Where do you find your joy? Several weeks ago, a trusted colleague and I were on a walk, and she asked me that question. It sounds so simple, but the question is as enigmatic as the answer: Where do you find your joy? It evokes hiddenness, and search, and it begs the prior question, “What is joy?”
I’ve been preoccupied with both the question and the answer, and when I read the Gospel lesson appointed for today, I read it with new eyes. Today we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and it seems to me that the parable is, in its essence, a response to my friend’s question: Where do you find your joy?
“A man had two sons.” That is the beginning, and it is important. We’ll have reason to consider both sons, but the parable initially launches into an account of the younger. His joy clearly isn’t found at home. He asks his living father for an inheritance that isn’t due until the father dies, and that he, as a second son in an age of primogeniture, isn’t even due at all. It’s difficult to imagine a more abject rejection of his origin and source. Whatever joy the second son is searching for, it isn’t there. And so, given everything by his father, he sets out on his search for joy elsewhere.
The younger son searches long and hard, both with regard to miles traveled and stones overturned. Luke’s Gospel tells us that he, “traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” Other translations say, “reckless living,” “riotous living,” or “extravagant living.”[i] We are left to imagine all the many ways in which this younger son sought to find his joy. I actually think it would be a mistake to consider the younger son a debaucherous heathen, one who partied hard and burned out fast. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates the verse to say, “Undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had.”[ii] That reads to me more as if this young man is like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, someone on a genuine quest for life’s joy, and so tries it all, material and immaterial—things, and people, and experiences—and uses all of them up only to find them, and himself, empty. We are given no indication of how long this process takes. I don’t think it takes one crazy summer. Maybe it takes half a lifetime. All that is to say, I suspect by the time the younger son finds himself in the pigsty he is no longer so young. And, I suspect the rock bottom he hits is a lot like that experienced by many of us when the search for our joy in wine, wealth, recognition, and other people comes up dry.
Let’s jump ahead to the end of the story, where we discover that the older son has been on a parallel search for his joy during the entirety of his younger brother’s distant sojourn. The elder brother’s search has taken him no farther than his father’s fields, but it has been no less furtive. Whereas the younger has sought joy in what the world could do or be for him, the elder son has believed that joy is to be found in the validation and approval of others (and especially of his father), in his dogged observance of propriety, and in the subconsciously smug self-justification that comes with being able to believe that he is better than his kid brother. And has he become joyous? No. He has merely become bitter.[iii]
Where do you find your joy? Both sons have searched in desperation, and their search has been exhaustive. Between the two of them, they’ve searched everywhere. And their search has resulted in emptiness for one and bitterness for the other. Ironically and tragically, they are much farther from joy than they were at the quest’s beginning.
I’ve just returned from a pilgrimage to Ireland, an island dotted by churches and monuments dedicated to St. Brendan. Brendan was a searcher. His wanderlust was relentless. He was as restless as the younger son in today’s parable. He was as agitated as the elder son. In the great medieval epic, The Voyages of St. Brendan the Navigator, Brendan sets out to find his joy. He points his curragh westward and sets sail from Ireland in search of the Isle of the Blessed, the place of eternal joy. For eons, interpreters have variously claimed that the Isle of the Blessed is mythical, or perhaps that it was actually Newfoundland and the historic Brendan miraculously made it to the New World. But the careful reader of The Voyages will notice that mid-journey Brendan turns his curragh around, back to the east, so that when the Isle of the Blessed is finally reached, it is almost certainly Ireland, his origin. In other words, the source from which Brendan traveled to find his joy is the source to which he returns and ultimately discovers it.
Analogously, in The Prodigal Son the younger son wakes up in the pigsty and, Luke says, “comes to himself” and determines to go home. Only then does he find himself in his father’s arms. The elder son, too, brooding on the front stoop at parable’s end, is invited to cross the threshold into the feast. He only needs to take the step.
Where do you find your joy? Have you found it? Or, do you yet strive; is your appetite insatiable; are you agitated and resentful? Is your search leaving you empty? Do you sense that you are actually moving, day by day, farther from joy?
Our search for joy is frustrated because we—like the two sons in the parable, like Brendan the Navigator—both look in the wrong places and search for the wrong thing.
There is but one joy, and it is found in but one place. The quest reaches its destination when we turn around like Brendan; when we “come to ourselves” like the younger son; when we cross the threshold as we hope the elder son will do at parable’s end. Joy is found when we cease our striving, and shed our appetites, and loosen the grip of our grudges, and give up our need for validation.
My favorite image in all of Holy Scripture is that of the father in Jesus’ parable running down the path to embrace his shocked and prodigal son, to shower his son with the love that was always his and has always been of infinitely more value than any material thing. It is the love that is free and unconditional. That love is the son’s true inheritance. It is the inheritance of us all, and it awaits us, ready to embrace us if we will but come to ourselves, turn around, cross the threshold.
In other words, joy is found when we let go and fall into the embrace of the love of God who is our source and who has been with us all along. Because that love is joy, the only joy, and it awaits us as relief, and release, and empowering energy, and the essence of our true identity.
The lectionary does us a disservice today by omitting the two brief parables that come just before The Prodigal Son: the Parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep. In those stories, Jesus reveals to us the character of God’s own joy, the joy that comes from setting all else aside to find us, and restore us, and embrace us. We are stupefied at the realization that the One who places the stars in the heavens and knits the tapestry of time finds joy in us and wants his joy to be our own. Where do you find your joy? It is right here. Turn around.
[iii] As an aside, every time I preach or teach this parable—and today will be no exception—someone reaches out to me angry and resentful that the elder brother is treated so shoddily at the end, and the parishioner’s anger and resentment mirrors almost exactly that of the elder brother himself. That’s telling. It reveals to us that we intuitively, or at least eventually, understand that our joy cannot be found in the things pursued by the younger brother, but we cling to the idea that we can gain validation through our hard work, or justify our worth by comparison to others. All I can say is that Jesus says otherwise, and if we share in the elder brother’s resentment, it means we aren’t yet ready to set this parable aside. It needs to work on us some more.
One thought on “Finding your joy”
Interesting parable of the pig pen and the pigs(hogs) being denied one more feeding. Good sermon.
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