The Prodigal Son and the Country of God

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Every once in a while you get a glimpse into another country, the country of God. Oh, I know, sometimes it’s called “kingdom,” but that seems so archaic, maybe even so biblical, that it’s hard for most of us to imagine.

What I’m thinking of really is another country, another land, one that feels, smells, even tastes different. You know right when you’ve stumbled into it, even if you didn’t notice the boundary lines.

What makes this country different is that nobody counts things here. Do you know what I mean?  No tracking billable hours, no counting the days until school lets out, no ringing up debits on the balance sheet, no cries from the backseat of “are we there yet?” Best yet, no counting old grievances and grudges, no dredging up past wrongs or unsettled scores. For some reason, people in this country have lost track of all that; in fact, they can’t remember why you’d keep count in the first place.

Oh, I know: the world — the real world — doesn’t work that way. We need to keep count. If we don’t, we’ll lose track of what we owe each other. How will we know the value of anything if we don’t weigh it, measure it, assess and evaluate it? But here, in this other country, a thing just has value. It matters, in and of itself. It just does.

I’m not saying this other world is better. Honest. I know that day in and day out in this fallen world of ours we do need to track and count and measure and remember. That’s the way most things work. But not relationships. Not really. You start counting the right and wrong, the good and the bad, and you’ll never get over it. Before long, you’ll be so unhappy you’ll actually have convinced yourself that if you could just count more, know more — maybe get another bite from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — then you’ll finally be happy.

There is this other world, though. If it’s not better, it’s at least more lasting — at least we hope to high heaven it is. In this world, you forget counting like my son forgets to track his laps when he’s swimming. Me, I’m not a swimmer. When I’m in the pool it’s to get exercise — nothing more, nothing less — and I make good and sure I count every length. But my son just swims. “How many laps did you swim today,” I’ll ask after he’s been in the pool an hour or more. “No idea,” he smiles back, as content as he is weary.

When Shakespeare’s mad old King Lear encounters his daughter Cordelia — the loving daughter he foolishly spurned — he expects to receive from her what he knows he deserves, what he has coming by all the laws of those who count. And when in a flash of other-worldly mercy she forgets and forgives, Lear asks, “Am I in France?” His servants, thinking him still mad, reply, “In your own kingdom, sir.” Yet Lear has left his world, indeed – left behind the moral geography of an England ruled by relational calculus, and with it the madness that comes from our relentless, remorseless counting.

Jesus paints a picture of this world in his story of a foolish son and even more foolish father. It is a world of unmerited grace. Counters won’t understand. Pulled down by the weight of their own claims, they can only sputter, “All these years….” “You never….” “This son of yours…”.

But to those of us who have been down and out, to those who have been lost, to those who have been dead…. Well, even if it’s not the real world, it’s the one that really matters.

Thank you, Working Preacher, thank you for showing us a glimpse of this other country through your words, for ushering us into it — even if only for a moment — through your sermons. The mercy you tell of, the grace you point to, helps us endure the counting…and sometimes even transcend it. What you do matters, dear Working Preacher. Sometimes, in fact, it makes all the difference.