Welcoming the Prodigal from Afghanistan

June 26, 2014

Clarence Jordan, an important 20th Century civil rights figure who co-founded Koinonia Farm and helped start the pilot program for Habitat for Humanity, did not view the Bible as merely stories about ancient people in a distant land. Thus, Jordan created a fascinating translation of the New Testament known as the Cotton Patch Gospel. He not only translated the words but also the era and geographical location so that Jesus appears in the southern part of the U.S. during the middle of the 20th Century.

“With my companions along the dusty rows of cotton, corn and peanuts, the Word of Life has often come alive with encouragement, rebuke, correction and insight,” he explained. “I have witnessed the reenactment of one New Testament event after another until I can scarcely distinguish the original from its modern counterpart.”

Jordan wisely urged us to reimagine the biblical accounts as occurring around us. One such modern-day twist on a parable of Jesus came during a recent congressional hearing about a controversial deal that released five Taliban figures from Guantanamo to secure the rescue of U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (after nearly five years in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan). The debate about the U.S. government’s recent redemption of Bergdahl has raged on cable news shows and blogs. The case sadly appears caught up in partisan polarization. Several prominent figures who now claim Bergdahl was a “deserter” had previously hailed him as a “hero” but changed their tune in an attempt to score political points. Regardless of what happened, there is a larger truth we can learn about the nature of God. Perhaps the modern tale of Bergdahl gives us fresh eyes to see and ears to hear an old parable of Jesus.

A father of a soldier who died during the search for Bergdahl was asked during a congressional hearing if he would support the Taliban exchange deal if it was instead to bring his son back. With clear emotion and difficulty speaking, the father responded, “If my son had been a deserter, then no, absolutely not. But my son was a man of honor, and I would do almost anything.”

Jesus gave us a different picture of a father’s love in his parable often called “the parable of the prodigal son.” That son deserted his family, his country, and his faith. He essentially told his dad he wanted him dead, abandoned his work, left his country, and eventually gave up his faith’s practices (by helping raise pigs, a violation of Jewish teachings). Yet, he received a hero’s welcome upon return. The father in the story did not question or even let the son finish explaining himself. The father forgave and extended grace.

With the parable, Jesus gives us a way to understand God’s love that is not far off from the worst stories about Bergdahl. If he did desert, that simply makes him similar to the “prodigal son.” If “the parable of the lost sheep” (told just before the “prodigal son” one) is any indicator, God is fine with a ratio of much more than five-to-one just to get a lost lamb/son back. God does not leave someone behind.

Interestingly, there are even many people in the Bergdahl case playing the part of the big brother who refused to welcome back his brother. Why does radical mercy and grace make us angry? After all, mercy and grace by definition cannot be earned. Jordan’s account makes this more pointed as he suggests the big brother represents church-going Christians.

As news reports detailed the dedication of Bergdahl’s dad during the time his son was in captivity, it seems like a beautiful image of the father in the parable by Jesus. Bob Bergdahl learned Pashto (the language of his son’s captors), studied their culture and religion, and grew out his hair. As he started looking more like the captors and gained the ability to speak their language, he filmed videos he hoped they would watch as he advocated for his son’s release.

I like to imagine the father in the “prodigal son” story would have acted similarly if he had known where his son had taken off to and the troubles his son had gotten into. Perhaps that father would have bought some pigs to raise and would have started studying the culture and beliefs of the people his son was with in that distant country. Such behavior would have seemed extreme and even inappropriate to many, but would have merely reflected his dedication and love. An image of God’s love lived out.

May we accept the radical mercy and grace of our heavenly father, recognizing that we, too, deserted. May we extend that mercy and grace to our neighbors as we seek to avoid acting like the big brother in the tale. And may we see the biblical teachings in play all around us.