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The Enactment of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Life of Scottish Poet Robbie Burns

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

James M. Houston






If you are not a Scot, you may yawn, asking, “Who is Robert Burns, any way?” You have probably heard about the celebration of “Rabbie Burns Night” on the last Saturday evening of January. With Scottish bagpipes and Highland dancing, a strange concoction is solemnly piped into the gathering. The “haggis,” consisting of a sheep’s stomach filled with macerated intestines, is to be consumed with “neeps” and “tatties” (turnips and potatoes), all to be washed down by Scotch whisky. It is an evening for Scots to celebrate all over the world—from Nova Scotia to Patagonia.

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What took the Scots so far afield was the Scottish invention of the railway steam engine.

In the nineteenth century, George Stephenson’s fuel-driven piston engine promoted the use of railways, and Scots travelled globally, building them in Europe, the Americas, India, and Africa. Scottish immigrants created colonies like Buenos Aires, where there is still a group of English-speaking Scots. (Some of my own family have lived there since the 1930s.) Typical of many immigrants, the customs of the homeland are still highly valued, and “Rabbie Burns Night” continues to be celebrated wherever the Scots have settled. A prime example of Scottish influence is in the name of Dunedin, New Zealand, which is named after Dùn Èideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The name was meant to designate the city as a “new Edinburgh.”


What then, is this festival all about? For me, it calls to mind the parable that Jesus taught his disciples about the return of the prodigal son, for Rabbie Burns, the brilliant Scottish poet, appears to have identified him self with the prodigal son. Robert (“Rabbie”) Burns (1759–96) is Scotland’s most famous poet, the son of a nurseryman in Ayrshire, self-educated in French and English, and knowledgeable about Shakespeare’s plays. Extremely poor, the family moved in 1771 near to Irvine, where Burns learned flax-dressing, and where he formed a relationship with Jean Armour, the subject of his romantic love poems. To earn money, he published his first poems in the growing area of Kilmarnock.


Burns’s poems became a great success and came to the attention of the leaders of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, who had created “the Edinburgh University Club” (which is still going strong). He was invited to join them, and his monetary future was then secure. Sadly, he abandoned his humble parents’ Christian faith, which he describes vividly in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” (1785–86). Near the end of his life, Burns moved to the southwest coast of Scotland, became an alcoholic, caroused often with a retired sea captain, and there he died.


All his poems were composed within a ten-year period, beginning with his esteem of

his new friends in Edinburgh. The following lines are from “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,”

in which he recalls the Saturday night Bible reading in his parent’s cottage.


My lov’d, my honor’d, much

respected friend!

No mercenary bard his homage pays;

With honest pride, I scorn each

selfish end,

My dearest need, a friend’s esteem

and praise:

To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays,

The lowly train in life’s

sequester’d scene;

The native feelings strong, the

guileless ways,

What Aiken in a cottage would

have been;

Ah! tho’ his worth unknown, far

happier there I ween!


Burns describes his godly upbringing, with his “priest-like” father, voicing:


And O! be sure to fear the Lord

alway!

And mind your duty, duly, morn

and night!

Lest in temptation’s path ye gang

astray,

Implore His counsel and assisting

might:

They never sought in vain that

sought the Lord aright.


His father then would read the Scriptures to the family:


How Abram was the Friend of

God on high;

Or, Moses bade eternal warfare wage

With Amalek’s ungracious progeny;

Or, how the royal bard did groaning lie,

Beneath the stroke of Heaven’s

avenging ire;

Or Job’s pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;

Or rapt Isaiah’s wild, seraphic fire;

Or other holy seers that tune the

sacred lyre.


Following his father’s concern for the need for reform of the Scottish church, Burns composed a satirical epitaph on the death of “Holie Willie.” In 1781, he wrote “Paraphrase of the First Psalm”:


The man, in life wherever plac’d,

Hath happiness in store,

Who walks not in the wicked’s way,

Nor learns their guilty lore.


In the same year, he wrote “The First Six Verses of the Ninetieth Psalm Versified”:


O Thou, the first, the greatest friend

Of all the human race!

Whose strong right hand has ever

been

Their stay and dwelling place.


Before the mountains heav’d their

heads

Beneath Thy forming hand,

Before this ponderous globe itself

Arose at Thy command;


That pow’r which rais’d and still

upholds

This universal frame,

From countless unbeginning time

Was ever still the same.


Those mighty periods of years

Which seem to us so vast,

Appear no more before Thy sight

Than yesterday that’s past.


Thou giv’st the word; Thy creature, man,

Is to existence brought;

Again Thou say’st, “Ye sons of men,

Return ye into nought!”


Thou layest them, with all their cares,

In everlasting sleep;

As with a flood thou tak’st them off

With overwhelming sweep.


They flourish like the morning flow’r,

In beauty’s pride array’d;

But long ere night cut down it lies

All wither’d and decay’d.


Toward the end of his life, Burns wrote “A Prayer, in the Prospect of Death,” the last stanza of which reads:


Where with intention I have err’d

No other plea I have,

But, Thou art good; and Goodness still

Delighteth to forgive.


A similar sentiment is echoed in “Stanzas on the Same Occasion (Prospect of Death)”:


O Thou great Governor of all below!

If I may dare a lifted eye to Thee,

Thy nod can make the tempest

cease to blow,

Or still the tumult of the raging sea.


Burns is reflecting on Psalm 2, among others. As a good Presbyterian, he is using the psalms as the prayer book of the church’s worship.


In “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” he also meditates on the family reading on the book of Revelation:


Compar’d with this, how poor

Religion’s pride,

In all the pomp of method, and

of art;

When men display to congregations wide

Devotion’s ev’ry grace, except the

heart!

The Power, incens’d, the Pageant

will desert,

The pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole;

But haply, in some cottage far apart,

May hear, well-pleas’d, the language of the Soul;

And in His Book of Life the

inmates poor enroll. . . .

But chiefly, in their hearts with

Grace divine preside

From scenes like these, old Scotia’s grandeur springs,

That makes her lov’d at home,

rever’d abroad:

Princes and lords are but the

breath of kings,

“An honest man’s the noblest

work of God”;

And certes, in fair virtue’s heavenly road,

The cottage leaves the palace far

behind:

What is a lordling’s pomp? a cumbrous load, . . .

O Scotia! my dear, my native soil!

For whom my warmest wish to

Heaven is sent,

Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil

Be blest with health, and peace,

and sweet content!

And O! may Heaven their simple

lives prevent

From luxury’s contagion, weak

and vile! . . .

And stand a wall of fire around

their much-lov’d isle.


Burns was echoing the teaching of his father, for which the elder Burns was censored by the church in 1784.


In the same poem, Burns describes his romantic love of Jenny, and of her mother’s approval, that Robert “is no wild, worthless Rake.” He himself sings:


Is there, in human form, that

bears a heart,

A wretch! a villain! lost to love

and truth!

That can, with studied, sly,

ensnaring art,

Betray sweet Jenny’s unsuspecting

youth?


Alas, Burns did break off the engagement when he went to Edinburgh to enter a new life, exemplifying the “moral schizophrenia” that was penetrating the old ways, and as a century later was more vividly illustrated in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This novel portrays the benign, much esteemed physician by day, who at night put on a mask, ruthlessly killing prostitutes in the streets, in order to provide dead bodies for his study of human anatomy—all, of course, in the furtherance of medical science!


In the Scottish peasant’s language of the eighteenth century, Burns was re-enacting the

gospel parable of the prodigal son, just as the British poet and engraver William Hogarth

had depicted a year earlier (“A Rake’s Progress,” 1734). In the last year of his life, Robert Burns reflects in his poem “Remorse”:


Of all the numerous ills that hurt

our peace,

That press the soul, or wring the

mind with anguish

Beyond comparison the worst are

those

By our own folly, or our guilt

brought on:

In ev’ry other circumstance, the mind

Has this to say, “It was no deed of

mine”:

But, when to all the evil of misfortune

This sting is added, “Blame thy

foolish self!”

Or worser far, the pangs of keen

remorse,

The torturing, gnawing consciousness of guilt—

Of guilt, perhaps, when we’ve

involved others,

The young, the innocent, who

fondly lov’d us:

Nay more, that very love their

cause of ruin!


Few Scots today, as they celebrate Burns Night at the end of January, realize how their

feasting, with bagpipes, haggis, and whisky, is reminiscent of the feasting and celebration that welcomed the prodigal son home.

***

When Regent College was founded in the late sixties, Dr. William Martin, former head

of the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Liverpool, joined our first team of faculty. His first public appearance in Vancouver was to preach for six Sundays

at Granville Chapel on the parable of the prodigal son. We could not believe it possible

that he could elaborate for so many Sundays on one parable! He never mentioned Robert Burns, but he held his audience spellbound. I urged him to publish the sermons; he never did, arguing he did not want to “drown in printers’ ink.” If only Regent could retrieve and publish his spell-binding sermons!


I write this short essay wondering if the current pandemic is an opportunity for all professional life to revise its motives and thinking, to prepare for another reformation of the church, just as Robert Burns’s humble father was inspired to do in family reading on the book of Revelation. For isn’t it still the old challenge to the established church that it needs to hear again the warning to the church of Laodicea, to be “neither hot nor cold” and not to be limpid Christians?


We look at the epitaphs Burns composed toward the end of his own life, first for his own father:


O ye whose cheek the tear of pity

stains:

Draw near with pious rev’rence,

and attend!

Here lies the loving husband’s

dear remains,

The tender father, and the

gen’rous friend:

The pitying heart that felt for

human woe,

The dauntless heart that fear’d no

human pride;

The friend of man—to vice alone

a foe;

For “ev’n his failings lean’d to virtue’s side.”


And then, in his epitaph for his family’s good friend, William Muir, Burns writes:


An honest man here lies at rest

As e’er God with his image blest;

The friend of man, the friend of

truth,

The friend of age, and the guide

of youth:

Few hearts like his, with virtue

warm’d.

Few heads with knowledge so

informed.

If there’s another world, he lives

in bliss;

If there is none, he made the best

of this.


I, too, remember the profound influence of my Sunday school teacher, and my fatherin-law’s friend, both who guided me to shape my life “in Christ.”


Did Burns, the prodigal himself, return to the Father’s house? In the year before his death, he confesses in his “Epistle to J. Lapraik, an Old Scottish Bard”:


I am nae poet, in a sense;

But just a rhymer like by chance,

An’ hae to learning nae pretence.


We do not know of his return, but we do know that Burns, at the end of his life, like the prodigal son, was humbled.

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