It was early evening when I finally plucked up the courage to face the inevitable. ‘Come on, you’ve been planning this for ages, don’t chicken out now’ I silently pleaded with myself. I knocked on the door. My father asked me to go in. As I entered the room, I could hear my heart beating so fast I feared it would give me away even before I spoke. With his characteristic gentle smile he told me to sit down. If only he had been the indifferent, distant, grumpy old man like some of my friend’s dads were, it would have been so much easier. As I stared blankly into his eyes I somehow felt that this gentle soul already suspected what I was about to say and that he had already made up his mind to respect my decision now that I was of age.
‘Dad’ I blurted out. ‘Dad’, the second time the words seemed to get stuck in my throat but I made a huge effort and continued – ‘Dad, I’m leaving home … I want my share of the inheritance now… and I’m out of here.’ Time seemed to stand still for an eternity. I knew from that moment that although I was still home, I was now home alone … and my thoughts drifted to when it had all started.
Ours was a happy family but when my mum died it left a deep scar in my heart. My father’s love, care and dedication somehow filled the void over time. However I never really dealt with the anger I felt towards God for my mother’s illness and death. It festered in me like a wound that was buried but not forgotten. I had the best of relationships with my Dad. He did not spoil me but neither did he deny me anything that was good for me. He was always super abundantly generous with me.
When I was sixteen I began to steadily lose my innocence. I can’t blame it only on my friends although it would not have been possible without them. First it was stealing apples from our neighbour’s garden, then it was bullying and taunting those who were not part of our gang … but soon the apple that began to rot was not the one I had taken from old Mr Daniel’s tree but my very own heart. Then came the drugs ‘just for fun’. ‘Anyway, I know when to stop’ I always lied to myself.
My friends and I would gather together to hear stories about the happenings in the distant Greek towns collectively known as the ‘decapolis’, the ten cities. Compared to our close-knit Jewish village where everyone else’s business was also your own and of course your own business was also theirs, those places seemed the perfect playground of freedom where one can do what one wanted. In these Greek cities we heard about the exciting plays performed in their theatres, the wild games in their amphitheatres and the new philosophies one could learn in their gymnasia. However what always caught our attention was the graphic sexual exploits of the guys who dared to venture there on business trips with their fathers. Eventually all these things went from head to heart … no more imagination, now it was time for action!
My father’s words interrupted my spiralling thoughts, ‘You may go my son, I will see to it that you are given your share of the inheritance immediately …. be blessed’. I felt a weight lift of my shoulders. I had made it. I was not a coward after all. My friends will see. I will join them in this new life in the ‘decapolis’ cities where the abundance of the free flowing wine is only rivalled by the pleasure, fun and excitement offered by entertainment industry.
As I got up to leave the room I hardly dared look back again into my father’s eyes. I knew that the insult I had heaped on him was beyond imagination. I knew that I was counting my father as good as dead – that same father who patiently taught me how to walk, who taught me how to love everyone and who dried my tears when others rejected me…. now I could see tears in his eyes. How I wished instead it would be anger, shouting and banging … it would have been easier to endure than the silence of his suffering love.
It was late now. I walked out of the house into the darkness of the night as I made my way to my friend’s apartment, unaware that a thicker darkness now covered my soul.
The Way Back Home
I saw and experienced exceeded even my wildest imaginations. A sprawling city with neatly built houses, cobbled streets, shops on every corner and young people partying day and night. I must admit it took some time to get used to. My conscience didn’t seem as eager to die as quickly as I would have wished it to. But after a while it did and I joined in the revelry without any pangs of guilt to ruin my fun. ‘Everybody is doing this stuff here’ I reasoned ‘It can’t be so bad’. Life in my Jewish village in Judea seemed like a distant dream … although when I occasionally saw an elderly man who resembled my father pass by my heart would sink for a few seconds. This bothered me so much that I had to drink heavily to be able to drown the unwanted feeling of sadness that would otherwise grip me.
As time went by this too stopped being a problem. ‘There you are’ I congratulated myself ‘you’ve now grown up!’ Eventually I moved in with a pretty greek girl I met at the bar one evening. She was a beautiful creature but difficult to please. She was always talking me into buying her expensive stuff: a necklace, gold rings, a silver bracelet … and I would because I wished to do anything to make her happy. I planned to spend all my money on fun and games and perhaps eventually find work. As the weeks and months rolled by, my cash started running out. One day after I fell out with one of my few remaining friends, I realised that I had as much money as I had friends. Very little! They had all abandoned me one by one when I couldn’t pay for their drugs, dinners and drinks.
But the distant rumblings of thunder that had been heard over the city a few weeks earlier, now broke out into a violent storm. Not a literal tempest but a financial one. An unprecedented famine swept the land due to the destruction of the harvest caused by a swarm of locusts as thick as a rain cloud. Due to lack of efficient planning, the city was facing an immense economic crisis and people were as angry at the authorities as they were hungry.
My greek girl friend dumped me and moved back in with her parents. My landlord eventually threw me out because I couldn’t pay the rent. And I reached the depth of despair because in my distress I did something which no Jewish guy, crazy as he could be, would ever do – I went to work on a pig farm. For us Jews, pigs represent all the darkness of paganism because they were animals sacrificed to the heathen gods. What had happened in my soul was now literally being played out in my life. Here was a picture of my sin without the glamour.
I was so hungry I longed to devour the pods the pigs were eating but I was not allowed to. If I proved myself a good worker they would consider giving me something small to eat but not until then. I became delirious at times. In my mind, the abundant food at my father’s house kept flashing before me. But it was too late. I had forfeited all that and now I was getting my just ‘reward’. Yet something in my deep heart kept telling me ‘Get up and go back to your father’s house’ whilst another voice, equally strong, taunted me ‘he will never have you back, look at you. You do not deserve even a pig’s pod.’ These conflicting thoughts kept raging through my mind for a number of days. The point came when I could not take it any longer. I came to my senses and said ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Dad, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’
So with the little energy I had left I got up and started the long journey back home. Many times on the way I was on the verge of turning back so deep were my feelings of fear, discouragement and despair. But I was really homesick by now… I knew that if I did not make it back then I would just die on the road.
I actually feared the kezazah as much as I feared the possibility of my father rejecting me. Any Jewish boy who lost his inheritance among Gentile pagans faced the kezazah ceremony if he dared return back to the village. Fellow villagers would fill a large pot with burned nuts and corn and break the pot in front of the guilty individual whilst shouting ‘So-and so is cut off from his people’. From then on the whole village would have nothing to do with the hapless renegade. I knew the humiliation of the kezazah awaited me since I was returning back to my village empty handed and clothed in shame.
‘Only a few minutes and I’ll be there’ I said to myself as I spotted the now familiar surroundings on the outskirts of my childhood hamlet. I hated to think what I would do if besides the shame of the kezazah, my father refused to take me back in as a servant. As I negotiated the last few obstacles of thorns and brambles in the field close to my home, I finally spotted the house… and I thought… ‘Is it still my home?’ It stood there as it had always done for years. Nothing had changed. The sun was already setting. My father would be soon preparing to retire in his room to read his holy books and then sleep. ‘You must hurry now ‘ I chided myself because I was still quite a way off even though the house was well in sight.
Don’t ask me to explain what happened next. One minute I actually caught a glimpse of my father on the roof of the house looking out towards the fields, a strange thing indeed at this later hour; the next minute, before I could even try to figure out what on earth he was doing up there on this cold evening, he had disappeared … and soon in the distance, I could see someone running … it was my father… and he was running fast… he was doing something no self-respecting elderly Jewish man of his bearing would ever do … he was running… he kept running … and he was running towards me.
God’s Mercy and Forgiveness – Abundant Mercy
And as he ran to me, he took me into his arms, held my head to his chest, kissed me and cried ‘My son, my son, how I’ve waited for this day’. Turning to all the villagers who by now had followed him to the spot where he met me, he called out as if everyone had momentarily gone deaf ‘My son was dead but he’s now alive’. He held me so close to him I could hardly say a word. As his strong arms relaxed their grip, I was able to look into his gentle eyes once again… and I confessed ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son …’ but he interrupted me before I could even finish those few words I had rehearsed a thousand times on my way here. ‘My son, I freely choose to forgive you because my love for you has not changed. You were, are and will always be my son. Do you accept this?’ I could hardly believe my ears. Not only because of his unfathomable compassion and mercy but because I realised that even at that moment he was still giving me a choice and not forcing his love upon me. I could still choose to be a paid servant in his house, one who just obeyed orders and got a pay. Or else I could accept the responsibility of living as his son where the only obligation is that of love – an obligation which should know no limits but overflowed with blessings.
Even then, I am ashamed to say, conflicting thoughts entered my mind: am I ready to give up the freedom to do what I want for the freedom to do what is right? Am I willing to serve in heaven rather than reign in hell? Am I happy to live my freedom in the truth rather than freedom from the truth? I knew that my decision was not just based on the emotion of the moment. I knew that coming back home meant living a new life which would be happier, freer and fuller but would require that I forfeit my ’decapolis ways’ interiorly not only exteriorly. Deep down I already knew the answer. I had tasted the pleasures of sin which had left me empty, miserable and half dead. I knew what I wanted and with not much more hesitation I quietly but resolutely whispered ‘I accept Dad’.
My restless heart was back home…and it now was at peace and at rest once again. I then I looked up to heaven and prayed. My thoughts were jostled when I heard my father say to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet’. I who had lost all my rights was being given back a dignity I never even knew I had – the robe, the ring and the sandals all signified that my father gave me back the honoured status of sonship.
As we walked back into the house everything seemed to have changed although all was still the same. And then it dawned on me – it was I who had changed, and having been given this second chance, I now finally realised that I had really come back home!
Love and Forgive each other – Big Brother
It seemed strange but already an hour had passed and my elder brother was nowhere in sight. The party was already in full swing and all the familiar faces were there including Mr Daniel from next door. Everybody was drinking, eating the fattened calf and happily dancing away. I was a bit sad, I must admit, that Jacob was conspicuous by his absence. We never had the best of relationships but we were always decently behaved toward each other. Admittedly I was the ‘naughty guy’ who was always getting in trouble whilst he was the good guy who always did as he was told. I would find it strange however that despite the fact that he was obedient he would start grumbling and muttering as soon as my father left the room. ‘But surely Jacob will be happy to see me back’ I said not really believing it deep down. I was already preparing myself to apologise for the times I was nasty to him.
I noticed that the head servant was looking for my father in the sea of faces that filled the room. He managed to edge his way to the back of the room where dad was chatting with old Mr Cohen about the best way to cook a fattened calf. Although the head servant tried to be a discreet as possible, I could not help overhearing the conversation.
‘Sir, I met Jacob as he was returning from the field and he wanted to know what was going on in the house when he heard all the music. “Your brother has come,” I told him “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound”. But sir, he got very angry and refused to come in. He’s outside now and wishes to speak with you.’
I don’t know what hurt most, Jacob’s attitude towards my homecoming or the look on my father’s face. My mind went back to the day I had told my dad that I was leaving home … it was the same picture… no anger, no shouting and banging … just tears rolling down those grieving eyes. And with that, my father made his way to the door and I saw him disappear into the front garden. Curiosity and apprehension got the better of me and I followed him making sure that neither he nor my brother would notice that I was hiding behind the wall close by.
I saw my father kneeling before my brother. ‘Jacob, my son, come in and join the party, your brother has…’ But my brother’s angry words interrupted him ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. My brother Jacob could not even call me by my name but referred to me as ‘this son of yours’ What was even more shocking was the contradiction between his words and actions. Here he was, saying that he had never disobeyed my father’s orders yet he refused to heed my father’s plea to enter the house. But in his typical patient graciousness my dad answered him: ‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
But Jacob, with great distress in his heart, turned and walked away. For a moment I relived what I myself had done to my dad a few months earlier. I knew how my story ended but I wasn’t sure how this one would. Would my brother too come to his senses and realise that he was a son not a servant and that for my father what counted most was love and not law. As I saw him move away I realised that one need not leave the house physically to have left the home in his heart. I wondered how many people were in that situation. I wished to reach out to Jacob but at that moment I knew it was useless. I could only hope that that he too would realise what I had come to realise- that darkness was just really absence of light and that evil is in essence a perversion of the good and the happiness we seek in the wrong place and the wrong way. As he walked away he was too was now facing a choice. Would he let darkness overcome his soul or do as I did, let go of his pride and humbly go back into my father house. Would he experience the truth that his real home was where his heart is?