Sunday, April 2, 2017

The prodigal son: a reading

This coming week we'll be hosting a retreat, so I thought I'd post what I wrote for it.

My husband Paul and I host free spiritual retreats especially for people in transitional programs of some kind. It's a time for catching your spiritual breath apart from hard life in the city and taking time to listen to God and to each other. We always choose a Gospel story to center the retreat around, usually someone's encounter with Jesus, and we each write something about it to prepare: him, discussion questions for Bible study, and me, a story.

Or sometimes we call it a reading. These are a little hard to define--it's its own genre in a way. My personal word for it is midrash, but that's not a precise use of the term. (Midrashim are Jewish commentaries on the Torah often in story form, so... you can see the connection probably.) It's a story written as a companion piece to a Scripture passage, to comment and expand on it. The ones I write for retreats are written specifically to be read aloud--often a monologue by the Biblical character about their life, an imagining of the parts of their own story before, and sometimes after, what is written in Scripture.

All that to say: the story I'm going to post here is written specifically to be read aloud to a gathering, to stimulate reflection and/or discussion on a Bible passage. It can be used in church, small group, or Bible study, and if you'd like to use it, please do. This story and my others like it are in the public domain and I love for people to use them. The rest of them be found at my other website,



I was glad he left. Actually. Oh, I wasn't glad he insulted our father and walked away not only unpunished but with the sale price of our three best fields in his belt, but we were rid of him. I counted my blessings.

Not having to live with Levi anymore; I did not underrate that blessing.

I remember when we were boys together—though I thought I was already a man. I made him his first sling and taught him to use it. I was no bad hand at the sling; I'd killed more than one wild dog that came worrying the sheep. And yes, I'd made myself unclean till evening, burying them, and had to eat my supper alone; I wouldn't have dreamed of doing otherwise. To leave a carcass there in the pasture to rot, to sicken everyone, and attract jackals? No. That's what Levi did—once he finally learned to kill anything.

But the first day I taught him, he wasn't thinking of killing jackals and wild dogs. No. That wasn't good enough for him. He was King David already, shouting taunts at the Philistine. That was the worst of him, how you could see in his eyes he thought himself better than you, even as he destroyed your work. I stood before him and showed the proper stance, the grip, the angle of the swing; his eyes didn't watch me. He took up the sling I'd made him before I was done, shoved the first uneven rock he found into the pouch—without centering it—swung, lost his clumsy grip, and shot the rock straight behind him, into the flock. I'd thought it was enough to face him away from the sheep, you see. The rock struck our second-best ram and opened a gash in its flank. Within a day the wound went hot. I had to do some careful nursing—watching through the night—to keep the beast alive.

Levi denied having done it.

Father was always most distressed about his lying. He was distressed that day, because I had told him what happened, and he knew I didn't lie. But I never thought lying was Levi's real problem. His problem was what he did in the first place. Carelessness, you might name it. Boyish enthusiasm, endearing and harmless. Indeed. A boyish thirst for easy pleasure and glory; a boyish impatience that demands it now; a boyish refusal to pay any price for it at all—even a moment's attention.

I've known others like this. In the end they are simply locusts. They destroy.

The day he left, I walked out to the farthest sheep pasture, to spend my anger in silence. I was glad he was gone, and I was angry, and I mourned. I walked past our best wheatfield, which was ours no longer. My father had put that wheatfield in my charge—I'd worked three years on it now, careful work and hard. I never hesitated to put my back into the work along with my men. I husbanded that soil; I put more into it each year than I took out. It was green and lush by the time Father sold it out from under me to put silver in Levi's hand. To Asa son of Nathan, of all people—another locust. A bad, careless farmer, who lets his fences go unrepaired for years, till his oxen run out and trample our wheat. I knew he would ruin that field.

Father came to me and said that he was sorry, that there was no other way he could find, to make up the second son's portion. I could see that he had been weeping, that this was destroying him. But I was angry. I respect my father as I should, and so I said nothing. But if I'd spoken, I would have said this: “And if men like you allow the locusts to eat them, what do you think will be left of this world? Do you think that it won't be your fault?”

He looked at me as if I had spoken and he would answer, and he said, “He may yet come back.”

 That was always Father's problem.

One year he put Levi in charge of two kids he was fattening. Hoping he would learn. He had only to feed and water them each morning; he never did. He fed and watered them at suppertime, after Father spoke to him about how thirsty they were. But Father never allowed any of us to do it for him, no matter how loudly they cried. Cried all day, till my head ached and I could feel their thirst in my own throat. Oh, I don't think Father would have done it if it had been summer—but still. He thought Levi would hear them and take pity. He didn't know Levi like I did. That was Father's problem. He trusted him to change.

We wasted mounds of good hay on those kids, and they never grew fat. I could have told him they wouldn't—spending their days in distress like that wore the weight right back off them. Yet it was me Father became angry with. He heard me use the word locust about Levi, and his face darkened like the sky.

I remember what he said, because it cut me. He said I would not treat a goat the way I treated my brother. I opened my mouth to protest, and he said that I would be the best of farmers someday; that I understood the nature of the fields I worked, the natures of sheep and of goats and of cattle; that I treated each thing with care according to its nature. Except my brother, whom I did not treat according to the nature of a man.

“I'll treat him like a man,” I said, “when he begins to act like a man.”

“You misunderstand me,” said my father. “We are made in the image of God—man, woman and child. A locust is not free to spare our crops if it should choose. It must eat. God is free to spare us, or not spare us, according to His will. Your brother, too, is free.”

“Then why has he never spared us? Not once?”

He looked at me and didn't speak for a moment. Then he said that to fail to see what is in front of one's eyes is folly, and to refuse to see it is sin. He asked me if I really had not seen the times when Levi spared us, how he had tried.

I certainly couldn't remember any such thing.

Well, the awful thing played itself out, as I could have predicted. The bad friends, the drinking. The women. I won't speak of that. Until the day he came to my father and demanded his portion—to his face—and my father let him take his bites out of our farm, out of his heart. I thought at first he might want what I wanted—to be rid of him, even at so steep a price—until he told me he hoped for him back. And then I was afraid.

Because I knew what Levi was. I saw how he ate, and did not plant. He would run through the money; it was plain as day. He would run through the money, and then he would look to his chances, and realize where his best chance lay.

He's home now. Came in rags. I'd like to search that little pack he's got, see if he hid his real clothes in it. Father's put the best robe on him, and killed the fattest calf. He's got half the village out in the courtyard now while it roasts, and he's giving them the good wine. I can hear them laughing, I hear women singing. I can't stand it. There's nothing I can say to Father that he'll listen to. There's no way I can stop him from letting Levi eat the rest of his heart.

He sent for me. Father did. He sent Judah, his senior servant, with a message. I expected “Come right now” but it wasn't that. It was “Do you not want to see your brother?”

I don't know why Father would ask me that. I saw Levi two hours ago, before he got that bath. I saw him moments ago through this window, grinning like a fool. I've seen him walk home whistling, leaving some tool in the field to rust, I've seen him slip home on a moonless night after visiting some whore. Well, I'll go out to the party, if Father wants. In a little while. But I won't go there to look at Levi. I've seen him. There's nothing there I haven't seen before.

And here he comes now—Father. He has that look on his face. I've seen it so often—the strain in his eyes, the gentleness, the carefulness, when he was speaking to Levi about some piece of work he'd ruined, or where he'd been the night before. That heartbreaking trust. Oh, I can't stand it. Why is he looking like that? He's not looking at Levi. He's looking at me.

1 comment: