(Note: I do not believe in/ really support Taoism or Buddhism, although I care about their believers. However, in this article I will be drawing a very Scriptural parallel between Avatar: The Last Airbender and a particular story, because it so clearly illustrates the concept. Thank you.)
One of my favorite TV shows, despite some difference in belief to my own beliefs, is and always has been Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Yes, I mean the TV show. Most definitely NOT the movie. (I heard those sighs of relief!!!)
I’ve loved almost everything about the show, minus some spiritual stuff (personal disagreement, but hey); the bending, the plot, the characters, the deep, riveting, and incredibly powerful impact and influence they have on one another’s lives. One character in particular, the infamous Prince Zuko, caught my attention early on. Initially portrayed as the classic “bad guy,” we soon see that he’s a much deeper, more complex person than just that– on many levels, very much the same as us. He struggles with doing right and doing wrong, and often knowing what’s wrong and what’s right. He has trust issues. And don’t forget about his FIERY temper (OK, OK, I had to slip a little pun in there, hee hee). But all this shows that he’s human, and so much more than even that.
Zuko, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, renowned firebender, exiled and disowned courtesy of his own father, Fire lord Ozai, is a major– repeat, MAJOR– prodigal son.
But not in the way you’d think.
You see, Zuko, in some ways, is the human race. He encompasses the highlights and the less flattering attributes of at least most humankind, the good and the bad. His father (the true bad guy, who really couldn’t care less about Zuko, and sets himself very selfishly above all others) represents the world we live in, where the law of the land is “Dog-eat-dog world”. Ozai is actually the one who scars/burns him, literally for life, because Zuko simply spoke out against a very unethical act of his, before banishing him. This sets off Zuko’s true story, though not of redemption quite yet, as he needs to find redemption, rather than try to earn it, as he misguidedly does when trying to capture the Avatar, Aang. Along his journey, he is accompanied by his uncle Iroh, who loves him very deeply and wants to keep him from making more mistakes– but knows that only Zuko can make those decisions; he can only advise him. In a way, Iroh represents the real Father in the story of The Prodigal Son.
After Zuko betrays Iroh to Ozai and his sister Azula, he thinks he has everything he’s ever wanted, but in reality, he feels, well, empty. Numb. He feels like he’s the son his biological father has always wanted… but is not really himself. Feeling conflicted, he goes to visit his uncle in prison multiple times, and, though he initially refuses to listen, learns of his true heritage, and decides to do the right thing: He goes right to Ozai and confronts him, stating boldly that he never actually killed the Avatar, that in fact the Avatar’s alive (in a way, the Avatar, Aang, SORT OF represents, well, Jesus. And I say that very LOOSELY.)… and that he not only plans on joining his side, but plans on returning and freeing Iroh, saying that his uncle had been his true father, and that he plans to go beg for his forgiveness, despite Ozai’s scorn and scoffing. He departs from Ozai’s presence without killing him, knowing that that’s the Avatar’s job, not his, and goes out to find Team Avatar (Aang and co.) so he can join them.
With some initial difficulty and mistrust between them, he eventually befriends and bonds with each member of Team Avatar, before he hunts down his uncle at the White Lotus camp (Iroh escaped jail by waiting for an eclipse, when firebenders are at their weakest and can’t firebend, as well as exercising his body daily, fooling the guards into thinking he was going crazy when he was really sane). Zuko, upon finding his uncle fast asleep inside his military tent, sits himself right across the elderly man, waiting all through the night until morning to see him. When Iroh wakes up and sees his beloved nephew, Zuko immediately tears up and starts apologizing for everything, but Iroh cuts him off with a tearful, very warm embrace, whispering that he was afraid Zuko had lost his way for good.
In many ways, this reminds me of the story of The Prodigal Son, in Luke 15:11-31. The son strays from a father who loves him very much, and wastes himself away, physically, financially, and spiritually. While Zuko was taken care of well enough physically within Ozai’s care, he too was tormented morally and spiritually over abandoning and betraying his uncle, who had stood by his side through thick and thin.
When the Prodigal in Luke’s story gets to his lowest point, when he’s so starved, physically and spiritually, he, like Zuko, decides to return to his true father and humbly beg for forgiveness; the primary difference between the two at this point is the son in the story was willing to forfeit his right to be called his father’s son and work as hired help instead, but then again, Zuko might have also been secretly willing to lay down his birthright to be with his uncle again.
In both stories, the true father of each story embraces and honors their respective sons, gladly willing to live and work (and in Iroh’s case, help to fight Ozai) alongside them– accepting them back into their hearts, just as they are.
Just like God tearfully and warmly accepts those who repent and turn back to Him.
” So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.” –Luke 15: 20-24