Blue Coat School 7/5/2003
I didn't feel valued until I had some money to spend on myself, the younger brother said. That got me friends, who dressed like me, socialised like me, looked like me, spent like me, valued me.
I didn't feel valued until my brother left home, the older brother said. That made me the only one my Dad could rely on, the one who kept the family business going, the faithful one, the achiever, the valuable one.
This famous story, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is actually about three men, and how each of them valued themselves and others. There's little doubt that there's a bit of us in at least one of them.
The two sons looked for value the way we do. The younger son valued people who knew how to live it up. He wanted to be with the socialites, the best dressed, coolest crowd. He valued people who were big spenders, who lived extravagantly. Wanting what they had made him happy - for a while. Till his money ran out and he had to go crawling back to his father.
His brother couldn't have been more different. He valued reliable people, dedicated, single-minded people. He wanted to be seen as one of those who stayed at home, working hard, meeting the demands of their family. He valued people who were quiet achievers, who lived faithful lives. Wanting what they had made him happy - for a while. Till his brother came back and his father threw a great big party for him.
Our dilemma as humans is not that we find it too difficult to value others. It's that we find it too easy. We're full of desire to be like them, to have what they have got. We feel that if we are more like them we will become more valuable, more desirable ourselves. We'll go to any lengths to fulfil our desires. It's an endless cycle: it always starts out so well, and it always leads us astray.
Like the younger son who started out full of exuberance and ended up full of shame. Or the older son who started out passive and faithful and ended up burnt out with anger.
It's addictive, this cycle of value and desire. But the story tells us that it can be broken. There's a third man in the story and somehow he's outside the cycle. The father is generous to both sons - giving them their inheritance. The father allows both sons to go about their lives the way they choose, without interruption or censure. The father doesn't accept either one over the other, treats each one evenly.
He doesn't dwell for a moment on the stupidity of the son who went astray. He doesn't condemn the stay-at-home son for his stifling sense of duty. The father celebrates the return of the youngest son and pledges his endless devotion to the eldest.
If they could learn to accept others the way he does, they'd step outside the cycle of value and desire and find new freedom in their relationships, begin to be more fully themselves than ever before.
The father in the story is a metaphor for God, of course. Let's pray to God now.....
This talk owes a lot to the theory of mimetic desire as championed by Rene Girard and meditated on theologically by James Alison.