I spend a fair amount of time planning worship. I want the liturgy and the hymns to all work together to support the theme, while also trying to make sure I have a mix of traditional hymns and newer music. So I spent considerable time this week trying to find a good hymn to go along with the story we call the Prodigal Son. I thought it’s such a familiar story, surely there are good hymns. Well, I found lots of hymns—just not good ones! There are two in our hymnal, but Shirley and I really didn’t care for the tune of either one. There is a hymn website that lists every hymn in just about every hymnal, and there are lots of songs about the Prodigal Son in particular or about “coming home” generally. But most of them are focused on sin and the need for repentance with bitter tears. One classic is “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” and it’s lovely—up to a point. “Come home, come home. Ye who are weary, come home. Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling—calling, ‘O sinner, come home!’” And while I’m aware that the Bible says we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, I’m not a big fan of calling people “sinners.” Pointing out that we all miss the mark is appropriate and needed, but “sinner” is so loaded. I went to one of the mega churches in town over the summer, and the preacher talked about a someone who wanted to talk with him about coming to church. The seeker said, “I’ll come if you don’t call me a sinner.” The preacher said, “I won’t call you a sinner,” and then he leaned forward, conspiratorially, and said, “But he is! And so are you!” The congregation laughed, but I didn’t find it particularly funny. If we take that “sinner” message in at all, we tend to respond with shame, which isn’t helpful, and only leads to us labeling other people as “sinners,” which is even less helpful.
Of course, that’s easy to do with this story. It is a story of a young man who sinned big-time. The action begins with the younger son saying, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” This was not a simple request in an agrarian society. Their livelihood came from the land—land that had been held in trust for them by their ancestors and was to be held in trust for their descendants. The land was their livelihood, their legacy, and their gift from God. For a son to ask for his portion of the land in order to sell it meant that he was rejecting everything his family had to give him. He was decreasing not only the present holdings of his family but the income and security of future generations as well. Also, property was not given before the patriarch’s death. So he was saying, in essence, that he couldn’t wait for his father to die. The whole request “was an offensive, slap-in-the-face, ‘I-wish-you-were-dead’ disregard of all that was accepted, expected, and respected.”
We know what happened next. He took his family legacy and wasted the money on God knows what in a Gentile land, then ended up broke and feeding the pigs. As a Jew, he couldn’t even touch the skin of a pig without being made unclean. Of course, that ship had already sailed. He already was so far outside the realm of what it meant to be a good Jew, his life was already an abomination.
He finally hit rock bottom, and the phrase in the original language is an odd one. The New International Version reads, “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” But the NRSV, which is the version in the pews, reads, “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!’” This is the more accurate translation. The literal translation is, “Into self yet coming,” but I think “He came to himself” is the closest we can get.
Freedictionary.com tells me that the idiom means “to begin acting and thinking like one’s normal self.” But what is one’s normal self? Does it mean his usual self? You know the famous quote: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Well, the younger son (whom we call the Prodigal) showed us who he was. He showed us that he was selfish, uncaring, without compassion for his father, without concern for his ancestors or descendants. His own desires were more important to him than anyone or anything else. We have no reason to believe that wasn’t his normal, usual self.
But maybe coming to himself means coming to his best self, the best of who he was and could be. I call this your true self, which might sound like two different things, but isn’t. For example, I could appear to be caring and compassionate and underneath, I could be judgmental and impatient. Or I could appear to be happy for others’ success while underneath I’m jealous and catty. Is the judgmental, jealous part of me my true self? I don’t think so. I think that’s my wounded self. I think that’s the place where fear takes root, where wounds fester, where insecurities turn to shame. Our true self is our best self, beneath all that makes us hurt others and ourselves.
The problem is, there is so much in our world that pulls us away from our true selves. Like the younger brother, we are pulled away by the lure of forbidden pleasure. We are drawn to the different experience, the new affair, the unknown thrill. Or we are pulled away from our best self by a bad case of the not-enoughs. We always think we need more, newer, better. Most people, no matter how much money they make, always think they need 20% more. Or maybe our motives aren’t bad—maybe we just feel limited by our life and we want something with more freedom, but in the process we give up everything that really matters.
Or maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe we just lost our joy somewhere along the way. Maybe we lost hope and don’t know how to get it back. Maybe we resisted and persisted but none of it seems to have made a difference and raising our voices feels like yelling into the wind. Our true self is where hope is rooted, but we think we have dry rot.
Or maybe you don’t even know who you true self is. Maybe, at your core, you are like a fourteen-year-old still trying to figure out who you are. That’s not a judgment. We as human beings have “gone to the moon without coming to ourselves. . . . We’re explored the depths of the sea without ever examining our own heart.” But we can’t come home to all that we can be until we come honestly to ourselves.
So I want to ask you to think about it. Who are you at your core? What are some characteristics that define your true self? I want you to take a minute and think about it. There are some slips of paper at the ends of the pews on the center aisle. Please pass those down. You will not be asked to share this with anyone, so take your time and be honest. Write down a list of characteristics that define your true self.
How does identifying your true self make you feel? If it brings tears, are they tears of shame for having wandered so far away? Or tears of welcome for getting a step closer to home? What does it feel like to be seen at that core level, and for the seer to be you? Look at that slip of paper. This is who you are. The scripture said he “came to himself,” or “into self yet coming.” That’s us, too. We are “into self yet coming,” meaning that we’re not all there yet. We’re on the road. Too many of us have lived in the far country of the false self, the fake self, the trying-to-be-all-things-to-all-people self. Too many of us have lived in the far country of the façade self, the masquerade self, the let-everyone-else-define-you self. To all of us, God says, “Come home. Come home to your true self, your best self. Come home to who you were meant to be. Only through knowing your true self can you fully know me.”
In my search for a good hymn on this story, I did find one. It was written in the mid 1800s by Horatius Bonar, tune by Ira Sankey, called “In the Land of Strangers” or “Welcome! Wanderer, Welcome!” It is written in the traditional language of thees and thous, with exclusively male language, with seven verses, and in a higher key than anybody wants to hear me sing. But the words are so beautiful, I want you to hear them. If you do not identify as male, you will have to translate in your head, from “son” to “daughter” or “child.” I’m sorry, but they just didn’t get inclusive language in the mid 1800s. Listen to these words as a welcome home not from sinful behavior, but as a welcome home to your true self.
In the land of strangers, whither thou art gone,
Hear a far voice calling, My son! my son!
Welcome, wand’rer, welcome! Welcome back to home!
Thou hast wandered far away: come home! come home!
From the land of hunger, fainting, famished lone,
Come to love and gladness, My son! my son!
Leave the haunts of riot, wasted, woebegone,
Sick at heart and weary, My son! my son!
See the door still open! Thou art still my own;
Eyes of love are on thee, My son! my son!
Far off thou hast wandered, wilt thou farther roam?
Come, and all is pardoned, My son! my son!
See the well-spread table, unforgotten one!
Here is rest and plenty, My son! my son!
Welcome, wand’rer, welcome! Welcome back to home!
Thou hast wandered far away: come home! come home!
See the well-spread table, unforgotten one! You are not forgotten. Your true self, your best self, is still within you. And if you think you are far from it, remember this: God is accompanying you on your journey back to your self, but God also is already there waiting to welcome you home with a feast and a celebration. Meister Eckhart, a wise medieval spiritual director, once said, “God is at home; it is we who have gone out for a walk.” “It’s time to return, to come home to our own soul, where God has chosen to live, and to speak from our soul to the souls of others. If we do, we will ignite a revolution.”
 Sweet, Leonard. “Are You Part of the Scandal?”
 Martenn, Budd. “He Came to Himself.” https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/he-came-to-himself-bud-martenn-sermon-on-finding-fulfillment-62260
 Crabb, Larry. Soul Talk.