The Catholic pilgrimage town of Lourdes is situated at the foot of the Pyrenees, southwest of Toulouse in south-western France. It found its place on the religious and economic map of the world, in the mid-19th century due to claims by a 14-year-old young woman named Bernadette of seeing appearances of Jesus’ mother Mary in a cave there. Not being Catholic, I only became aware of this legend when I stayed up late watching a movie portraying Bernadette’s life, the story behind the development of the town’s grotto and its underground stream and how it became a site for worship and healing.
I was most intrigued by the aspect of the story in which Bernadette refused to avail herself of the purported healing powers of Lourdes’ underground springs, despite suffering terribly from a chronic, painful illness, which eventually took her life. The scene, indelible in my memory, portrays her limping along in a fever-induced delirium weakly repeating “The spring is not for me. The spring is not for me.”
A lover of the ocean, though not of swimming, one of my first goals as a new mom was to ensure that my children learned to swim. One of my greatest joys was to watch them mastering their strokes at swim meets, reveling in a pool, playing at a water park or paddling in the ocean without fear. That feeling of joy was severely challenged one summer when friends who enjoy rustic camping invited us to one of their favorite spots in a national forest of our state. The scenery was gorgeous and the lake water was deep and intensely dark blue. Looking at it from our elevated location made me feel like I was bearing bowling balls in my gut, and I almost delivered one of those bowling balls when one of the teenaged kids of this family proceeded to take leaping dives into the mysterious depths of this unsettling beauty! I could not for a second entertain the thought of having my then elementary-aged, children do the same. But having known, claimed and owned that lake, our friends were completely confident to jump right in and have a blast! It was inspiring (despite the fact that it was also terrifying) watching them plunge in and relish that pleasure.
Bernadette’s story and our camping trip at the lake came to mind recently as I once again read Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son – the father who lavishly welcomed him back home and the older brother who was chagrined at the blatant exultation over the rebel’s return. This reading, however, found me drawn to two things – first, the older brother’s contention with the father:
“So, he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’” (Luke 15:29-30, NKJV)
And second, the Father’s apparent puzzlement over his son’s perspective and response:
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.’” (Luke 15:31, NKJV)
Given the cultural context, the dark anger of the older brother towards his licentious sibling-turned-penitent, is somewhat understandable. Such an insult in any context, let alone an Eastern honor-based one, would have been scandalous and painful to any patriarch. The young whipper-snapper’s request for his inheritance, before his father’s death, was tantamount to saying “Your longevity is hindering my fun.”
However, the older sibling’s justification for his anger came from another angle: He despised his father’s generosity towards his broken brother, and in the process failed to realize and embrace the blessing that was his as heir to his father’s entire estate. “All these years I have been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders,” he complains. He harbored a beggarly posture that seemed to have rendered him loathe to ask his father for even a small goat to have a party with his friends. Goat was the least exotic meat on such an estate, the equivalent of a hamburger or ground beef, compared to a fine steak.
Now what would cause someone raised in such a relationship and status to harbor this kind of attitude? Was it bitterness towards his absconding brother? a personality deficiency? a compulsive disorder? Was he socially challenged? Was he a workaholic? Did he suffer birth-order compulsions? Had it even entered his mind, before this point, to host a party? Did he have any friends with whom to party? Had he spied jealously, from a distance, on his carefree brother? How did he know that he had been with harlots? Asking these questions leads to others with more direct implications. What pre-occupying vices was Jesus inviting his audience then, and us today, to consider? What keeps us from ‘cannonballing’ into the blessings of the deep, deep lake of God’s love for us and from celebrating in our identity as Christ’s?
But lest our projections about hidden agendas and ulterior motives, on the part of the older brother, take us further down the road than Jesus’ parable intended, we might be better served to turn the spot-light on the point of the parable — His desire to promote an understanding of the heart of the heavenly Father for the restoration and reconciliation of right relationship and fellowship with estranged mankind, and of His desire to open the treasure troves of heaven and usher us into His Kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy.
We cannot deny that the parable’s abiding message is primarily directed towards the flouting of the Father’s love by the blatant sinner, but neither should we miss the more nuanced neglect of the Father’s heart by the self-righteous one. Jesus’ life mission, thank God, was to carry out the terms of the transaction that would reconcile sinners on both end of that spectrum and restore us to our place of intimate fellowship lost in the Garden.
James 1:17 (KJV), describes God as the Father of the heavenly lights who delights to give us good and perfect gifts — the regeneration and illumination that enable us to apprehend rightly now, and yet also welcome from a distance, the joys and benefits of our position as children of the King of Kings. Until that day of ultimate consummation, God delights to “daily load us with benefits”, as the Psalmist elegantly words it Psalm 68:19, King James Version. His rain falls on the just and the unjust alike and His loving-kindness, in common grace and general revelation, are intended to woo even the most broken of us to return home.
Without having been aware of it initially, I think I retain the memory of young Bernadette’s sad story because of the irony; though proclaimed a saint of the Catholic religious system, she died a painful death, denying herself the healing benefits that devotees still believe flow in the underground springs of Lourdes. How it would have delighted the Heavenly Father’s heart for Bernadette to have known then that the Spring was indeed for her — to have her jump and splash around in the River of saving grace amply provided through the death and resurrection of Jesus our Savior. Even if she had to wait till heaven for her physical healing, at least she would have had the peace and joy of knowing that her sins, whatever they were, were cleansed and atoned for, requiring no penance.
This error, of missing the grace and lavish love of God, does not belong only to the begrudging older brother of Jesus’ parable or to dear Saint Bernadette. Too often, at the Thanksgiving table, I find myself mindlessly trotting out the usual hackneyed items for which I am purportedly grateful. Not that gratitude for family, food, shelter and clothing should ever get old; but does such thanksgiving truly honor the Father. How much better it would be if my thanksgiving issued from a place of greater intimacy with Him, worked in ‘between the pots and pans’ of daily living , as Brother Lawrence, writer of the famed booklet, The Practice of the Presence of God, encouraged. More like the attitude of the primary character, Tevye, the Jewish dairyman in the classic movie Fiddler on the Roof who, despite all the hardships of poverty and anti-Semitic persecution facing his village under Imperialist Russia in 1905, boisterously celebrated the gift of his five daughters at the end of a challenging day, lavishing each one with a kiss on the forehead and declaring “This is mine, and this is mine, and this is mine…”. Prior to this scene of gratitude he sang us through honest conversations with God about his hardships but also of his dreams for wealth and ease, exposing his heart’s desire to simply have time to enjoy his God and savor His words. The movie’s denouement suggests that Tevye survives the painful good-byes to both his beloved traditions and his daughters, as the latter were each married, and that he probably made it to America, where he probably did become a ‘rich man’. However we are left to guess at whether he found sitting in God’s presence and communing over His Word, “The Greatest thing of all” as he had anticipated in song. The Father’s anguished wait for the prodigal’s return is evenly matched by his painful implied query to the sons at home: “How did you not know, son, daughter, that all I have is yours? And how does your heart not exult over the one sinner who repents?”
“Father, I see myself too well-reflected in the swing from the martyr-like stance of a Bernadette to the self-righteous rant of the older brother in Your parable. Continue to speak to us in these days by Your Son, Jesus, whom You have made the Heir of all things. Thank You, Jesus, for being that older brother who was not content to abide our empty seat at the banquet table. You knew the Father’s heart so well that You did not hesitate to volunteer when the question was posed, “Who will go?”. Captain of our salvation, thank You that You searched until You found us in the pig pen, though the Father’s image upon us was so obfuscated. You were not ashamed to call us brethren and did not balk at arresting and dispatching the power of the Keeper of the stye. Holy Spirit, keep us aware of Your priming the pump of that artesian well called grace that springs up perpetually, “Deep calling unto deep”, not only to heal us but also to fill us with assurance that on that Day we will be among the many sons that Jesus brings to Glory, in the Father’s House.”
The featured image “Pond on the way the Langsdale” (c) Lancia E. Smith and used with glad permission for The Cultivating Project.
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.
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