The parable of the lost son (Matt 15:11-31) poignantly illustrates the kind of overwhelming underserved love that God has for his children. Those of us who are blessed to have earthly parents who demonstrate lavish love understand this analogy quicker because we have had glimpses of it in our relationship with them. Jesus’ use of parables to communicate profound truths is so powerful because we, as humans, rely indelibly on narratives in our meaning-making process. Psychologist Jerome Bruner says this of narratives:
It deals… with stuff of human action and human intentionality. It mediates between the canonical world of culture and the more idiosyncratic world of beliefs, desires, and hopes. It renders the exceptional comprehensible – and keeps the uncanny at bay…It reiterates the norms of society without being didactic.
To this day, the story of the lost son invites the listener to dare to imagine a God whose redemptive love supersedes all manner of impertinence and foolishness. And so, here is another attempt to “render the exceptional comprehensible” through a (fictional) narrative. Unlike in the parable of the lost son where we do not get to hear what conversations the father might have had with the prodigal son about the consequences of his rebellion, this story ends with one such conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
With a loud clatter the telescope crashed down from the stack of boxes on which it had been precariously balanced. Pieces of glass from the shattered lens flew everywhere.
Sophie was petrified. She cupped her mouth with both hands as she stared at the mess in wide blue-eyed horror. Murali, who had been standing closest to the telescope (and was probably responsible for tilting it out of balance in the first place), jumped in alarm. He took one look at the broken telescope and another at Sophie’s terrified face, and then ran for the door.
“Murali, come back!” wailed Sophie in vain. Now she was left all alone to deal with the broken telescope.
Big tears started rolling down her cheeks as she stared at the broken telescope. She was distraught and very scared. All last week she had been boasting that she was old enough to make her own decisions, now that she was eight. And now she had made a complete mess of things and she didn’t know how to fix it.
She had been so excited when her Dad had come home with his arms behind his back. “Where’s my big birthday girl?” He had called. “It’s time for your present!”
She had squealed with delight when he handed her a large package, much larger than the one she had received for her seventh birthday. She hoped it was what she had been waiting for. “Be careful, Sophie,” her Mum had said as Sophie impatiently tore off the wrapping.. “Hold it with both hands or you may break it.”
Sophie was ecstatic to uncover the brand new telescope. It was black, with silver rims, and shiny. It felt smooth and wonderful in her hands. It looked more magnificent than it had done in the science shop during all those times she had gone there to admire it. She had been desperately trying to convince her parents to buy it for her. “I’ll take good care of it!” she had promised. “It’s the only thing I want in the whole world!”
“We’ll see,” had been their vague reply. But now, here it was!
“Thank you Daddy!” she had screamed, pounced on her Dad to hug him, before turning around to wrap her arms around her Mum’s waist and saying, “Thank you Mummy” in a muffled voice as she buried her face in her Mum’s dress.
“Now take good care of your present, Sophie,” her Mum had said as she stroked Sophie’s hair affectionately. “You have been such a good girl and have done well in all your classes that your Dad and I decided that you deserve the telescope. But this is an expensive present, so make sure you be careful with it, OK?”
“Oh I promise I will take good care of it, Mummy,” she had vowed. “May I please take it outside and look at birds?”
“Not now, darling. Your friends will be here any minute for the party. Why don’t you wait till tomorrow? Maybe Dad can take you to that old cottage up on Pine hill and you can look at all the birds you want from there. I’ll even make you a picnic lunch.”
Pine hill was just a little way up the street from their house, and it had an old abandoned cottage in which children loved to play. Pine hill was also the habitat of all kinds of interesting birds and animals. But Sophie wasn’t allowed to go there without adult supervision.
Sophie had reluctantly agreed to put off playing with her telescope, with the promise of an adventure with her Dad the next day. Soon afterwards her friends had started trickling in for her birthday party and she had almost forgotten all about her telescope – until Murali arrived.
“Hey Sophie, what did you get for your birthday?” he had asked, hoping she had received something that both of them could enjoy. Having grown up next door to each other, Murali and Sophie had been friends ever since they were infants. Murali had immediately taken to Sophie, being fascinated by her platinum blond curls and big blue eyes. Growing up surrounded by his extended Indian family in Singapore, Murali had never really seen someone with such blue eyes before. Sophie in turn was taken by Murali’s exotic brown skin and shinny black eyes that glinted with mischief whenever he was doing something naughty – which was most of the time. When they first met, Murali had reminded Sophie of her favourite toy bear which had smooth velvet brown skin and she immediately liked him. Sophie enjoyed going over to Murali’s place to taste his Mum’s spicy Singaporean cooking that made her eyes water. Murali practically lived in Sophie’s house most days after school. Sophie’s parents got along well with Murali’s and allowed the children to play together as often as they liked as long as both of them had done their homework.
Murali wasn’t always the best of influences on Sophie, however. He often got Sophie into trouble by involving her in one thing or the other, like climbing trees, looking for bird nests, catching snails, and experimenting on how long it took for cheese to start growing green stuff on it. Sophie’s Mum had not been particularly happy about finding a stash of mouldy cheese under the couch.
“I got that telescope from the science shop!” Sophie exclaimed excitedly. “Dad and I are planning to go to the old cottage on Pine hill tomorrow to look for birds and stuff.”
“Cool! Can I come?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask him,” she had said. Even though she liked playing with Murali, she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to share her time with Dad with him. She felt she would rather have Dad all to herself.
The next morning Sophie had woken up with excitement about the adventure with her Dad, only to be thoroughly disappointed. “Dad had to go into work early today, Sophie,” her Mum had said. “He has to do an emergency surgery.” She smiled at her disappointed face. “I’m sorry, honey. He promised to take you to Pine hill tomorrow, as he is not on call.”
Sophie was used to her Dad’s unpredictable work schedule, because people got sick at different times, as he had explained. But even though it was nice to brag about her Dad being a doctor, at times like this she wished he wasn’t.
“But Mum…” she had wailed. “I want to go to Pine hill today! Can’t you take me?”
“I can’t today, because I promised Aunty Sheila that I will help her with something.” “Now Sophie,” she added in a slightly firmer voice, seeing that Sophie was about to launch into another plea. “You can take your telescope to Murali’s place while I go to Aunty Sheila’s and the two of you can play with it. Just stay in their backyard and don’t let him talk you into climbing any trees.”
Sophie had reluctantly agreed, seeing that there was no way of convincing her Mum to take her to Pine hill. She had so looked forward to it. It was the perfect way to use her new telescope for the first time. She had imagined that she and Dad would pretend to be adventurers, looking for exotic animals. It just wouldn’t be the same in Murali’s backyard.
“Couldn’t your Dad take us to Pine hill?” she had asked Murali, after her Mum had dropped her off at his place. Murali’s Dad had his own computer business and often worked from home.
“No, he’s busy getting our car fixed today,” Murali had replied dejectedly. “And you know my Mum won’t take us. She would say, ‘it is too dangerous for small children to be playing in an abandoned cottage with who knows what kinds of creatures in it’” he mimicked.
“Oh, how I wish we could go to Pine hill today!” Sophie had sighed. “It’s such a perfect day to look through the telescope.”
It was Murali’s idea that they should sneak out and head to Pine hill when his mother wasn’t looking. Sophie knew she should not be doing this, but the thought of being able to go to Pine hill was too tempting. Besides, Murali had reasoned, they would be back before anyone noticed they had been gone. His Mum was used to them playing out in the backyard for hours at a time. So, as long as they got back in time for tea, everything should be fine. They had snuck out the back way, with the telescope snugly tucked under Sophie’s arm.
Sophie had been there many times with her parents, but she was still glad that Murali was with her because Pine hill seemed bigger somehow without her parents beside her. They had arrived at the cottage and decided to train the telescope on one of the big oak trees, hoping to find birds’ nests. They stacked up some boxes that were probably left there by other children, and balanced the telescope on it. Murali was just about to look through it when the disaster had happened. He had stared at her in panic, and then taken off running without a word.
Sophie couldn’t remember how long she had been standing there, staring at the broken telescope. Now she was crying uncontrollably. What would Mum say? She had disobeyed her clear instructions to stay at Murali’s place. What would Dad say? She had begged him so many times to buy her the telescope. Now it was ruined! She thought hard whether there was any way she could hide what had happened to the telescope. But she couldn’t think of any story that they would believe. She was angry at Murali for abandoning her when things went wrong. ‘It was his stupid idea!’ she thought, crying more in frustration. She sat down on the floor and curled up, wrapping her arms around her knees and tucking her chin under them.
She imagined how angry Dad would be. Her beautiful telescope was broken, she had disobeyed her parents, and she just didn’t know how to fix this. With Murali gone, she felt all alone and scared. But she was more scared to go home.
“Sophie! Sophie!!” She could hear her Dad’s voice in the distance. Before she could think of what to do, she heard footsteps running up the hill and the tall form of her father appeared at the doorway. He saw her in the corner and came rushing in.
“Oh thank God! You are safe!” he said, as he bent down to wrap her into a tight embrace. “We were so worried about you! We just found out from Murali where you were.” He didn’t let go of her for a few minutes. When he released her, Sophie kept her eyes tightly closed because she didn’t want to see anger on his face.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said in a small voice, fresh tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please don’t be angry.” She started sobbing.
Dad enveloped her into an embrace once more, and rocked her gently. Sophie felt the smooth fabric of his cotton shirt against her cheek. “I’m not angry with you,” he said softly. “Your mother and I assumed you were at Murali’s. But when you didn’t come home for tea, we got worried and went to his place to look for you. Murali was hiding in his room, and his parents didn’t know you weren’t with him. He finally told us what happened and so I came looking for you.” He lifted her chin and made her look at him. Sophie was surprised to find that her father’s expression was quite different to what she had imagined. His face was lined with concern, but there was no anger. “Why didn’t you come home, honey?” he asked in the same gentle voice.
“I… I was scared,” whispered Sophie. “The telescope is broken, Daddy,” she said, and the tears were threatening to fall again. But she was determined to explain to her Dad that she was sorry. She desperately wanted him to know that. “I didn’t want to make you angry, Daddy” she continued. “So I …. I just stayed here.” She looked down in shame.
“Sophie,” her father said in a voice that she hadn’t heard before. It was gentle but firm. “You can never do anything to make me angry enough to wish that you didn’t come home.” “Do you understand me?” he persisted, when she didn’t say anything.
He kissed her forehead. “When you are little, every problem may seem very big. But that’s why Mummy and Daddy are here, to help you. There’s nothing you can do that will make us love you less. Do you understand?” She nodded, feeling strangely elated.
Sophie was sitting up in bed, feeling exhausted by the day’s events. She was very glad that her parents hadn’t been angry with her. She was very happy to be home, having had her favourite dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, and now warm and cosy in bed after her bath. But she couldn’t shake a sadness that was inside her. It felt like something heavy was sitting on her chest.
There was a gentle knock. Sophie saw Dad standing at the doorway. He smiled at her glum expression and walked over to sit on the edge of her bed. “I think it’s time for a Daddy-Sophie talk, don’t you?” he said. Sophie nodded.
“What did you learn today, Sophie?” Dad asked.
Sophie looked down at her blanket and crunched up its corner with both hands, just for something to do. “I learnt I shouldn’t disobey Mummy,” she replied in a small voice.
“Why?” Daddy asked. Sophie knew he was looking intently at her. But she wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Because I broke my telescope,” Sophie replied, feeling thoroughly deflated. She hadn’t even looked through it once.
“True,” Daddy said. “And that is a lesson. But if you hadn’t broken the telescope, would it have been OK that you snuck out without permission?”
Sophie knew the correct answer was “no.” But a small part of her wondered why that would have been wrong. What if she and Murali had had a nice time at Pine hill and snuck back in before anyone noticed? Would that have been still wrong?
Dad seemed to sense what she was thinking. He untangled her hands from the blanket and held them in his. “Sophie,” he said, and waited till she looked up at him. “Mummy trusted you when she asked you to stay at Murali’s place. By not keeping your word to her, you let her down. And I was looking forward to our special time on Pine hill, watching you use your telescope for the first time. By going ahead on your own, you didn’t give me that special experience. So your disobedience hurt people’s feelings. Do you understand?”
Dad didn’t sound angry. But Sophie’s eyes were welling up. Then a thought crossed her mind and she looked up at Dad, frowning. “It was all Murali’s fault! He made me. I don’t want to play with Murali ever!” she said with feeling.
Dad looked serious again. “Sophie, there are two things I want to tell you tonight that are very important. I want you to think about them carefully and remember them, OK?”
“The first thing I want you to remember is that you made a mistake today in disobeying your mother, and usually there are consequences for a mistake. In this case, you broke your telescope, and hurt Mummy and Daddy’s feelings. But you also learnt that Mummy and Daddy love you no matter what,” he paused, making sure Sophie was listening.
“The second thing I want you to remember,” he continued, “is that you shouldn’t stay cross with someone because they let you down. I know Murali suggested that you sneak out and he hurt your feelings when he left you alone in the cottage. That was wrong of him and I understand why you’re angry. But you agreed to his suggestion, so you must take responsibility for that. And, you must give Murali a chance to explain himself – just like Mummy and Daddy gave you a chance. For us, you are more important than the mistakes you made today. Similarly, your friendship with Murali is more important than the mistakes he made today.”
A single tear rolled down Sophie’s cheek. She brushed it off impatiently. “Why didn’t he stay with me?” she whispered, looking down at her hands again.
Dad gently placed his hand on her shoulder. “Because people do strange things when they are scared. I remember a little girl who stayed alone all day on top of Pine hill because she was too scared to come home.” Sophie looked up to find her Dad smiling. Sophie began to smile.
“Murali is your friend,” Dad reiterated. “You should hear him out.”
Sophie felt the heavy weight on her chest lift a little. It was still there, but it felt much lighter. She leaned over and buried her head in Dad’s chest. She resolved to talk to Murali first thing tomorrow. She was beginning to feel sleepy now.
Tucking Sophie into bed Dad whispered, “I love you.” And Sophie contently drifted to sleep, not fully comprehending the magnitude of that declaration or the profoundness of the lessons Dad had conveyed; but indelibly changed by the experiences of that day.
 Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning (p.52). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
About the Author: Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith is the Dean of Students at Alphacrucis College.