May 3 – The Scandal of the Gospel in a CNN Photo

The two women in the photo are the same person, their lives separated by 1,300 miles, eleven years and a vale of tears. Brenda Heist, 43, pictured on the left, walked away, literally hitchhiked, from her life near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, eleven years ago. Family members and friends never saw her again. In time she was declared dead. Brenda Heist, 54, pictured on the right, walked into a police station in Key Largo, Florida, one week ago, still alive and badly broken by the eleven years in the far country.

One morning in February, 2002, Ms Heist dropped off her two kids at school and then left their lives. She was going through a hard divorce, working two jobs and needed someone to care for her. That’s when she decided to join three strangers hitchhiking to Florida. CNN has told her story in detail. I would encourage you to take the five minutes or so required to read the story. You will find it here.

The CNN report describes Brenda Heist’s life in Florida:

For the first two years, (police) said, she was homeless.

She lived under bridges, eating food thrown out by restaurants after they closed.
For the next seven years, she lived in a camper with a man she had met. They made money as day laborers, cleaning boats and doing other odd jobs for which they didn’t have to show ID and were paid in cash.

After that relationship soured, Schofield said, she lived on the street again for another two years.

As I read the story, I realized that Brenda Heist is the younger son in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. Like the Prodigal, she wasted her life. The Prodigal would have eaten the pods fed to the pigs he was tending in the far country. Ms Heist ate food from the trash bins in the alleys behind the restaurants of Key Largo.

Like the Prodigal, Brenda Heist finally decided she could take no more. She turned herself into the police. The Prodigal headed home. In Jesus’ story the Prodigal’s father sees his son returning, still a long way off. “He ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

Rembrandt famously depicts the scene, and like many, I have pondered the painter’s insight and his understanding of God’s love for us, this God who welcomes us home as the father welcomes his prodigal son with an embrace and a kiss.

The stark contrast of the CNN photos of the two Brenda Heists troubles me. Brenda Heist is the prodigal. “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found,” the father told his servants as they hurried off to bring the best robe to the son and to prepare the fattened calf for a homecoming feast. Surely the contrast between the son he had bid farewell as he fled to the far country and the son he saw while he was still a far way off must have been as stark as the contrast between Brenda Heist in 2002 and Brenda Heist 1,300 miles, eleven years and a vale of tears later.

He embraced and kissed him.

I recoil at the image of the emaciated, broken woman who walked into the Key Largo police station a week ago today. I am not sure I could embrace and kiss her.

Brenda Heist is the Prodigal. In the parable I am to understand that I am the Prodigal welcomed home to the loving embrace of my father. I am Brenda Heist, loved and embraced.

The scandal of the gospel in a CNN photo.

See you Sunday.