In 2016, two unlikely friends, the Dalai Lama and former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, got together for a week-long collaboration to share with the world, their secret to a joyful life. While their discussions touched on many of the issues facing the world today, war, poverty, social injustice, natural disasters, etc., those issues were not the total foci of their conversation. Joy was the message these two men wanted to share with the world, specifically finding joy within ourselves and spreading that joy to others. What came out of this meeting with the leader of the Tibetan Community-in-exile and the anti-apartheid crusader who have been friends since their meeting at the gathering of Nobel Laureates years ago, was the Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
Bishop Tutu could have held on to resentment caused by hatred of apartheid and the Dalai Lama could have done the same after having to flee from Tibet to live in exile in India. Instead they chose to make it their mission to spread joy.
Resentment is closely related to anger. They are negative feelings toward someone or something that emerge from the past. Resentment is the re-experiencing of past injustices which could be real or perceived, and the old feelings of anger connected to them. Resentments form when we hold on to that anger. At times, the original cause of the anger that led to resentment may have been forgotten, but the resentment remains. Sometimes, the person we hold resentment for are not even aware of our feelings, but we are caught up in mental, emotional and spiritual bondage.
The Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu recognized that there are no winners with resentment, and in fact resentment and anger do not only cause spiritual, emotional and mental damage, they can also affect our physical well-being. Although the two men are of different faiths, it is their faith that keeps them joyful in the midst of their struggles. Both men believe that inner joy is different from happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not. The Dalai Lama and the bishop remind us that joy is in fact our birthright and it is even more fundamental than happiness. They are not happy about the way they were treated, but it is the hardship and oppression they have experienced that gives them the strength to strive to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.
The Dalai Lama acknowledges that anger cannot be suppressed but practicing patience and tolerance will overcome hatred and anger. He believes it is necessary to sit with anger, to feel it fully, to let it be expressed and then passed through you. Archbishop Tutu believes in Jesus’ command to love our enemies and that the only way to live is by expressing joy for having been created by a loving God who values and cares for him. The message these men have for us is that, when we have forgiveness and gratitude for all that we have and open our hearts in compassion and generosity, only then will it be possible to experience more joy for ourselves and to also create a more joyful and peaceful world.
“There was a man who had two sons.” This is how Jesus began the parable in our Gospel reading for today, the parable that we know as the story of the Prodigal Son. Henri Nouwen in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, suggests that at various points in our lives, we are the father, the prodigal, and the elder son. Most of us on hearing this well-known parable, will immediately identify with one or more of the characters. Over the course of my life, I have found myself as the older brother(sister) when my mother openly doted on my youngest brother. My older brothers and I really resented him for a time. I have also found myself as the father when one of my sons was “lost.” Although I did leave home before my parents felt I should have, I was not so much the younger brother since I had no inheritance to squander.
In her book entitled “Short Stories by Jesus”, Vanderbilt University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies Amy-Jill Levine, encourages us to let go of what we have been taught about or read into this parable. To let go just long enough to look at it through a different set of lenses. Some scholars believe the father in the story to be God and see the pharisees and scribes as the older brother and the sinners the younger brother. Levine challenges us to see this parable as a story about a happy dad whose favorite son has returned; a happy dad who seemed to have forgotten that he had two sons. In focusing on the younger son, the father failed to realize that it was his elder son that was truly lost – lost in resentment.
The elder son had ample reason to be resentful. His wayward brother had returned and there was feasting and dancing in the house, but no one had bothered to invite him in from working in the fields. We live in an age of resentment and some of us can identify with the emotions of the elder brother. He is the good son or daughter, the one sometimes trapped in the role of being the “responsible” one. He may be a pleaser or somewhat of a perfectionist. He doesn’t stray, he plays by the rules, takes pride in what he does and fulfills his obligations. Then there is that other sibling who is the problem child yet receives more attention and, in our minds, more love. We, the elder siblings feel under-appreciated and under-valued and become infuriated and toxic with resentment. How do we find our way out of our self-imposed prison of resentment? How do we find our way home?
The good news is that letting go of bitterness becomes easier with practice. It helps to understand that it is not something we do for others, rather it is something we do for ourselves. We could employ the meditative practices of the Dalai Lama or like Bishop Tutu, we could show goodwill rather than ill will to those who cause us pain, in an effort to bring transformation and wholeness to a broken relationship. But what might work better for us is Al-Anon’s Twelve Steps which help us to know ourselves and take care of ourselves. The Steps show us how to make peace with the past so that we can live in the reality of the present. The Steps also help us to forgive others as well as ourselves, to love more deeply than before and they also help with our spiritual growth.
Towards the end of our parable, the father finally goes out to find his elder son. Just as he went out to welcome his younger son, the father takes the first step to show the elder son his love and affection and to reassure him that “Everything I have is yours.” He reminds his son of the relationship between him and his brother and tries to convince him that the family would not be whole if either of them were lost.
Levine tells us that the scriptures of Israel gives us hope for the sons in Luke’s parable. Genesis 25:9 tells us that Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael were reunited at Abraham’s death and together buried their father. Jacob and Esau were two sons that also reconciled. She states and I quote, “The Scriptures should give us hope for our own reconciliations, in our personal lives and in our world. (my paraphrase) We need to count not only our blessings, but also those in our families, and in our communities. And once we count, we need to act. Finding the lost, …takes work. It also requires our efforts, and from those efforts there is the potential for wholeness and joy.”
Our parable remains open-ended. We are not told if the elder brother decides to go inside and celebrate with his father and younger brother. It is left to us to wonder whether his father is able to convince him to finally rejoice at his brother’s return or whether he holds on to his resentment. We don’t know if the younger son truly repented and turned over a new leaf, but I believe that by telling the story, Jesus is suggesting that we too, need to decide how we will deal with our resentments. I wonder, if we truly listen, would we hear the voice of the father telling us: “You are my beloved, you do not need to cling to your anger, be secure in my love and love the world generously and in so doing, allow yourself to be loved in return. Leave resentment outside and join in the celebration of God’s extravagant, forgiving and transforming love for us all.” We have choices and we get to write the ending to this story. What would we choose? What would you and I choose?