The Story of the Prodigal Son. We know this story – right? At least we assume we know it. Just, we assume we know the family living next door to us or our own family for that matter. But, stories we believe we know and love are often left unprodded, unchallenged and uninteresting. The same could be true for our families, too. Let’s take another look . . .
On the surface, Jesus tells this story about a father and his two sons.
The older son knows how the world works. He is a classic oldest child – begins life with rookie parents who make rookie mistakes. As an oldest son, he has to push against the limits. He has to learn how to work and grow up much faster. He is dutiful, hardworking and loyal to his father. We think we know him.
The younger son knows how to work the world. He, like other younger children, inherits parents who are veterans (actually we hear nothing of the mother here). But, certainly, his father is a veteran parent. Like a veteran, dad is somewhat tired by the work of parenting. This old-timer has relaxed quite a bit. The youngest child is inheriting a dad who is going through the parenting process for the last time. This is the last child that calls him “daddy.” This is the last child who will learn to walk, talk, read and of course, push parental buttons. Younger children learn to play their parents like a fiddle. And they are good at it. In this story, the younger son is a master fiddler (Richard Swanson in Provoking the Gospel of Luke, Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 2006, pp. 128-130)
The master fiddler is hard at work in this story as he goes to his father and convinces him that it is a good idea that they pretend together that the father was dead so that the son could fictively inherit his share of the property. Face it! That was the only way this story could work. With a percentage of the farm sold off, the younger son takes off to spend his father’s hard-earned inheritance. It isn’t long before the younger son has blown all his inheritance on wild adventures in a far-away land. It says, “he came to himself” or many translations say, “he came to his senses.”
This is where we need to do a freeze frame on this story. Stop right here.
Let’s look more closely. On the surface, I have always thought I understood this story perfectly well. But, when I came to this passage, considering the family dynamics of mental health concerns, these words jumped off the page of the Bible. So, I raise the question for you – is it possible that the younger son has some sort of brain disease? We can all admit that his behaviors are compulsive – right?
A person doesn’t beg for, cajole and force the hand of a parent for half their value while they are still living, then get it, and go and blow it immediately without something being wrong in their brain? Right? That is NOT NORMAL BEHAVIOR. We can at least agree on that.
One of the problems in dealing firsthand with mental illness is that – for both the person with an illness and the people in the family around them – there is often a continued ramping-up of behaviors. The adult son who pushes his father to give up the farm has (in this interpretation) pushed his father throughout his lifetime about lots of things – including family rules, household chores, going to church (or synagogue), going to school, and of course – money. He pushes and pushes and pushes until his father gives in from a lifetime of pressure. Through it all, it isn’t that he is “bad” (which his brother keeps saying). Rather, he is sick.
A friend of mine experienced her father going through the end stages of cancer and found that the disease changed his behaviors and it changed his brain chemistry. And chemo and radiation and the disease itself made him say and do things that didn’t fit the dad she had known throughout her lifetime. In time, she was able to forgive the behavior because of the disease’s effects on her dad. When cancer changes or intensifies a person’s behaviors, we are able to forgive and move on. When brain disorders and diseases do the same to our loved ones, it is much harder to move on – even though the same grace extended to one disease needs to be extended to the other, too.
We tend to focus on the behaviors – because we often don’t have words or thorough medical analysis to name the actions and thus forgive them. Erratic behaviors related to mental illness haunt the circle of loved ones who wonder – could we have said something different? Done something different? Responded better? Reacting to things will make you crazy. You find yourself hiding things, saying things, lying about things (for the first time in your life), doing things you never imagined possible – even giving away half your farm to a child who has not demonstrated in any way that he is stable enough to handle the money he is giving him.
All of this is crazy, and “Crazy making” (as I say) and is directly related to crazy in the blood.
In her book, Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church, Sarah Griffith Lund opens her book by defining “Crazy” and “Crazy in the Blood.” “Crazy” is a slang word that describes a person with brain disease and a description of a situation that out of our control. “Crazy in the Blood” is a phrase that describes a genetic predisposition to suffering from a brain disease and is the reason why some families are more dysfunctional than others. She adds this quote from BP Magazine, summer of 2014, “Bipolar tends to run in families and appears to have a genetic link. Like depression and other serious illnesses, bipolar disorder can also negatively affect spouses, partners, family members, friends and co-workers” (Blessed Are the Crazy, Sarah G. Lund, Chalice Press, St, Louis, MO, 2014, p. v).
I would like for us to see the younger son as sick and for once in our lives not simply see him as “bad.” He is “crazy” – to quote Sarah Lund. He may be suffering from bipolar disease. He may be afflicted with psychosis or suffering from some form of schizophrenia. He may have multiple diagnoses. We don’t know. It was the first century. Nobody had a diagnosis then. None of these words were in existence. People like the younger son were called names like wasteful, wayward, evil, sinful, a shame on the family name. But when look closely, we see a young man who is not well.
There is he is wallowing with the pigs, eating the food of pigs (from the perspective of a religious Jew – this is lower than low). It is there in a pigsty that the youngest son wakes up. The clouds part in his brain and “he comes to his senses.” For a moment, he sees his true condition. He has nothing. He has hit rock bottom. For a moment in time, he realizes how low his has fallen. There in the stinking, sinking mud of the pigsty he talks to himself. He works out the words that he is going to say to his dad. “I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am not worthy to be called your son.” He rehearses this all the way home. Like a mantra of madness, seeking to find home, he talks to himself and he walks by himself.
Like all the parents who have walked through their children’s brain diseases, the father is waiting for his son. His daily prayer is that the boy is still alive. As bad as his behaviors may have become, as often as the father has had thoughts, he had to suppress about his son which he hates himself for having, he waits. Every night he goes to the edge of his property and watches as the sun goes down to catch a glimpse of his son in the darkness at the edge of town. Every morning, he arises – as if he had been sleeping – to watch.
(To be continued later this week)
Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens
The Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens is Senior Minister of The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio where he has served since January 2000. Ordained in 1985, Tim is a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ.