The Stories We Find Ourselves In

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

There is such a story in the family I grew up in.  We heard it
over and over again at the dinner table as children and somehow we never tired of it.  Even though we knew the ending, every time it was told again we would be pulled into the drama of it… tearing up in sadness and laughing with wonder before it was done being shared again. I sat at my mother’s table last Saturday night and listened as she told it again — recalling even minute details these more than fifty years later.  I surely cannot tell it as she can, but I offer you a bit of that story now.
In 1960, before any of us were born, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  She was teaching school and all the children were required to get a skin test for TB.  She went first to show them it wouldn’t hurt.  Hers flared up and before she knew it she lost her job and was sent off to a TB sanatorium in Milwaukee.

The injustice of the story is that she wasn’t really sick. The spot on her lung was the size of a dime. She was exhibiting no symptoms.  A doctor who was an alarmist made the call that she needed to go to the sanatorium and so she did, and even though once admitted her doctor there said she didn’t really need to be there, once you were in, it was not easy to get out.  She wound up staying for nine weeks.  I expect it felt a whole lot longer than that.

She and my dad had been married less than a year when this happened. They were just starting to build a life together and were brought up short by illness and by the fear of what this disease could mean for her, for them, for their future.  And suddenly she found herself cut off from not only her husband, but also her extended family, her work, her church, her co-workers, her friends. She still speaks of her loneliness in that time.

She also speaks of the wonder of that time.  The story never gets told without her recounting how my dad visited every day after work.  And that family and friends wrote letters and sent gifts — so much so that when she was released it took many trips to carry it all the car.

And she speaks of how it opened up her world. For the first time she encountered people who were unlike her self: different socioeconomic statuses, different races, different experiences altogether.  She left that time with a greater understanding of and appreciation for those differences among us, which perhaps she would not have gained otherwise.

But the bit of the story that we loved the best was this. There were rules in the TB San and my mother tended to follow the rules.  One of those was that you could not leave the grounds without permission.  My dad was not so much of a rule follower and on one particular early evening visit with much vigor he talked her into leaving the grounds with him for ice cream. Finally, she went, no doubt anxious the entire time.  The next night?  She was waiting at the entrance and when he arrived she greeted him with “Let’s go!”

As I said above, the four little girls in our household could not hear this story too many times.  In its telling we learned about love and devotion. About tragedy and hope. About death and resurrection, if you will.  I’ve heard this story my whole life long and I have to say, I still can’t get enough of it.

And so it is we come to Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, this oh so familiar story most of us have heard so many times we could tell it again without looking at the page.  I expect it is so beloved because we can find ourselves in this story, whether we identify with the wayward son, the righteous son who stayed at home, or the father whose love could not be contained and only wanted to gather his children close.

And as we hear this story, too, we hear about love and devotion, heartbreak and healing, failure and redemption, death and resurrection.  It is, perhaps not our story in the same way as are those heard at our own dinner tables growing up,  but as members of God’s family, as followers of Jesus, it is still ours. And for this reason, I expect it shapes us, too, even as we enter into it at different times in our lives with new understandings and expectations and experiences to inform us.

And so I find myself sitting with this familiar story now and wondering at where I find myself within it this time through and what it has to offer our shared journey as we hear it in this season now.

It is so that many of the faithful, most of the time, find ourselves identifying with the older brother.  A long time ago I read this story to a confirmation class — I don’t know if they had ever really listened to it before.  And I asked them to illustrate it for me.  Over and over their pictures and the explanations which followed demonstrated their indignation with the younger son, for every single one of them claimed to be the older sons and daughters:  the responsible ones, the ones who stayed at home, the wronged ones.  I get that. 

And yet, this time through, somehow I find myself not proud of that at all, for in spite of my self- righteousness, I do recognize that my behavior is hurting the father in the story.  My resentment  is hurting God who only loves the one who has gone astray and who has finally come home.

And this time through as I hold this story close I am wondering if I am not the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter after all. For while I may never have left home, I know that there are ways in which I squander the inheritance God has given me.  I do not care for God’s good creation as I should.   I do not value enough the grace, the love of God which has been showered upon me, and like the prodigal son I waste it instead of freely giving those gifts away.  I pay attention to what I shouldn’t and I neglect what I should not and when I stand still in the truth of that, I know that like that prodigal sometimes I wait until there is nothing left before I consider venturing home.

Oh, yes this story we have heard so many times is indeed our family story, for within it we find ourselves. Indeed, as we listen to it again we learn once more of failure and redemption and fear and hope and forgiveness.  And as we listen to it this time perhaps we again find ourselves shuddering in fear and in grief at how we break our Father’s heart and then laughing aloud in wonder to picture God running down the road to greet us, welcoming us home.

  • You know this story well. What strikes you this time as you hear it again?
  • In what ways is this story from Luke our ‘family story?’  How has it shaped you over time? What have you learned as you have heard it repeated over your lifetime?
  • Where do you find yourself in the story this time through?
  • What is the value of repeating the same stories over and over again?

One comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    After 15 years of caring for my mother, I didn’t actually resent that all was shared equally between 5 siblings when the end came, but wondered about the love and time I had given that the others hadn’t. Now, with 2 children of my own, I understand that my love for them is equal, and nothing that they give or don’t give can influence that unconditional love. Gayle

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