“What on earth would make her do that?” I wondered when my friend’s daughter recently walked out on her husband. “They seemed so together, successful, a good looking family, decent friends, a nice big home, members of the church – What will become of her and the kids, the husband, and their families — What could possibly lead to such a drastic decision?” Did it just happen, or was it a long time in the making?
We all make life-shaping choices every day and most of the time our choices don’t seem to be that significant. Passionate young men make a series of decisions that, over time, gradually lead them to make that one big decision to turn themselves into a sacrificial bomb for the cause. Beautiful young women, for various reasons, make choices that eventually lead them out of self respect to barter intimacy for money. Children turn away from the familiarity of home to live in unfamiliar streets. Professionals with sterling credentials turn from responsibility to corruption and deception. And even well-trained soldiers can gradually come to ignore the “rules of engagement” and rape, plunder, and kill innocent civilians. Every choice leads somewhere, and ordinary people like you and me make many little choices every day that, for good or ill, incline us on a certain course.
Jesus told the memorable story about a young man, from a good family, who came to the point that he decided to walk out on his father and his father’s way of life. It isn’t clear what brought him to such a rash turning point. It seemed that he had everything going for him. Did he have a problem with his father’s authority? Was he in conflict with his elder brother? Perhaps he had a thirst for adventure and was simply bored with routine life and the expectations of the community. Quite possibly he had even met travellers who told him risqué stories and spoke of exotic freedom in other places, and he found himself attracted. What choices he made that brought him to this turning point we do not know, but turn he did – demanding in advance his portion of the family estate so that he could live his life where and how he wished.
Life abroad was almost everything that he had imagined – excitement, wild parties, friends, no questions asked – he was on his own. He lived life with all the gusto he could muster until it began unraveling. All the money of his inheritance was not enough to sustain the lavish lifestyle. Whether he was just a bad money manager, or whether his new-found friends and lovers took advantage of him and abused his trust isn’t clear. Eventually he fell on hard times with no resources left — no home, no servants, no friends – and he was hungry in a land of strangers. It was a crisis, a make-it-or-break-it turning point, and in desperation to survive he took the only job he could get – herding swine.
In telling the story, Jesus says that the young man was destitute hungry to the point of wanting to satisfy his hunger with swine’s food. Beyond the physical hunger there was a deeper, existential hunger, for he was painfully aware of being reduced to a nobody with nothing – an utter loser by fault and circumstance. Unable to bear the thought of existing as he was, he decided to return home and risk throwing himself on the mercy of his father – not as a son but in subservience.
Leaving the herd of swine and land of shattered dreams behind him, he set out on the long journey home, undoubtedly practicing his plea for mercy hoping that the father he had jilted might condescend to his request. I cannot imagine that he looked anything like the confident young man who had left home; he probably looked the part of a swine-man – filthy, stinking, and wasted. Then as he neared his destination something unexpected happened that completely turned the tables. It was a turning point beyond his doing.
Before he could even approach the gates of home, his father came running down the road to greet him. Before he could even complete his practiced confession his father threw his arms around him. Before he could even make his humble deal for servitude his father raised his voice in celebrating his beloved son’s return.
Turning points! The decisions we make are influenced by so many different factors – some we know and some we scarcely comprehend at all. But the decisions – singular and cumulative – take us down a certain road. And sometimes it isn’t until we come to the end of that road or have cause to look back, that we realize where our decisions have taken us with consequences that cannot be unraveled or reversed.
There comes a time when we simply know that there is nothing we can do to make amends, nothing we can say to make things right and nothing that we are or have that can purchase favour, and we face the turning point of all turning points. We’ve come to the end of ourselves and our means, and finally in desperation we turn around, hoping against hope that it’s not too late. It is then we see the Father looking expectantly down the dusty, rocky way we’ve taken – coming towards us, arms reaching to embrace us – overjoyed at our return.
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.