foodstuffs do not suddenly become toxic the day after. After all, just because something is “best by” last Friday, it could still be quite decent a week later. But the problem is that at some point, the amount of “bestness” has declined too much for it to be good. To adapt an old George Carlin routine – I feel smart twice – I bought this on sale because it was near its expiration – “I’m smart – I’m saving money!” – and then when I find it again in my pantry a year later, I throw it away – “I’m smart – I’m saving my life!” My family would doubtless find that funnier if it weren’t so common an occurrence in our household. We don’t have the foreknowledge of how much margin we have after a “best by” date passes. The prodigal son had no idea what the expiration date was on his newfound freedom, no clue about the consequences of his choices until suddenly he was quite literally paying for his sins – and bankrupted by them. As another of Terry Pratchett’s literary characters grumbles, “So many people never seemed to think about the consequences of their every actions. And the [someone] would have to set out from her bed in the rain in the dead of night because of ‘I only’ and its little friends ‘I didn’t know’ and ‘it’s not my fault’… and her favorite, ‘I didn’t know it would go off bang’ when it said ‘goes bang’ on it.”

There are some who say this kind of prodigality has been with us since the very beginning. If you look at the Creation story in Genesis 1, God creates light, and He saw it, and it was good. And He separated the land and the seas, and He saw it, and it was good. And He made plants, and the lights of heaven, and the creatures of the water and earth and air, and for each act of Creation, it is recorded that He saw them, and it was good. And then He created humanity, male and female, and He blessed them. But it does not say that God saw them and it was good. It does say (Gen 1:31) that He looked upon the whole of Creation and found it very good, so perhaps we are lumped in with that general approval. “For thou lovest all the things that are, and abhorrest nothing which thou hast made: for never wouldest thou have made any thing, if thou hadst hated it.” (Wisdom 11) Still, one may wonder – did God upon that first sight have some reservations with us? Did he foresee that we would sometimes in fact not be good – consuming and squandering without thought to the consequences?

“The while I fain would tread the heav’nly way, Evil is ever with me day by day; Yet on mine ears the gracious tidings fall: ‘Repent, confess, thou shalt be loosed from all.’” – Samuel J. Stone

The fact is that we live in dangerous times and, though our nation has a greater degree of safety and prosperity, mischance and missteps are still possible. The saying runs that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but the reality is that Hell needs no road. It is ever with us in so many forms in the temptations of the world, the callousness of those around us – the twin siren calls of selfishness and small-mindedness that create the specters of want and ignorance dwelling in the shadows of the illusory plenty around the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Our Lord does not place value in such mortal treasures, subject to moth, rust, expiration, and burglars. Stone’s poetry reminds us that the heav’nly way is narrow and, in this day and age, poorly marked. Remember though, that Our Lord, having shared our human nature, understands that we are mortal and likely to fall. Through His sacrifice, forgiveness is there for the asking. Like the prodigal son, we need to repent and all will be made whole. “Yea, like as a father pitieth his own children; even so is the Lord merciful unto them that fear him.” (Ps 103) Repenting is not easy or automatic, though – it requires us to hear our conscience over the voice of pride and indifference to be so regretful for what we have done that we seek to undo it and amend our lives accordingly.

Commentators make their living rehashing the past, using hindsight to judge how events should have played out. If only we had acted sooner or differently, we would have won that battle or succeeded in that pursuit or saved those lives. We will be second- and third-guessing the port workers in Beirut, even as the world reaches out to offer help to their people. Remember them in your prayers and let us hope that tending the needy continues to hold higher priority than assigning blame. Hindsight will not shelter the thousands left homeless or feed a nation that has lost the majority of its grain stores for the year. History is filled with opportunities to make disastrous decisions. Consider if Julius Caesar had just listened to his wife and stayed home from work, the course of the Roman Empire have been different – whether better is debatable of course. Now imagine that you could go back in time and set yourself signals to follow to keep on course and avoid the missteps. You would, in effect, become your own prodigy. What, in hindsight, would you change? And yet, remember that hindsight is hardly 20:20; commentators disagree about the past, and historians frequently clash about the results of endless “if onlys” (and “I didn’t know it would go off bangs”). We are the product of our journeys, and any changes to that would affect who we are in ways we are likely not wise enough to understand. Mark Verheiden, a producer and writer of numerous science fiction shows, movies, and comic books, once said that once you add time travel to a show, it’s the beginning of the end because at best, it removes the stakes of any decision and, at worst, it lets the writers get extremely lazy about making their plots hang together. So let us leave the concept of ourselves as prodigies to the Top 10 Netflix shows of the week while also trusting that the writer of our reality is active, interested in our character arc, and very, very industrious. Instead, let us rely on the promises given us. “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able” (I Corinthians 10:13) God is ever with us on the journey and will support us and our consciences with holy strength through the Spirit. And when we stray, Our Lord as shepherd and show runner will lead us through the intricate plot devices introduced by the world or, worse, by ourselves. Let us depend on the one with 20:20 foresight. As He was dead and is alive again, so He seeks us out when we are lost and rejoices when we are found. We are redeemed ever anew, and He has stamped our “best by” date to always be tomorrow through a love that will never expire.

Blessed and most merciful Lord, we give You humble thanks for your care for us, beyond our deserving. Help us to strive honestly in our daily callings and prosper the work of our hands, and moreso inspire our hearts that we do not define our value by those works but by Your eternal love. Guide our feet to Your paths which we struggle to find alone that wherever we find ourselves, we will find value in what You have prepared for us and in what we can accomplish to the greater glory of Your Kingdom. And as You love all things under Your Creation, Lord, so enfold us in Your care that we may always find our true value in Your regard and dwell forgiven in your fold. Amen.