In the fifteenth chapter of his Gospel, Luke records one of the best known of Jesus’s parables, and there is perhaps no teaching more deserving of the attention of parents and teachers.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So, he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So, he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So, he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
In this parable we find three major players, each with a different orientation toward life.
- The younger brother who seeks to ESCAPE and INDULGE
- The older brother who seeks to PERFORM and CONTROL
- The father who seeks TO KNOW and TO LOVE
Throughout history, humans have changed truths into lies. Spend ten minutes listening to modern media, you will certainly hear the cultural lies. You should have what you want. You should do what you want. You should be what you want. These lies are permeated through media, to our families. It is not surprising that like the younger brother, we find ourselves tempted to wander in a distant land where we might ESCAPE and INDULGE. The wandering man or woman, boy or girl is a minimalist when it comes to the habits of right thinking and right actions. They put forth little effort and long to be entertained, are quickly bored and impulsive in action, and sacrifice the good of others for self’s pleasure, remaining chronically dissatisfied. Having eyes directed toward what is not, he cannot see the good that is. Lacking eyes to see the good that is present, gratitude and joy are scarce. Self-denial is an unknown habit. And, thus, he wanders, gorging where possible but without peace, without satisfaction. Parents and educators must ask, “Who will help such a one find the way home?”
There is a second great lie going around, one promulgated by almost every contemporary American institution, including the nation’s schools. It is a lie so much in the air that we can hardly imagine it not being true. It is the lie that life is a competition in which high performers are rightfully winners and low performers are rightfully losers. One asks, what could be wrong with seeking to perform? Nothing, if by perform one means for love’s sake to give one’s best effort in diligently pursuing that which is Good, True and Beautiful. Everything, if by perform one means the anxious, angry climb to the proverbial top. Losses are desperate. Victories are a vapor. The cosmos is a competition, and my neighbor is not my brother but my adversary. Suffering from the delusion that fulness of life is found by being better and getting more than one’s adversaries, performers are lost when it comes to entering into the celebration of life, particularly when it comes to doing so with those perceived as unworthy. It has been a tempting human delusion since the time of Cain and Abel, but twenty-first century coaches, corporate consultants and elite soccer parents have elevated the performance orientation to new heights. As a people, we celebrate those who, like the older brother in the parable, make PERFORM and CONTROL the chief maxim by which they live. In so doing, we encourage far too many to wander in a distant land far from home. Parents and educators often fail to recognize this pathology. Often, they even encourage it. My student is performing well—he or she is winning. What could possibly be wrong? Only that my student is chronically anxious, frequently angry, and seems to find little joy in life.
No repentant saint believes these lies; rather, for us life is an invitation to a shared adventure, an opportunity to love and be loved, a three steps forward, two steps back journey to maturity. We want what the father in the parable has, the father who seeks TO KNOW and TO LOVE. He knows his sons and reaches out to them, undeterred by their brokenness. He does not become selfish because his sons are selfish. He does not become neurotic because his sons are neurotic. He knows with a relational knowledge. His own grief leads not to bitterness but longing. His many tears, because they are free, hopeful but not demanding, are open to becoming tears of joy. He sees his sons, is willing to hurt with them, and is unafraid; thus, he can love and potentially lead his sons TO KNOW and TO LOVE. There is no more worthy goal to put before ourselves and our students than TO KNOW and TO LOVE.
It is in this context that we must frame all of education and indeed all of life. Fulness of life is found neither by escaping and indulging nor by performing and controlling. Rather, fulness of life is found in knowing and loving the Father in Heaven and all of His good gifts to us, gifts of friends, flowers, birds, stars, music, art, literature, math, worthy work, and joyful play—all that is Good, True and Beautiful.
To educators of a maturing heart, it is obvious that such knowing and loving is not promoted by “the parrot-like saying of lessons, the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations”  which characterizes so much of today’s so-called education. Rather, it is the knowledge gained when a child recognizes the symmetry of a leaf, the courageous heart of a literary figure, the struggle for justice in a civilization, the discovery of order in multiples, all which nurture a deepening relationship between a child and her world. Furthermore, these relationships are inherently satisfying. All coming to know is a seeing of the Good, True and Beautiful relation of things (even when through recognition of the evil, false and ugly). Thus, all true knowledge leads to love and in turn love leads to deeper knowledge. There is a relational mutuality between knowing and loving. When this mutuality between love and knowledge is disrupted, things go terribly wrong and our children wander far from home to a distant land; they have exchanged the truth for a lie.