Do you remember why the prodigal son came home?
I hadn’t. That story is fixed in my mind in the stained-glass image of the father embracing his son, the moment we all remember and hope for. And, because I relate to him, the dangling plotline of the older brother who wouldn’t go inside to celebrate, the one who was the farthest away even though he never left.
We all shift our roles in the story, over the years, in different relationships, passing the script around to play the part of the runaway outsider, the dutiful-but-secretly-resentful legalist, the longsuffering embodiment of home. We understand the people of the parable because we’ve been them, and that’s what stories do.
But this time, a different detail stood out to me—a silent, non-human antagonist in the story: “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.”
See that? It wasn’t the sudden realization that his father still loved him, or even sorrow over his bad behavior, that drove the prodigal away from his old life. His stomach, not his heart, led him home.
Sometimes I picture the father in the story, waiting and watching for his son, hoping that something or someone would help him return. He prayed for a miracle…and got a famine. Which must have seemed like exactly the opposite of what he was asking for, and yet it was what set up the ending of the story.
“He began to be in need.”
If you’re like me, you hate: A. needing help, B. people noticing that you need help, C. people not noticing that you need help and having to ask for it, and D. people not noticing that you need help, not asking for it, and then having to ask God for help once everything falls apart because you tried to do it alone.
There’s vulnerability in being in need. It requires an honesty we don’t have to show when everything is fine and our own efforts are good enough to get us through…and that honesty doesn’t always feel good.
I finished the audiobook of Home by Marilynne Robinson a month ago. It’s full of uncomfortable conversations, feelings of being trapped by small town routines and scrutiny, and the brittle reality of unresolved questions. So if you’re looking for a page-turning thriller…better look elsewhere. But I enjoyed it, mostly because Robinson knows people well, at their best and worst and most real, and you get the sense she, like God, loves us anyway.
That’s how you get sections like this one:
“So she prayed, Lord, give me patience. She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would be my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse.”
I love this. All the more because I, like Glory in this passage, don’t often have the strength to pray honest prayers…and yet God, the omniscient narrator, knows the long run-on subtext behind what I’ve said and even what I can’t yet say. He sees that I am in need.
It’s almost Thanksgiving, the time when we’re supposed to count our blessings. When you do, don’t forget to count your needs as well—the weaknesses that force you to depend on others’ strengths, the opportunities before you to pray in faith, the chances you have to forgive without understanding, the honest Psalm-like prayers you can cry out before God. Those are blessings too.
We hardly ever ask God to put us in a place where we’re in need. Sometimes it’s even hard to admit when we’re in the middle of it—miserable or bitter at heart or deeply afraid. But our first need is always for neediness. And the second is for the Father’s love and forgiveness…and he’s waiting with open arms, running to us while we’re still a long way off.
Or, as Robinson puts it, “Weary or bitter of bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”