There is an interesting detail in the story commonly referenced as the Prodigal Son as told by Jesus. The rebellious younger son found himself in a far-off land and when he had exhausted all of his inheritance on “prostitutes and riotous living” he was forced to accept a job feeding pigs. And at one point his situation became so desperate that he was tempted to eat what he was feeding the swine. It was at this point that “he came to himself” and decided to return to his Father’s house with no guarantee that he would be accepted, but only that his circumstance couldn’t be worse than having to eat pig food.
Like the Prodigal Son, I have fed pigs. When I was young, my Dad raised them, and occasion I fed them. It was a fascinating process.
There are several things that I remember about feeding pigs. First, they stink. There is a distinctive smell that accompanies hogs in general, which is further heightened by the unique aromas emanating from their feed trough. I also remember that when the food was dispensed, the pigs congregated in numbers. And they didn’t as much eat as they inhaled. Imagine a vacuum cleaner that snorts, now imagine a collection of them bumping against one another competing for every morsel of food in the tough and on the ground. The food becomes indistinguishable from the snouts of the pigs. We called the pig food “slop” because that is exactly what and how the pigs ate. It became a verb describing how the hogs ate in addition to being a noun for what they were eating.
Now I’m not sure what First Century Middle Eastern pigs may have eaten, but if it was anything like my experiences, it is no wonder that it was in this moment that the young man “came to himself.”
Have you ever been in a moment where you came to yourself? I don’t know how this read in the original language of the Bible, but it is an interesting turn of phrase in the English language. Sometimes you have to come to yourself, because you’ve been away too long. I know that I’ve found myself in these types of circumstances, chasing distractions to escape the reality of the difficulties of life. At first, I’m living it up with “riotous living.” Another interesting phrase. Riots aren’t descriptive of building up but rather of tearing down. And in the current milieu, I’m reminded that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that riots are the “language of the unheard.” Marginalized people sometimes resort to destructive behavior because they have been ignored for so long. So, in the case of the Prodigal Son, imagine living in a way to be noticed, but in a way that produced any lasting joy. The Text says “He wasted his substance.” As Robert Farr Capon points out, “what the father gave away and what the son wasted was not just some stuff that belonged to them; it was their whole existence, their very being, their lives.”
So, whatever his ultimate motivations may have been, I suspect that this young man pursued a different life because he felt unheard and unseen. And before we demonize him for leaving, how many of us have done the same? We leave a job, a marriage, a friendship, because we perceive that those we love no longer love us, or that what we are giving is unappreciated or unreciprocated. If love is measured by active attention and shared experience, what happens when we feel that those no longer exist? For some departing to a “far-off land” is the answer. And when this prodigal child pursued riotous living, it led him to a place that he did not intend to go, when he became so hungry that he desired to eat the undesirable in attempt to satiate his appetite. And I don’t write this as a justification or a judgement, simply an explanation of our individual struggles with collective consequences.
As a child, when I fed the hogs, they came in numbers and would not stop eating until the food ran out. If possible, from my observations, the pigs would have eaten themselves to death if the food had not been cut off. Likewise, my appetite for escape, pleasure, distraction is the same. If left to my own appetites, I will destroy myself with my passions. Unbridled appetites lend themselves to the law of diminishing returns. What was once a pleasurable experience becomes a painful pursuit that chases itself into destructive oblivion.
The Prodigal Son ends up making a bargain with himself, fudging the books a bit, he guesses that although he has forever given up the status of a son, he might be able to earn himself a place as a hired servant. He justifies himself by placing himself on this spectrum of good and bad. A game we often play as well. “I’m not good enough to be in the family, but perhaps I can still earn my keep.” Thankfully, grace isn’t spread across a spectrum based upon our ability to perform. Grace by definition is freely given and never earned.
The Prodigal comes staggering up the road, but before he makes it home, his father runs to embrace him. In that moment of embrace the son gives up the nonsense of attempting to earn his way back into the father’s good graces, and simply surrenders to the good grace that is abundantly showered upon him.
Robert Farr Capon is once again helpful here when he writes; “Confession is not medicine leading to recovery. If we could recover -if we could say that beginning tomorrow or the week after next we would be well again -why then, all we would need to do would be apologize, not confess. We could simply say that we were sorry about the recent unpleasantness, but that, thank God and the resilience of our better instincts, it is all over now. And we could confidently expect that no one but a real nasty would say nay. But we never recover. We die. And if we live again, it is not because the old parts of our life are jiggled back into line, but because, without waiting for realignment, some wholly other life takes up residence in our death. Grace does not do things tit-for-tat; it acts finally and fully from the start.”
Like the Prodigal Son, I’ve wasted life engaging in self destructive behavior. I’ve fed pigs, but because of grace, I don’t have to eat with them.