“Prodigal”: Spending money or resources freely and recklessly, wastefully extravagant, having or giving something on a lavish scale Oxford Dictionary
To Simon, brother of my father, greetings and peace to you and your household. I will waste no time, uncle, in presenting to you the reason for my letter. I find myself in need of assistance in a matter that perplexes me greatly and seems beyond my capacity to comprehend. As you have known me since boyhood and I have always found you a man of wisdom, I seek your advice on how to respond to the problem I will now make known to you.
As you may know, some time ago I asked my father for my share of the inheritance that is due my brother and me. I admit my motive in this was less than honorable as I had every intention of making my own way in the world, without father’s help or, as I saw it, interference. To my surprise, without argument or protest, he granted my request. In hindsight this should have been cause for alarm, but in my eagerness to have my own way, I gladly took the large sum of money that was mine, and left without delay. It didn’t occur to me then to wonder that my father didn’t respond as any normal father would by refusing my request, or at the very least demand some explanation for my rebellion.
Determined to remove myself as far as possible from father’s influence I journeyed to a country far from home, as I felt sure he would surely send a servant to compel me to return, or possibly send someone to spy on me. Why he did not do so only adds to my current confusion and concern for his health.
From there the story, I’m ashamed to say, becomes somewhat murky. Wishing to prove myself fully independent I cast off all the good sense and every restraint instilled in me by my father and indulged myself lavishly in all manner of immoral living. It soon became known that my pockets were full and I found no shortage of so called friends willing to help me empty them. Seduced by my new lifestyle I set about satisfying every sensual desire imaginable. I lived for the minute and gave no thought for the future, foolishly believing my inheritance would see me through.
There came a day, however, when I discovered my new lifestyle had exceeded my means. With no income, credit was refused me, and my former friends deserted me for more lucrative prospects. To add to my troubles, the crops failed in that country and a severe famine fell on the land. My only means of shelter was to indenture myself to a pig farmer. This, dear uncle, may shock you, as we Jews are forbidden to touch swine, but will also testify to you of my absolute desperation.
I cannot find the words to adequately describe to you the degradation in which I found myself. As much as I hate to confess it to you, there were days I would even have gladly eaten with the swine. Friendless and without means, I suffered greatly from hunger, misery and despair.
Remembering the household servants at my former home, who were well provided for by my father, I realized my only hope was to return to him and beg for his mercy, in the hope he would take me in as his servant. I was deeply sorry for my treatment of him, but held little hope he would receive me, even as a servant. Any normal father would be justified in disowning me completely, as I deserved.
After many days of journeying I came near to my father’s house, a house I no longer considered my own. While I was still some way off I discerned a figure running towards me, shouting my name. I thought perhaps a servant had been sent to warn me not to come near.
To my utter astonishment I soon made out the familiar form of my own father. I was afraid and unsure of what he would do. He would surely rebuke me, even strike me to the ground in his anger. If so, I determined I would not resist his blows for I had no strength left to thwart them. Better he kill me than to continue in the dismal life I was living without him.
And this, uncle, is the purpose of my letter to you. What has ensued has left me in a deep quandary and I am at a loss what to do. My father did not beat me. In truth he did not utter so much as a word of rebuke. Rather, he fell weeping on my neck with kisses and tears so profuse no-one could count. Sobbing uncontrollably he held me to himself crying out to all who passed by: “My son was dead, and now is alive!”
Stunned, I knew not what to do. I was aware that I looked nothing like the son who had left his house so long ago. My hair and my beard were unkempt, my appearance that of a beggar, and my clothes stunk with the smell of swine, dirt and sweat. How had he even recognized me?
Covered in shame I cried: “Father, I have betrayed you and treated you shamefully. I am no longer worthy to be called your son”. But before I could continue, he called for the servants to dress me in the finest robes, place his own ring on my finger, and place sandals upon my feet. As you would agree, it is unknown for servants to be clothed in such things, and never do they shod their feet.
Uncle, my father has treated me in such a way that I fear for his sanity. Upon bringing me into his house he ordered for a great feast to be held to celebrate my return, with the best calf slaughtered for the occasion. Though I am exceedingly humbled and somewhat embarrassed at his extraordinary reaction to my return, I cannot but question whether he has lost his mind. He has failed to utter even one word of reproach.
His actions go far beyond the duty of any righteous father’s response to a son who has acted as I have. The extravagance he has poured out on me, along with his unconstrained affection, is beyond my comprehension. My older brother is also angry and resentful, but father will not be moved from this extraordinary demeanor. Could it be that my former actions have forever disturbed his faculties?
Uncle, I seek your counsel urgently. What am I to do with my prodigal father?
* * *
To Joseph, beloved nephew,
It was with profound interest I read your letter. My heart was deeply cheered to hear of your return to your father and your home. This is my advice to you:
There is nothing to fear concerning your father’s state of health. As you have observed, he has not acted like any normal father would, nor has he treated you in the way I agree you deserve. This is not because he is lacking in any faculties. It is simply because he is who he is.
There is no explanation for his actions towards you that will ever fully satisfy your puzzlement. You are discovering a side of your father you have never before detected. There are only two courses of action open to you from which you must now choose:
First, understand that your father will not be moved from his disposition. You may continue to judge yourself unworthy of his somewhat eccentric actions, refuse to be called his son, and leave to make your own way forever estranged from him. As you have already tried that once, it’s not the path I would advise.
Alternatively, you can humbly acknowledge you are confronted with a mystery far greater than anything else you will ever encounter and realize you will never comprehend the magnitude of your father’s love for you.
Such unique and extravagant love can only be compared to a great and powerful ocean, an ocean that chooses to use its power for restoration rather than destruction. Though it may overwhelm you at times, it will never harm you.
You cannot measure it; you can only surrender to it. You can discover neither its beginning nor its end; you can only explore it endlessly. You cannot ever say you understand it; you can only live in wonder of it. But in the wondering make sure you receive it!
Can you fit an ocean into a bottle? Neither can your father’s love be contained within your limited capacity to understand it. If you are wise you will learn to rest in its mysterious intimacy, allowing its tide to wash over you time and again, carrying you where it will.
Yes, Joseph, you have indeed returned to the arms of a prodigal father. You are now part of an extraordinary mystery – a mystery beyond the wisdom of even the wisest. Embrace it! Immerse yourself in it! And spend the rest of your days discovering its boundless depth.
For this ocean was not created for you – you were created for the ocean.
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