In spiritual life we have a basic choice: between duty or joy.
There are many writers who have reflected on the challenge to find a right balance between our sense of commitment (discipleship, obedience, justice and service to others) and a simple-hearted trust in God, receiving and enjoying all that God gives us, day by day.
Today I am reminded that this choice is evident in one of Jesus’ most powerful stories, which we call the Prodigal Son. It’s found in Luke 15. The chapter has three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. In each one, the emphasis is upon God’s grace and the joy of life in being ‘found’ by God.
The Lost Son story, though, is really about two sons. There is the Prodigal, who asks his father for his inheritance ahead of time, implicitly declaring the father as good as dead for him. The son then goes and loses it all, in ‘dissolute living’, but finally comes to his senses and returns to beg to be allowed to live as one of his father’s servants. For his part, the father puts on a rapturous party.
But there is another brother, who has stayed home and done all that his father asked of him. When the party is staged, he refuses to go in to celebrate. The father begs him to do so, because this other son ‘was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found.’
Simon Tugwell alludes to this parable in his book on prayer, when writing about the character of Christian faith and life. After a reference to another of Jesus’ common images, to live in the joy of a bridegroom, Tugwell asks:
Are we ready to be the prodigal come home, welcomed with a party? Or are we going to insist on being the good boy, the elder brother, prepared only to do his duty, but not to celebrate the feast of love?
Well, for the moment we do not have to decide in any very definitive way; as long as life lasts in this world we can be both brothers in turn. But eventually the question will be put. And which way we answer it, will depend to a very considerable extent on the picture we encourage ourselves to have of ourselves, of human life, of our place in the world.
I think I would add, ‘and our view of God’. Jesus encourages a view of God as that father who longs for both his sons to enjoy the party.
The Giver of Life invites us every day to live in the joy of creation. We are invited to grow, to learn, to become — to become, not the owners of more and more things, which actually come to own us; nor people who claim more and more ‘achievements’, even the many very good things we can do, in service of others and care for God’s creation. All this is good, but if it becomes for us ‘duty’ to the exclusion of joy, then we have missed the point altogether. We have lost our life, even as we live it. That eventual ‘question’ Tugwell says we must face is ‘simply’ the question of whether we can learn to live in this life as in God’s presence and provision. When eventually we come into that presence fully, we may have at least some small recognition of what this means. Or we may be lost, in the sense that we have not yet learned to be at home with our creator, redeemer and cosmic friend.
To try to live this way, the Apostle Paul says, is ‘enough’. (Phil. 4. 11)