I had not realized until I experienced it that it is possible to despise yourself so much that you can’t stand to look people in the eye. I never knew that you can go from being liked and respected to being sneered at even by the lowest of the low in a very short time. I had no idea that being a Jew meant nothing to Gentiles, because the few I’d seen had always been doing business with my father. He’s a very rich man, and the respect they showed me, I know now, was because they didn’t want to lose my father’s business.
In the spring of the year of my impatience, I asked my father – demanded it of him, almost – to give me what would have been my inheritance, now, while I was young and could still enjoy it. I had no idea then what brings joy to the heart.
In two week’s time I came to the country I had in mind, one where, I had been told, the only restrictions on pleasure were one’s ability to hold wine and one’s ability to pay for it. Wine, and … the other pleasures that I was anticipating with great eagerness.
Even for that exotic, expensive city, my father’s wealth made me one of the richest residents. Whatever I wanted, I only had to ask for. And, of course, pay for.
I wasn’t completely a fool, so I invested some of my money. But I didn’t know anything about investing, or accounting. And I had assumed the integrity of my business partners. They were, after all, highly respected themselves.
I was wrong. On two occasions, when large portions of my wealth were embezzled, I appealed to the local magistrate, who merely laughed and told me, “That’s how you learn, Jew!” It was the first time anyone had used my race as a sneer to my face.
One day a famine struck, and the cost of food was impossible to believe. Then the cost of everything went up drastically. Suddenly what was left of my money was not enough to pay my servants, or to pay the rent on “my” house. I was thrown into the street with nothing but my clothes and a few denarii I had concealed in them.
The first night on the street I was beaten and robbed of everything. None of my former business partners or “friends” had anything but contempt for me when I asked, when I begged, for a loan. In a few days, I was experiencing hunger so intense it scared me. I began to beg instead for a job.
The job I finally got was feeding pigs. A Jew, feeding pigs. Would the Most High ever forgive me? And their stench, their voracious assault on the food, was enough to make me ill. As I continued to throw their food to them every day, I quickly got hungrier and thinner and weaker on the bare subsistence wage I was paid. It occurred to me that I envied the pigs their husks. The husks that my employer threw away after taking out the grain. Pig food! I wanted so desperately to eat pig food!
Suddenly it seemed that my mind became clear. I remembered my father’s servants. He treated them well and paid them liberally. They were his servants, but they had all they needed to eat, and even food left over.
There was one more chance to avoid starvation. I would go home – if I could make it – and ask – no, beg – my father to hire me as a servant. At least I would eat well.
I cringed when I thought of the laughing contempt I had displayed toward my father. I thought, I can’t go back. He’ll beat me. He’ll refuse my plea. And that’s what I deserve. But in the end, desperation won.
It was a long, hungry, endless journey, but finally I saw my father’s house. As I stumbled on, I saw my father walk out the front door. I was startled when he suddenly started running toward me. Was his anger so great that he couldn’t wait to beat me? Would he not even allow me onto his land? But I had no choice. Too weak by now to fight or run, I stumbled on toward … home?
Father reached me at a dead run. I just had time to se tears on his face before he grabbed me in a fierce embrace and kissed me. I couldn’t believe it. Was he welcoming me? I began a little speech I had thought out, and as I spoke, tears began to pour down my face too. I realized the words were no longer just a gambit for a meal ticket, but the earnest cry of my heart – “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son … ”
But Father wasn’t even listening. He turned and, with one arm still around my shoulders, he bellowed at his servants, “HURRY! Bring the best robe I have and put it on him! Bring a ring! Bring sandals! He’s barefoot! Prepare the fattened calf! We’re going to party tonight! We’re going to CELEBRATE the return of my son! My son, who was dead and is alive! He was lost, but now he’s found!”
I have never recovered from the discovery that my father loved me with an overwhelming love, even though I wasted, threw away, his money. Even though he had learned how I wasted it – in immoral pleasure and stupid, careless business ventures. Even though I had disgraced him in the eyes of his neighbors. That has changed me deep inside, even more than my bitter experiences in a foreign country. It took a while to really take it in, but I’m at peace, more so than ever before. I finally realized that my father loves me without reservation. He loves me even though I don’t deserve it.
But I’ll tell you something – I am determined to become worthy of his love. I am determined that I will never again embarrass him by my conduct. For the rest of my life, I will try earnestly to be worthy to be called his son. I know I’ll fall short sometimes, but I will never stop trying. As the Most High is my witness, I will strive with everything in me to be worthy. To make him proud to call me his son.