Hopeless. In a word, that is exactly how she must have felt as her son disappeared over the horizon with not so much as a backward glance over his shoulder. How had their relationship managed to deteriorate so badly? It seemed only days ago that they had sat beside one another in the breeze of a warm summer evening, watching the sun set over the pasture below as the sheep bleated to one another after a long day of lazy grazing.
She remembered the day he was born. After months of waiting and dreaming of the great things her son would accomplish, he arrived just before the bitter chill of winter set in. The harvest had been plentiful that year and there was much to celebrate. Now just days after his birth, the family had gathered around a table laden with the earth’s richest fares, rejoicing not only in God’s bountiful blessings but also in the new life asleep in his mother’s arms.
The first few months were joyful ones for her as she nursed her little one and cradled him often. What special moments they had together! Always dreaming of the special plans God had for him, she prayed for the child, as he lay nestled at her breast, hopeful that Jehovah would capture the heart of her little boy and grow him into a great man of God. Remembering the stories of Moses, Abraham, Joseph, and David, her imagination ran wild with thoughts of all the ways God might use him to reveal the truth regarding His own Son, the Messiah. Surely God’s hand would be with her son all the days of his life, as he followed in the footsteps of his parents and older brother by living a life of dedicated service to their God.
Her son, like so many other young boys his age, was taught the stories of the patriarchs, the apostles, and the prophets who had foretold the coming of the Messiah. He knew of the miracles Jesus had performed. But there were those in the temple who preached a different message, who used their position and influence to deceive many who believed. Before long, questions began to swirl around in his mind, confusing him and weakening his faith. What if all those stories about God were not true?
When her son began voicing some of those questions and spending his time with those known to hold different beliefs from theirs, she became alarmed. She prayed. She spoke the truth. She could tell her son was slipping away from them, changing somehow, but there was little she could do to stop what was happening. Her own frustrations and fears tormented her. Their relationship, once so close and endearing, became one of strain and conflict. Although the truths of what he had been taught had not changed, his beliefs had, and she was losing the battle.
As her son challenged the boundaries of God’s commands and his parents’ convictions, feelings of love between the son and his parents gave way to anger and resentment toward them. Frustrated by her own inability to get through to him, the mother became despondent and depressed, feeling as though somehow she had failed him and the God who had entrusted her with this young man’s life. It was more than she could bear.
As his rebellious attitude and restlessness escalated, she knew it was inevitable that one day her son would leave. How she had prayed that God would somehow soften his heart and rekindle it with passion for God and His truth! But that day never came. Having enough of religious traditions and the restrictions he felt they imposed on his individuality, he asked for his inheritance, packed up his belongings, and set out in search of freedom—freedom from religious mores, outlandish beliefs, and a holiness that was impossible for any man to attain. Surely the pastures of a foreign land would be greener than the ones he had called home.
The day he left was a day of great pain, yet relief of sorts for his mother, who had been subjected to his tirades and the unending questions by those who surely blamed her for the disgraceful direction his life had taken. Because the father was away herding sheep much of the time, he could not appreciate the depth of frustration and pain the mother had suffered as she watched her son pull away from them, day by day. Although the son’s decision to leave came as no surprise to her, the father was left stunned by his son’s insistence that he be given his share of the inheritance. It was clear that he had no intention of returning home—ever.
The older son, seething with resentment, had watched as his younger brother heaped insults and disrespect on his parents for months. He had been there to comfort his mother one time too many. For him, this day had not come too quickly. He was glad to see his brother go, although he couldn’t stand the fact that his father had given that undeserving wretch one cent of their inheritance!
In the days that followed, life slowly returned to normal for the father and older brother, but the mother’s broken heart seemed to hemorrhage within, draining her of all her energy and the desire to do anything. She fell into a deep depression, always wondering where her son was, how he was getting along, and fearing the worst. Her prayers, like her tears, flowed unceasingly.
The father, who had always gotten along well with him, couldn’t understand how the younger son had become so selfish and discontent. Yet, he was of age to be on his own. What choice had either parent except to let him go find himself in a distant land?
The younger son left the comfort, safety, and love of his family in search of happiness and independence. While he was away, he squandered his fortune in wild living, even spending part of his inheritance on prostitutes in an effort to satisfy his deep desire for love and fulfillment. Without the watchful eye and concern of his loving parents keeping tabs on him, he could do as he pleased, and he did. One day, though, when the money had run out and the only thing filling his stomach was hunger pain, he realized that he had acted foolishly. Homeless and desperate enough to eat the pods the pigs were being fed, he began to long for the comforts of home. Even his father’s servants lived better than he. They were clothed, fed, and sheltered by a loving master who appreciated and rewarded their good service to him. How could the son have been so foolish as to think he could make it without the love and support of his family?
As he lay out under the stars feeling smaller than the blades of grass beneath him, he looked toward heaven and began praying to the One who had watched over him through all his months of wandering. Deep in his heart he knew he had sinned. All the wine, women, and worldly goods that had consumed his inheritance failed to fill that empty place inside. His physical hunger was only symptomatic of a deeper spiritual hunger that had somehow been suppressed all these months. In the silence of that starry night, far from home, the son began confessing sin after sin. As the weight of his sins slipped from his shoulders, his heart became tender toward his heavenly Father and toward the earthly family he had left behind so many months before. He knew what he had to do.
As the sun dawned fresh upon a glistening meadow, he rose and turned toward home. Not knowing how he might be received, he resolved to go humbly to his father, ask his forgiveness, and settle for being received and treated as one of the hired servants. After several days’ travel, the son anxiously topped the hill overlooking his father’s sheep pasture just as the sun was beginning to set. His father, looking longingly toward the setting sun, saw a familiar silhouette on the horizon. Could it possibly be?
Inside their home the mother poured a pitcher of water drawn from a nearby well. As water splashed from the pail onto the table, the drops mixed with her tears. Would she ever see her son again? With each passing day her hope dimmed like the stars at sunrise. Yet she could never completely abandon the hope of seeing her son once more. As she stood there with her eyes closed, relishing memories of a sweet little boy’s laughter, she was aroused by the sound of music and laughter from outside the house. Curious, she went to the window and looked out, hardly believing what her eyes beheld.
Silhouetted in the glow of the sunset, with servants all around, stood the father and the prodigal in the clutches of a warm embrace. Suddenly the servants scurried in different directions, carrying out the father’s orders to kill the fattened calf, prepare a feast, and bring the ring and robe to make the son’s homecoming official.
As the older brother stood glaring in the shadows, the mother knew that the conflict was far from over. The younger son had returned home to find forgiveness, which she knew the older son would be reluctant to extend. Her prayers of thankfulness for the safe return of the lost son quickly turned to prayers for reconciliation and healing. For now, though, she would simply rejoice in the return of her son and her hope.