In the middle of an argument Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have said, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” In classical Greek, the word for bowels was ‘splagchnon’ and it appears in the New Testament only in the plural form. It had four levels of meaning:
- The inward parts, especially the heart, lungs, liver and other bits we can eat;
- A sacrificial feast (a logical progression from the first level)
- Any inward bits of the body – the bowels, the womb for example;
- The seat of the emotions, our inward nature.
Today we might ask, ‘what’s your gut feeling about this?’ Then it gets more interesting. Apparently you could say we have three brains! The one in our head has 85 billion neurons. The heart and the gut also have ‘brains’; much smaller ones but 40 million neurons for the heart and 100 million for the gut are significant brain-like systems. Oliver Cromwell didn’t know that but he certainly understood the importance of ‘gut feeling’.
In modern English translations of the Gospels the word is not guts but compassion. It occurs quite often in Matthew, only four times in Mark, three in Luke and, oddly, not once in John.
So, engaging our three brains, we turn to Luke’s story of the two sons (often misleadingly called the parable of the prodigal son). Let’s start in the middle of the story. The prodigal son is on his way home:
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion….”.
The New English Bible has, “…his heart went out to him…” and that gets closer to the heart of the matter, if you see what I mean!
The heart of the matter (still thinking of those neurons) lies in the use of two little words (possessive pronouns according to those interested in grammar): ‘yours’ and ‘mine’.
“….this son of mine…”
says the father in verse 24.
“Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf”
says the slave to the elder brother (verse 27).
“But when this son of yours…”
says the elder brother who cannot bring himself to say ‘my brother’ to his father (verse 30).
“… this brother of yours…”
replies his father (verse 32).
There’s a second thread running through the story: slavery. The prodigal thinks he will only be acceptable back home if he becomes a slave.
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son: treat me like one of your hired hands.” (verse 19)
But a slave is exactly what the elder son thinks he is:
“Listen!” he says angrily to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you….” (verse 29)
He has been at home all the time without realizing that the place is full of ‘home comforts’.
“Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”
says his father bringing us back to the ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ thread.
One of the pitfalls of thinking of God like a father is that the divine compassion gets limited to our experience of frail human fatherhood. That can lead to the difficulty of seeing compassion even when it stares us in the face.
Let’s beware of separating out the two brothers in this story. I am both men. I know how deeply the elder brother’s sense of being a slave can infect me. I feel there are so many things I must do and be before I am accepted fully. ‘Look at my regular prayer life! Look at how I go to church regularly; give money to charity; sacrifice myself for the sake of others! And there’s that good-for-nothing so-and-so ……’ Off I go into that far country of the brain that so easily gets my guts stirred up with resentment so that my brain starts using ‘yours’ rather than ‘mine’ or ‘ours’. Both brothers ended up in that distant country. For one of them the living looked easy and pleasant, for the other it was drudgery. For both of them it was a long way from home. Only one of them found the way back.
This is my last post to this blog that has been my attempt to locate our homeland and the way back to it according to the three synoptic Gospels. May we all find the way and keep returning to the place where infinite compassion, mercy and truth are ours; not theirs, or yours but mine, ours, everyones. To adapt some words from Nan C Merrill’s ‘Psalms For Praying’:
May you know abiding love, gentle joy, deep peace and wisdom.