Sympathetic Joy and the Prodigal Son
Leah | Jun 15, 2017

The parable of the Prodigal Son was one that Jesus of Nazareth told to help his followers understand the nature of god’s love and the kingdom of heaven.


In contemplating the story recently I am struck by all the heart-aches. First there is the younger son languishing by the pig pen, thinking about the lowest beings on that farm, the pigs, and how they were so much better off than he was at that moment.

Then there was the heart-ache of the father. Mixed with the joy of seeing his younger son return was the pain of having him gone and not knowing where he was. Have you ever had that kind of release of emotion when some big problem gets resolved? All the emotions that were pent up during the “not knowing” come rushing out when the problem gets resolved. Not knowing where a loved one is the worst. Maybe that’s happened to you.

I first experienced that heart ache in first grade. It was the end of the day I was waiting to meet my older brother, Andy, so we could walk home together. I watched all the other kids flood out of the building and they all either get on a bus or streamed down the sidewalks. But I never saw Andy. Finally I set off home, walking by myself, crying all the way. When I got home-you guessed it – there Andy was on the couch; he had taken the bus. But I couldn’t stop sobbing. “He’s right here!” my mother said. I could see that, but it I needed some time and comfort to catch up emotionally. 

We can imagine the feelings that father must have experienced. All that time the son was away, the father must have been scanning the horizon whenever he could, hoping to see the figure of his son in the distance, heading home. Imagine the father crying tears in reliving the pangs of worry as well as crying tears of relief and joy as he wrapped his arms around his younger son.
Can you think what impact this story must have been for those who heard it as Jesus told it? This is what god is feeling for you, Jesus is saying. God would be overcome with joy and relief if you were to repent and come back home to his love.

And then there is the third person in the story, the older brother. The older brother’s situation is often given short shrift. In the great works of art and literature you don’t see much of the older brother. But maybe that’s the person you saw yourself as in the story. The older brother who had been so faithful, steadfast and loyal all the time the younger brother was squandering his fortune on wicked ways. And by “wicked” we mean not only immoral, but raucous and fun! And then ooooo – then to see all the lovely things heaped on the younger son when he returned. That fatted calf – that was being saved for some huge, important event – was being slaughtered for a feast for that brother, that brother, who had wasted half his father’s fortune….come ON! It’s not fair!

Looking at our own life experiences, how many times have we seen praise, expense, attention, honor bestowed on someone else and we can’t feel anything but resentment? It’s not fair! “I deserve some of that! What about me? I want some joy, gosh darn it!” And if we have something against that person, that makes the resentment even stronger.

We act as if joy and well -being are limited and scarce. We get stuck in our thinking.

In the story of the prodigal son the father tells the angry older son that there has to be a celebration that night. The younger son, who was lost to them has returned safely! And something else – “Look around,” the father tells the older son. “All that you see, this is for you.” I think the message is that you don’t’ have to worry about the rules so much. Let’s remember that in the time of Jesus, were so many rules that the Pharisees insisted on. What a relief it would have been to know that maybe not all the strict religious laws were crucial to obtain god’s love.

This is the message of the story I find so reassuring. “Don’t worry so much. There is enough.”
The Buddhist tradition describes what are called The Four Immeasurables. These are boundless qualities in the world and in each of us. They can lie dormant, but we can cultivate each of them within ourselves and promote them in the world.

The First Immeasurable is love – the wish for all living beings to be happy
The second is compassion – the wish for others to be free of suffering
The third is sympathetic joy – the wish that those who have happiness not be separated from the sources of their joy
The Fourth Immeasurable is for others to experience equanimity – a sense of ease and calmness, even in difficult situations.

It is said that the Third Immeasurable is the most difficult to cultivate – wishing that the circumstances for joy for others not be ended. As we see from the story, it is so easy to get stuck on the need to secure our own well-being that we cultivate feelings of inadequacy and fear of lack of resources. But what if we could witness the circumstances that bring joy to others – that recognition, and wealth, ease of living, all the things that bring happiness, and wish that they keep on flowing for other person? What if we could especially wish that for people we really don’t like?

After all everyone has pain. Certainly the younger brother did. Who are we to judge? Why should we be constricted emotionally and withhold our wishes for good things to be bestowed to others? As many have said, the opposite of joy is not sadness, but isolation and disconnection.

I’ve been wondering if cultivating sympathetic joy can be a way for us not only to wish for happiness, but to the ability to heal broken connections.

On our campuses and on our streets today, we are seeing incredible vitriol on both sides of the major issues of the day: immigration, the environment, racism and white supremacy, which America are we making great again? Good people are shouting to drown others out. Conversations are being shut down on college campuses; students are walking out on speakers they don’t like. Some liberals and some Pro-Trump supporters, all claiming to promote free speech, have come to protests in make-shift riot gear and armed with home-made weapons.

I’m wondering how we can create an awareness than can keep these dangerous situations from taking place. And how can we create places where everyone has a voice, even people we don’t like?

You may be aware of the recent controversy over hiring practices at the Unitarian Universalist Association and all the subsequent resignations at the UUA. Now we have new temporary leadership and soon we’ll have a newly elected president. What you may not be aware of is that the people who brought the unjust hiring practices to light –and I should say that these are women of color and who are also non-clergy religious educators – have received threats to their safety and to the safety of their children. These have included death threats. These threats have not come from “outside”; they are from Unitarian Universalists, people who care about the denomination. As you might guess, there will be extra security for those who have received threats and for others in leadership positions at General Assembly and there will be more security overall at GA this year. There will also be more chaplains than in past years. I hope that people will go to them to help process the difficult conversations that I’m sure will arise among individuals at GA.

For the sake of our denomination we need to have conversations about white supremacy and about issues of power and authority – not out there, but how they are being played out within the UUA and within our own congregations.

Like many other Unitarian Universalist congregations, Albany UU  participated in a Sunday of teach ins to learn about racism and white supremacy in our cultures.  One follow up action for us has been to continue our focus on how we can be more welcoming. We’re starting to look at our practices around how we welcome newcomers, what materials we use in Religious Exploration with children and youth, our hiring practices, about how we decorate the building, our procedures in renting our building to groups in our local community. Are we making the “white way” of doing things the norm? How do our practices affect people with every identity?

So how can we prepare and sustain ourselves for these types of conversations? I think we would do well, not to follow the example of the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. Let’s not stay constricted and fixated on what we think we deserve. Let’s see if we can create a little openness.

We can certainly celebrate and work to cultivate sympathetic joy when we see people we admire getting attention and accolades for doing good work in the world. And when see that people we dislike are furthering their hate filled causes, we certainly don’t have to celebrate that; we must speak out against it. But what we can set as a spiritual practice is to be on the lookout for times when people we don’t like get rewarded for promoting something we do value. So if the Trump supporters get media attention for saying that they are for free speech and safety for everyone, then we can wish that attention not be taken away from them for that. And if we hear a UU we don’t like because of comments they have made in the past – if we hear them make constructive comments about addressing racism or other systems of oppression in our denomination, we can cultivate sympathetic joy and be glad when they have a turn at the mike a GA, or when they have an opportunity to speak freely in our congregation. And maybe in wishing and working for the light to be shined on good works whoever is doing them, we can find ways to make spaces to listen to each other and support causes that enact our UU values.

We all have the capacity to develop limitless love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Developing these qualities is simple, though not easy. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama says, “There are 6 billion people in the world and 6 billion chances for happiness.” I’m starting a practice of meditation to cultivate sympathetic joy. I invite you to join me in this spiritual practice. 

Here’s the meditation I shared recently at the UU Church of Canandaigua,  a way of noting the happiness of others and then celebrating it.

Sit comfortably with your feet resting on the floor. You can close your eyes or let you gaze rest gently on the floor in front of you. Take a few gentle, deep breaths. Now call to mind cheerful person who is a good friend. Or maybe a pet that is happy and cheerful. Contemplate this cheerfulness with appreciation and let this appreciation fill your heart. And now send this appreciation out into the room. And send it throughout the building. And now send this limitless appreciation out to the local community and out into the world. And now you can wiggle your hands and feet a bit. And now open your eyes or lift your gaze. May the meditation be this of merit to you and to the greater world. May it be so.

In faithful service,

Leah Purcell

Credentialed Religious Educator

Director of Religious Education

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