Let me tell you about my family. I am married and I have two sons. I love my sons. I love my husband. And my loving them does not make them love each other well, and it only deepens the grief when they are estranged or conflicted.
When he came of age, my younger son came to my husband and made a demand, “Give me my half of my inheritance.” To hear it, I was aghast. I was aggrieved. I could barely believe it. I did not think that we had raised a son to offer such disrespect and I questioned: Had we been too permissive? Had he always felt such entitlement? Where had I gone wrong?
Maybe you already understand this: he essentially was saying to his father, to me, to his community, ‘I wish you were dead. You’re nothing to me.’ What kind of a son treats his parents like that? I was angry! At my son and at my husband. Because what does my husband do? He gives in. He talks to the neighbors to negotiate selling off land. He liquidates some of our holdings. He auctions livestock. He hands over fully half (half!!) of our family’s livelihood to the boy! He was a boy! Foolish and vain and ungrateful. [sigh] And ignorant and naïve.
I heard the neighbors. I knew the gossip. The whole village thought we were irresponsible undisciplined parents. I was implicated in my crazy husband’s actions too. They thought our whole family was crazy, and who wouldn’t? Any sane father would refuse! Would say, ‘Young man, your responsibility is here. Your responsibility is to get married, have a family, to care for your mother and for me in our old age. We didn’t raise you so you could leave us. Shape up! Go back to work.’ As the head of the household he certainly would have had the right.
But he let him go. So I had to let him go too. We all did. My boy had declared us dead, but when he left, it was as if he was the one who had died. To not hear from him, to not know when he was or how he was faring. There was nothing I could do. He could have been dead for all we knew.
Just like when someone dies, there was a hole. I grieved. And somehow life kept going, find a new normal.
Ever the responsible, my elder son just kept his head down, diligent as always. It was a burden on him. Now all the responsibility would be his but he was resolute. A hard worker. He’s a perfectionist with himself and with everyone else. Classic older child, really. He never gives himself a break, never takes a day off. My husband would never have thought to suggest it. Life had found a new normal but it was a sort of half-life.
I think the village saw this too. We may have been irresponsible and crazy, but my son was the one who had abandoned us. They saw the way our he cut us off and I knew they had the qetsatsah[i] all planned. If he would ever show his face in the village again, the jar would be broken, the burned corn would be spilled, his name would be proclaimed and he would be ritually broken off from the community. No better than a Gentile. I have to admit, I was angry with him for leaving us but I was also grieved. And I would be heartbroken were such a thing to happen.
Even if we were weirdos, we are still the town’s weirdos and they’ve protected us. Even living on half a farm we’ve made out okay, better that okay, due to my conscientious firstborn’s hard work and the care of the community. But I knew there had been famine not so very far from us. And sure enough that’s where the young man went. Lost it all. Every last goddam penny.
It was hunger that put him back on the road to us. I don’t know who saw him first, but my husband got wind of it and I have never seen anything like it. He was out like a shot – arms pumping, legs flying, kicking up dust. No way for a grown man to act, the patriarch, the master of the house. He was making a fool of himself. I was glad to see the boy too. I could barely breathe, in fact. But the man was making himself ridiculous. Again.
I’m sure that kid had his speech rehearsed. He was always a big of a schemer: “I have sinned before heaven and before you…” A hungry belly will do that. But before he could get it all out, it was all robes and ring and sandals and fatted calf. Musicians and dancing and feast. Before he could get out his speech but before anyone could organize the qetsatsah. That boy may have spent everything and learned nothing, he may have been brought low and gone hungry, but he was not cut off. I’ll give my husband that – he thought fast. He looked like an idiot giving up all that property to a son that as good as proclaimed us dead, and he looked like an idiot to prevent him being made as dead himself. He brought him back.
I’m not sure my elder boy was so happy about that, though. In fact, I know he wasn’t. I mean, how does it make him look, after all. He doesn’t like looking foolish. But it all happened so fast no one had even gone to the field to get him so he arrived in the thick of it. And like it or not, it was his responsibility to go in, to honor his father’s decision, to join his father as host. He didn’t like it when his brother disrespected his dad but now what did he think he was doing? Pouting and raging outside when his father and brother were inside.
And again, my husband, paying no mind either to his duty and position, leaves the party to beg and plead. And he got an earful: “This son of yours spent all your money on whores!” He almost spat it. And I mean…where did he get that idea?? None of us know where the money actually went. He hadn’t even talked to his brother yet – not that he acknowledged that they were even related. His father is trying to bring him around.
And here we all are. Three lost boys – well, men – one lost and then found but maybe still lost to any understanding of what he really did to us and what this welcome back really means. One lost in his anger and resentment, refusing to come in, to accept restoration for himself as well as his brother. One lost to any semblance of dignity and decorum and authority of position but wanting more than anything for both his boys to be restored. Willing to let all that go.
But I love them. God help me, I will always love them. They are my sons. He is my husband. And I pray: God, in your mercy, restore what is lost. Restore them to you and to each other. May not my love but yours reconcile. In your mercy may a way be made where it seems as if there is no way. In your mercy, God, may my sons and my husband find a place at the table and feast together.
[i] Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor’s essay, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family” for introducing me to this notion of qetsatsah and shaped my perspective in writing this.