By Beth Newman
Years ago I saw a foreign film about two brothers and their father. One brother, against his father’s wishes, decides to become an actor and travels far and wide. The other stays close to home, caring for his father until he dies.
The actor son has sent countless letters home to his father without ever hearing back from him, eventually concluding that his father has totally rejected him. As a result, he starts drinking. His life takes a severe downward turn as he squanders his time and talent on a life of debauchery.
Upon his father’s death, however, he discovers his own unopened letters in a chest in his father’s house. How did they get there? His brother had secretly intercepted them, hiding them from their father. Consequently, the father dies believing his actor son had abandoned him, while this son believes his father has rejected him, until he sees the letters.
I have been haunted by this movie because it displays so vividly how people can live their whole lives by a story that is not true.
The actor son’s “story” that his father rejected him shaped his life so deeply that he was unable to follow his dream. Instead he turned to a life of drinking and waste. The true story, however, was that his father loved him deeply and was terribly saddened that his son, so he assumed, had cut him off.
If only they had known otherwise.
The story of each son is true, but only partially. Tragically, it is the missing part that deforms the truth and renders it destructive. One son has remained at home and assumed responsibility. But does he see in his brother’s freedom a threat to his own identity? The other son has taken up his own life. But does his father’s apparent silence confirm some fear or guilt about the price of his own freedom?
When the son discovers the truth about what his brother had done, the story he tells himself shifts. No longer is he the rejected one but the one loved so deeply that his father suffered for him until his death.
The movie is reminiscent of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here also is a young man who wants to go “find himself” out in the real world. “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living” (Luke. 15: 13).
What he discovers, of course, is that this story he is living is killing him. (“…[F]or this son of mine was dead.” Luke 15:23) When he steps into a different story, he is met by a father so delighted to see his son return that he runs to embrace him even before any words are spoken.
(“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20).
Of course, the elder son in the story that Jesus tells has forgotten the fullness of the truth as well. Every charge that he brings against his younger brother is true, but in his resentment, he has forgotten the whole truth: That he is and always will be his father’s son, and that everything that his father has is his.
The temptation to live by stories that are only partially true is a danger not only to individuals, but to the church.
One example, as we approach Independence Day, is to mistake our true good fortune as Americans for the providential purposes of God and to, in turn, imagine that we are somehow an exceptional nation with a special role in salvation history. Such a role is reserved for the church — not this, or any, nation.
Yet another example might be the reaction of some of the younger members of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to Cecil Sherman’s remarks about the struggle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Cecil Sherman is right that it is impossible to ask those who lived through it to get over it. As William Faulkner famously observed, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” But those new voices are also right to say that for those 45 and under, the past is different. And so the future they envision is a different one.
A contemporary German theologian has put it like this: “If a threat arises, it is not from alleged contenders, but from the forgetfulness of the church of its own vocation….” The challenge and the opportunity is not for us to win arguments about the past but to understand it in light of the fullness of the gospel story.