On first reading, the question “whose life are you living?” may seem strange. That is until you actually ask it, rather than just read. Your answer will certainly vary according to your phase of life, as well as the choices you have already made. Every choice you have made means that there are alternatives which you did not choose. Every path you have travelled means you did not travel a different route. It is in the world of ‘might-have-beens’ that this question lives, and work is a large land in that world.
Let me illustrate the scenario from one of Jesus’ brilliantly crafted stories so that you can engage with the question for yourself:
Known throughout the world as the story of the prodigal son, it is actually a story with three characters: the prodigal himself, the older brother and their father. We probably don’t need to tell the story as it is so well known but we will do well to recognise that the setting is a family business. The point to help us here is that the prodigal left the business, took half the assets and embarked on a life of rebellion. The older brother stayed at home, in the business and in his own words, lived the life of “slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders”. So here are two sons, both living lives in reference to an image of their father’s wishes. The younger son is living a life formatted around contrast to his imagined parental blueprint, and the older son in turn has formatted his life around conforming to his own imagined parental blueprint. As you stand back, you can see that neither of them is in fact living their own life; one is a rebel, the other is a conformist, but they are both slaves. The younger son’s slavery started out as slavery to rebellion, then, no doubt, to hedonism, then to being a hired hand on a pig farm.
So now we can ask the question again “whose life are you living?” Maybe you sense that you are conforming to an agenda which is not yours; maybe you are rebelling against something you resent. Either way, if that is defining you, you risk missing out on your own authentic path while you are living, feeding your own slavery.
It is one of life’s greatest challenges to come to your senses enough to recognise whether you are living out your own life or the expectations, aspirations, commands or dreams of someone else. Sometimes this is referred to as living the unlived life of someone else or living your life as a function of others’ agendas. Of course this is unavoidable to some degree. There are connections with others and duties to perform but, as the years pass, the question of what defines and controls you comes into sharper focus.
It is fascinating to see how it played out for the two senior executives in this family business. Both of them got a surprise. They had experienced a father who had given one the freedom to leave and the other the freedom to stay. They both turned that freedom into slavery. As the return of the prodigal plays out, the surprise is that the father himself had neither the agenda of rebellion nor conforming, but of celebration. Both sons are now invited to an agenda of celebration and gladness. For the younger son to enter, he would have to leave his embarrassment, guilt and shame at the door; and for the older one to enter, he would have\ to leave his anger, resentment, self-righteousness and pride at the door. For both of them, they would have to drop their ideas that they needed to live in reference to another’s agenda and find pleasure in the authenticity of their own paths.
We are not told what they did. We do not know what they chose – we are not supposed to know that, because this is a story – the story stops at this point because the point of the story is to invite you – rebel or conformist – to cross a threshold into authenticity and embark on a journey which is truly yours. Choose carefully.
11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13?Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17? When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21?The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.‘ 22?But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it.
Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. 25?Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27’Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28?The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31? ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
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