Southminster Presbyterian Church

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The Successful Prodigal

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 15:11-32

As you may have discovered, I like to take familiar scripture passages, like the parables, and look them from a new angle.  I want to do that this morning with the parable of the Prodigal Son.  What if the prodigal son had left home, gone into the far country, and had become a success instead of a failure?  How would the story have ended?

This is not an idle question.  I don't see many people in this church whom I would call abject failures.  We have responsible jobs, or we have retired from responsible jobs.  We have comfortable homes, with clothes to wear and plenty of food to eat.  We are more like the older son in the parable than the prodigal son.  Or if we are prodigals, then at least we are successful prodigals.  Do we, too, need to be reconciled with the Father and the Father’s family?

That is the question in this short story I have written called "The Successful Prodigal."

                                                           The Successful Prodigal

Daylight was fading as the son walked into the living room and turned on the light.  His father was asleep in an easy chair, the evening paper folded on his lap.  The son noticed that the room had changed little since his mother died five years earlier.  The television was in the same spot opposite the easy chair.  A small book case stood next to it along the wall.  A pole lamp with one light burned out stretched from floor to ceiling by the chair, and on the other side was an end table strewn with old issues of Reader's Digest.

The son cleared his throat and said, "Pop, I need to talk to you."

"Huh?  Oh, sure, son," said the father sitting up.  "I was just reading the paper.  It looks like interest rates are going back up.  It will be tough to borrow money for next year's crop."

"That's what I want to talk about, Pop.  I don't want to put in a crop next year.  I want to get out of farming.  It's not going anywhere.  Most of the time the prices we get won't cover the cost of growing the stuff."

"We've had some good years," the father replied.

"Yeah, but what has it gotten us.  We're still struggling, barely making it from year to year, just like your grandparents did.  I don't even have money to buy a car."

"My grandparents got by, and so will we," said the father.

The son threw up his hands.  "But I don't want to just get by.  I want to be somebody.  I'm 22 years old and I've never been east of Montana.  I want to go places and see things.  I want to make something of myself.  I want people to pay me interest!”

"You’re free to go," said the father.

"I know," said the son, looking down at his feet, "but I don't have any money to get started.”  He paused.  “I'd like to ask for my share of the inheritance now."

His father leaned back in his chair.  "Well, that's fine, son, but as you see I'm not dead yet."

"Do I have to wait that long?" the son asked.  "Why can't I have my share of the land right now?  It is supposed to be mine, isn't it?  It will give me a little capital to get started."

His father stood up and went over to the window.  "Is that all this family means to you,” he said, “a little capital?"  He pointed out the window.  "This land has been in our family for three generations.  You're the fourth.  You took your first steps on that porch.  You rode your first tricycle in that driveway.  You hit your first baseball in that yard.  You broke the window doing it, but I was so proud of you I didn't care.  We've been on this land over a hundred years.  That's 18 presidents, two world wars, five major droughts, three floods, and all the changes in technology from a horse drawn plow to a self-leveling combine.  We didn't always have a lot, but we made it because we stuck together."

"I know, Pop," the son said, "but I don't want to stick around anymore," and he turned and left the room.

Next morning when the son woke up, he found an envelope on his dresser.  It contained the deed to 400 acres of land.  Attached was a note which said, "This land has always been for you.  You can do with it what you want."

It was easier to sell the land than the boy thought it would be.  He found a buyer willing to pay his asking price in cash.  He didn’t ask what the buyer planned to do with the land.  He just took the money to the bank.

After depositing the check, his first instinct was to go out and buy a Ferrari.  Instead he settled for a used Mazda pickup and invested the rest of the money in mutual funds.  He then enrolled in a course on restaurant management at the community college.

After finishing the course work, he moved as far away as he could, finally stopping in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he got a job as a cook at a Howard Johnson’s.  Eventually he became the manager and did training for other managers in the area.

All this time his mutual fund kept growing.  Using his stocks as equity, the son obtained a loan from a New York bank to buy a small Chinese restaurant in Connecticut.  They had a thriving take-out business, but he added home deliveries, making it a sort of oriental style Pizza Hut.  The business was so successful, he opened several more in various suburbs around New York and eventually franchised his operation along the whole east coast.

During this time he had very little contact with his family.  His father called a few times and left messages with his secretary.  But the son was always too busy to call back.  Then the father started writing letters every few months.  If they had been e-mail messages, the son might have clicked "reply" and sent back a quick message.  But the father didn't have e-mail, and the son could not be bothered with stationery or stamps.  The letters were always about the farm, the crops, the weather, and how his grandchildren, the older boy's sons, were doing in sports.  But he never mentioned anything about the land which had been sold or the empty chair at the table.  He signed his letters, "Your father, always."

By now the son had a home in the suburbs.  It was a beautiful five bedroom colonial style house overlooking Long Island Sound.  He used one bedroom for himself and turned one into an office, but the rest sat empty.  With restaurant franchises in twenty states, the son did not have time for many friends.  He went out on a few dates, but his dates quickly learned that he was uninterested in long-term relationships.  So most of his time was spent in offices and airports, and when he went home, he went home alone.

About this time his older brother came to see him.  They hadn't gotten along that well growing up.  Pop always seemed to like him best.  The older brother did everything he was supposed to do, while the younger was always getting in trouble.  But that was many years ago.  Now the younger was looking forward to his older brother's visit.  He planned to show him all the sights: the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Yankee Stadium, and if there was time they might even fly down in his corporate jet to Washington, D. C.

His brother was thoroughly impressed.  "You've really made it big, little brother," he said.  "Look at me.  I'm still driving the same old tractors over the same old dirt.  The only excitement in my life are the high school basketball games."

"Yeah," said his brother, "but at least you have someone to go with you and someone you care about watching."

The brothers were silent for a moment, then the younger said, "How's Pop?"

He's doing all right," the older brother said.  "He's slowed up a bit.  Still drives grain truck during harvest, but that's about it.  I told him he ought to convert the spare bedroom into an office--give himself a place to work on the books without spreading them on the kitchen table.  But he didn't want to.  He said that someday you might need a place to stay."

The younger brother laughed.  "If I needed a place to stay I could buy the local motel."

His brother answered, "I don't think that's what he meant."

After this visit each of the sons went back to their respective lives: the younger to his meetings with brokers, attorneys, and advertising executives; the older to his family, his farm, and the high school basketball games.  Each wondered who had the better life.

The next fall, during a business trip out west, the younger son suddenly decided to visit the old family farm.  He wasn't sure what made him go.  As a child he only talked to his father when he needed something.  He certainly did not need anything now.  Or did he?  There seemed to be an emptiness in his life that success and prosperity had never filled.

He flew to the closest airport, rented a car, and drove 60 miles on back roads to the little town where he had been raised.  It all looked strangely familiar.  There was a new post office and a new bank.  The dry cleaners had been replaced by an antique shop, and there was a new picnic shelter in the city park.  Other than that the place looked much the same.  There was a sale on cantaloupe at the Red Barn grocery and a banner at the high school announced the Homecoming game.

Leaves scuttled across the driveway as he drove up to the farmhouse.  No one was out front, but he could hear the sound of his nephews shooting baskets in the backyard.  The front door was unlocked, so he went in.  His father was in the living room asleep in the same easy chair, the evening paper folded across his lap, the television tuned to the evening news.  The son felt tears in his eyes, an emotion he had not felt for years.  When he turned off the television, his father woke up.  "Pop," he said, "I'm home."

It took a moment for the fog to clear from his father's eyes.  Then he pushed his glasses back up on his nose, reached for his cane, and stood up.  They looked at each other for a moment, neither knowing what to say.   Then his father said, "Welcome home, son," and they fell into each other’s arms, tears running down their cheeks, ten years of unexpressed longing poured into one long embrace.

                                                                 *          *          *

That’s the story.  Do even successful prodigals need to come back to their heavenly Father?  Do you?

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7