When you think of home, what kinds of words, images or feelings come to mind? For me home has always represented the place where I can truly relax, where I can completely be myself, a place of comfort and familiarity. One of the things I have found interesting in recent years is how hospitals have gone to great lengths to make maternity wards and labor and delivery rooms resemble our perception of home as much as possible. In these rooms, you’ll find hardwood floors, wooden furniture, including a wooden basinet and wooden entertainment cabinet. All the clinical stuff is concealed as much as possible. Instead of the cold metal features of hospitals past you now have your baby in something like the Cracker Barrel. We simply feel more comfortable when we are at home, or reminded of home. And no matter where we are in life, we never seem to fully relinquish a longing for home.
And yet there is a paradox here. Even though we harbor this longing for home, at least to some degree, I think we also at times have a desire to leave home. There is also that side of us that longs for a greater sense of adventure and discovery, to experience something new or simply something different. Sometimes this desire goes beyond wanting more adventure in life, but actually reveals something of a darker side to our feelings about home. Sometimes we may actually begin to look at home, no longer as a place of security, but as a place of restriction, where we start to feel that if we could just get away from home then we would be freer, freer to become our true selves. I have encountered this attitude on a number of occasions when people have expressed their desire to leave home so that they could “find themselves.” I also hear these kinds of sentiments expressed by senior high school students.
I think many of us, if we’re honest, remember feeling much the same way. I think there is a kind of ambivalence within many of us about “home.” Sometimes we long for it, and all it represents, and yet there are times when we want to run away, or escape from it. Well, in the gospel of Luke 15:11-32 we run across a very similar situation. We have a young man, who finds life at home on the farm to be dreary and suffocating, and decides it would be better to take his inheritance and take off to the far side, where something better has got to be waiting for him. Will Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, noted that this notion of leaving home as a way to self-fulfillment, is a wonderful illustration of the mentality that is found on many modern-day American universities. He wrote, “I work at a university. There, we get students on campus, detach them from their parents, abandon them to an environment peopled at night exclusively by others of their age, tell them to question everything, and then once we get them completely cut loose, we call them adult, ready to graduate, to be ‘on your own,’ which is what they already are. The ‘far country’ of the story of the Prodigal, is the average college campus. Everybody is forced to abandon parents in order to grow up.” For this reason Will Willimon claims that this story of the Prodigal is one of the most counter-cultural stories for us today.
Another reason why I believe this story to be counter-cultural is that it tells us that coming home to genuine unconditional love provides a much greater path to true freedom than the one we might try to create for ourselves out there on our own. And for me, it is on this point of the Father’s unconditional love that this story displays its greatest relevance for our lives today. I say this because it really is the unconditional love of the Father that this son intentionally abandons when he strikes out on his own, and it is this unconditional love that he returns to, even though it is the last thing he expected to encounter. The son, of course, is expecting a scolding and then to be made a servant or hired hand. Yet what he walks into is a celebration. Now, this unconditional love has always been there, however, he must have thought something else better was waiting for him out in the great beyond.
I wonder how often you and I do the very same thing? How many times have we heard about God’s unconditional love? However, we either don’t truly believe it or we figure it’s not as good as advertised. So what do we often do? Rather than live out of God’s love, we spend our lives trying to prove that we can make it on our own. We see our personal sense of self-worth and value rising and increasing the more we prove that we can make it on our own. The problem with this approach to life however, is that you spend the rest of your life measuring yourself by the external rewards of success. Rather than receiving in gratitude the unconditional love of God, you spend the rest of your life trying to earn a very conditional love from everyone else.
The great spiritual writer Henry Nouwen stated that when we fail to accept and live our lives out of God’s unconditional love, we end up running around asking everyone else the question, “do you love me?” And the world’s answer to all this is “yes I love you if …” Nouwen wrote, “the world says: ‘Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.’ There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love. These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional.”
You see when we continue to measure our sense of self by the very conditional standards of others we are never truly free to be who God created us to be. We are consumed with trying to impress everyone else or win their approval, and in short, their love. Only when we come home to God’s unconditional love are we set free. Then we can throw off the shackles of self-absorption and we can be free to be outwardly focused, creative, and constructive with the gifts and talents and abilities God has given us. Then we will cease to compare ourselves to other people, cease spending our time frustrated, resentful, angry, jealous and antagonistic, all of which are clear signs that we have left home to a “far country.” Whenever we find ourselves draining our emotional and spiritual batteries with these kinds of thoughts and feelings, we are far away from home. What this means for us then, is that every day brings with it the challenge to return home. Everyday we face the challenge of falling into the trap of seeking and searching for the world’s love and sense of worth and value.
The radical, extravagant, unconditional love of God is our true home. G.K. Chesterton once said that there are two ways to get home. One is to go away and come back; the other is to never leave. I suppose there are some who have never left home. My guess is that most of us, at some point have, and many of us are still roaming around in the “far country” trying to find that something that will bring us whatever it is we are looking for. Maybe, just maybe, it is time to come home. The good news is that our Heavenly Father is waiting, waiting for you and for me to return to His life-giving love. The good news is that you can always come home.