“God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.” I shared this quote a few weeks ago from Meister Eckhart, a 13th Century spiritual director and if there is a story which epitomizes this quote, it would have to be this parable of the prodigals. In their own way, each of these people: the younger son, the older son and the father, all behave in very inconsistent ways.
Phrases that are popular in both psychology and spirituality today include the idea of the True Self/False Self. If you read the writings of the Apostle Paul however, you’ll quickly discover the same idea, but oh, about 2,000 years old. For Paul, our two selves are described as our “life according to the flesh”, the false self and our “life according to the Spirit”, the true self.
This difference in the false and true self may best be described in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church when he writes:
Galatians 5:19-23 NASB Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, (20) idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, (21) envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (22) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (23) gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
In the younger son, the one who demands his inheritance, takes off to see the world and party “gangam style,” the false self is all to clearly evident. This false self shows clearly in his “immorality, impurity, sensuality, drunkenness and carousing.” The false self takes him far from home to where he comes to trapped in a pigpen.
But now look at verse 17: “Finally, he came to his senses.” The word here for “senses” really is better translated as “himself.” So finally, he came to “himself” = he came to his true self. And when he does this, he leaves the slop of the pigpen and he heads off for home.
His arrival at home however reveals something in his older brother doesn’t it? We get to become a “fly on the wall” for this conversation between the older brother and the father. Surely, this brother is justified right? I mean, after all, he didn’t do any of the stuff the younger brother did? Maybe not but look at what comes to light in this conversation: “...strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying.”
The older brother may never have left home, but clearly he was as lost and stuck in the pigpen of the false self, the flesh as his little brother. Author and Friar, Albert Hause rightly discerns, I think, the older brother’s false self in this way, “his faithful workaholism had gotten him nowhere (52).” He had become just as much a prodigal, having walked faraway from home even in the very presence of the father.
Here are two of the prodigals, but I think there remains a third. The third one, in the spirit of Obi Wan Kenobi, “...remains safely anonymous,” but we call him out today as the father. So often overlooked because we naturally connect the father of the two sons to God the Father Almighty, the father exists as the third prodigal. Not because he wandered off or developed a grudge. No, it is because of this radical, prodigal mercy which the father displays to both sons. One experienced it his whole life and still was lost and the younger, unsure of this mercy, found it dumped upon him like fire hydrant opened up full blast. The father displays all the characteristics of the true self, of being fully in the Spirit as we see him show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Home for us on life’s journey takes us to this very place. Our false self, our life lived in the flesh, traps us in the mud and slop and isolation of pigpens. Others may even perpetuate it. Yet, there is a home where the outrageous mercy of God is on display for every prodigal by a prodigal God! And the mercy we get from God becomes mercy we can offer to others.
What will that look like? I don’t know. Maybe it will be in a hug and a party for one who has wasted part of their lives or providing a listening ear to one has grown bitter. Maybe it will be finding a task at the great day of service.
Or it maybe you recognize your false self in all this. Maybe you are hearing it is time to come home from your walk. Maybe today is the day you are ready to say yes to God and you give your life over to Jesus and begin to live as your true self, in Christ Jesus.
Works Cited and Referenced
Haase, Albert O.F.M. Coming Home To Your True Self. Downers Grove, IL. Intervarsity Press. 2008.
Mulholland, Bob. The Deeper Journey. Downers Grove, IL. Intervarsity Press. 2006. (Special thanks to Bob for really unpacking the scriptural basis for the true & false self at Academy #34 week 3 in Alabama).
More on Donald Winnicott and the origins of “True Self/False Self" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Winnicott and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_self_and_false_self).