"The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," is a familiar saying. The younger son in Jesus' parable was sure that greener pastures lay elsewhere. This young man may not have been exactly sure where the excitement was, but he was certain that it was not on the family farm. We can almost imagine him thinking to himself, "Life is short and I shouldn't be wasting my one chance at a fulfilling life here tending to crops and animals.
His desire to "find himself" leads him to do something that would disgrace his family and bring shame to his father. He asks for his portion of the inheritance before his father's death, when he would lawfully and rightfully receive it. In so doing he is saying to his father, "As far as I am concerned, Dad, you are already as good as dead. Give me my money now, while I am still young enough to enjoy it."
His father would have been well within his rights to disinherit him, but he does not. In his grief, he gives him what he wants. There is another saying we all know: "Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it." The son gets what he has asked for.
In the 1960's we were told that we had to find ourselves, that we had to discover our identity, who we were. So flower children who lived on the east coast went to California, and those who lived on the west coast made their way to New York in order to "find themselves." Today we no longer use the language of "finding ourselves," but in essence we still think it is up to us to discover who we are in the idolatrous language of "choice" that we employ in everything from "choosing" our career, to "choosing" our mate, to "choosing" what is right and wrong for us. In essence we are still trying to find ourselves. It never occurs to us that we may already have our identity, that who we are may already have been decided.
Such a thing never occurred to the younger son, or perhaps it had occurred to him, but he refused to accept it; he refused to accept the possibility that his identity lay in the very place he despised-- his home. So, off he goes with fortune in hand ready to find himself, ready to choose his own destiny. The world is his oyster and he is in search of the pearl of great price.
The young son is now foot-loose and fancy-free to live his life, to forge his own destiny. He leaves dad and the family farm for the bright lights and the big city. With loaded checkbook in hand, he no doubt finds new friends ready and willing to help him spend his money-- and spend it he does; but he doesn't just fritter it away in fancy restaurants and on luxury items. "He squanders his wealth in immoral living." St Augustine states "To be in the realm of lustful passion is the same as to be in the realm of darkness" (Confessions 1.18).
How true it is that just when we think we are in control of our lives, the circumstances of life awaken us from our illusions and confront us with the facts. A severe famine strikes and this wayward young man has nothing to sustain him; even worse, he had nothing to sustain him when he had his wealth; for the real famine was in his soul.
In utter desperation, he hires himself out to those who give him the task of feeding pigs. He is so hungry, even the pig slop looks tasty! This is about as low as a Jewish boy can sink. He has hit the bottom and he has hit it with a loud thud. As the younger son goes about his degrading task, he probably wonders how he could have gotten himself into such a mess. How often we find ourselves in situations we are not anticipating because we did not think through the consequences of getting what we have asked for. Suzanna Wesley taught her young son, John, that sin is "whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, and takes off the relish of spiritual things." There is a senselessness in sin-- which is not insanity-- but a refusal to live in the wisdom of God. The prodigal son has lost his senses.
It is sad but true that sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can come to our senses. There is, of course, no guarantee that we will. In the almost thirty years that I have been a pastor, I have seen more than a few individuals sink so low that they could take their place beside the prodigal son in the pig sty; and even at the bottom, they continue to live senseless lives. But in the midst of the nonsensical, it is possible to find rationality; and in the foolishness, wisdom waits.
As this wayward son now finds himself in the midst of a senseless situation, he finally comes to his senses. The Greek phrase is literally, "when he came to himself." It would be a mistake to understand this as the young man finally exercising some "common sense;" for living the kind of life God desires involves much more than common sense, especially since there is much so-called "common sense" in the world that is simply nonsense.
Jesus' phrase "when he came to himself" is quite interesting. It is a Semitic way of referring to repentance, and all that entails-- feeling sorry for one's sins and turning from them-- but it seems that there is something more. How is it that a change in mind and deed toward home is coming to oneself?
The son had left home with his inheritance ready to find himself, ready to forge his own destiny. Instead of finding who he was, all he found was emptiness. He left his father to find himself, and found that whoever he was, it was not something he had to discover somewhere out there in a strange place. What the wayward son had come to realize as he fed swine was that when he left home to find himself, in actuality he lost himself; even worse, he had rejected his identity, who he was. That is why when he finally "came to himself" he knew he had to return home.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine prays, "Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you." Our identity is not something we need to seek. God has "hard-wired" human beings to be in relationship with him. In our very essence, we are made to be in fellowship with God. C.S. Lewis states that all our attempts at finding fulfillment outside of that divine relationship in sex, drugs and alcohol, fame and fortune, are nothing other than poor attempts at seeking God. In his Weight of Glory, he writes, "If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased."
For too long the younger son had tried to find contentment in the mud of sin and found himself literally stuck in it. Thus, when he came to himself, he understood that his identity, who he was, was not to be claimed, but had claimed him long ago. He could only be himself back at home in loving relationship with his father.
And so it is with us. We do not claim our identity; God has claimed us and has sealed that claim in the work of Jesus Christ. We are not our own, and any attempt to find ourselves apart from that divine relationship will lead us to nothing other than a nonsensical existence. It does not matter what we may achieve and who may applaud our accomplishments. The only way to live life with sense is to live life in keeping with the will of God.
When this happens foolishness will give way to wisdom, and we will find ourselves because we have first been found by God.