In my recent book-length poem The Hundredfold, you will find this hymn, inspired by the parable of the Prodigal Son, to be sung to the melody “Old One Hundred Twenty-Fourth,” a melody you may know from the hymn “Turn Back, O Man”:
I shall arise, and seek my Father’s house.
Sated am I with all the world allows:
Water for wine, and dust and chaff for corn,
Though men who starve shall cover me with scorn
When I arise, and seek my Father’s house.
Hear from afar the singing at the feast!
The First-Begotten rises in the east,
Turns all my sorrow to the wine of mirth,
Breaks bread from heaven, while the men of earth
Hear from afar the singing at the feast.
Let them repent, and beg the Father’s grace.
What have they won, for all their weary race?
Hunger and thirst, and feeding swine for hire,
While he who drives them never shall retire
Lest they repent, and beg the Father’s grace.
Who has the words of everlasting life?
Hear how He calls above our sound and strife,
See how He feasts the penitent who bows
And glorifies Him in His Father’s house,
Who has the words of everlasting life.
What makes that parable so powerful is that, if you look at it in the obvious way, it appears to tell the story of a particularly ungrateful and foolish young man, who has in essence said to his father, “I wish you were dead already. Since you are still alive, do the next best thing at least, and give me my share of the inheritance.” Then he goes off into that mysterious far country, squandering the goods with high living and whores.
And yet there is nothing so remarkable about the fellow. His name is ours. So is the land he went to. Strange, to call it a far country, when it seems as if it were next door, because all you have to do is turn your head where you are, and you will see people doing exactly what the young son is doing. Actually, you do not have to turn your head at all. You need but look into your own heart. That far country is, like the kingdom of God, within me, but not as a dwelling place, not as a home, but as the realm of licentiousness, ingratitude, impiety, cruelty, and slavery. Every one of us has been there, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But when Jesus spoke the parable, He was not merely justifying His ministry to bring back the lost, the sinners. For it was the leaders of the people who frowned upon Him; not only individuals, but the people as such would put him to death. So He weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). And He foretells its destruction. A whole nation can be that Prodigal Son.
Independence Day will soon be here, and it is bittersweet for me. I hardly know my own land. It has become a far country, and what do the citizens get for it? We have wished our fathers were dead, that is, forgotten, delivered over to condemnation or indifference. We have progressed beyond them. Though they were sinners too, they did bequeath to us great political and moral wealth, quite aside from a heritage of art, music, and letters; we have mostly squandered it or left it to rot.
With what great gain? The odd thing about drunken license is that even when you are in the middle of it, you are not genuinely enjoying yourself. There may be shrieks of laughter, as from madmen, or grinning, like skulls, but gentle smiles, no, none of them, nor self-forgetful and innocent mirth. Somewhere deep within you, perhaps from that spiritual home you have abandoned, you know that it is all a sham. Then, as happened to Adam and Eve, the delusive high of the fruit fades away, and you find your eyes opened and your mind darkened. Sullenness sets in.
It is a sad and sullen land. I can see it in the youth, who view the members of the other sex as largely selfish and not to be trusted—nor are they entirely wrong about that; so no one marries, and a street once merry with the shouts of children is now mostly dead still, each house a cell of isolation. Secular people shrug when they see an empty church, not understanding that if you do not have songs of praise, you will soon have no songs at all. No one seeks out the word of God to correct us rather than to condone; no one holds as sacred the wisdom of our admittedly imperfect fathers, expressed in noble words. There is no poetry in the soul, but there is graffiti on the walls and the statues, and on our bodies too.
Surely this is to feed swine for hire, while your belly is empty, and you long to eat from the husks that they throw to the swine, but no one will give you any. That as I see it is America, now. The wealth—though not the money—is mostly gone. The father is forgotten, or traduced. And the prodigal is not happy. He still believes he is in the right. He is stubborn about that. He has not yet come to his senses. He says that if feeding swine is what happens when you leave the father’s country and spend his substance on whores, well then, feeding swine is a good thing after all. It is brave, it is free, it is authentic, it is something or other that you say for a while as you try to forget the emptiness gnawing away within.
God is infinitely patient with the sinful soul. But what happens when a nation has in principle and then in its most notable actions behaved as if God were dead? Can the nation depend upon that patience? I suspect not. I suspect instead that for the sake of sinners themselves, God delivers her over to her enemies. Then we may weep with Jeremiah, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (Lamentations 1:1).
A slave, from sea to shining sea.
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