Meditations on a Prodigal Father
Week of Sunday March 14: Lent 4
Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So he told them this parable:
(11 Then Jesus said,) ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.” ’
The parable of the Prodigal Son has a problem with its name. The word prodigal is nowhere in the text; it is merely a tradition we use for the title. It misdirects the focus, and makes the story ‘all about the son.’ Surely the focus of this parable is the Father. Some folk, seeing this, have called the parable the Parable of the Profligate Father. This has always impressed me, and been the title I have tried to use. But on Sunday, making an unscripted aside in the sermon, I called it the parable of the Prodigal Father.
Technically, there is not much difference between prodigal and profligate. If I bring up my Thesaurus in Ms Word, the meaning for prodigal is given as wasteful, and profligate is given as a synonym.
I suspect we use Profligate Father, because we wish to contrast his wasteful love with the wastefulness of the headstrong, wilful, and irresponsible son. But maybe Prodigal Father is a useful description. From our human and worldly perspectives, the Father is Prodigal. In this I find a key understanding of God’s love and grace.
Let me explain how I come to this.
An email list of which I am a member, has been strongly exercised about issues of repentance and punishment, and God’s grace in the past couple of weeks. It is an issue with which I have also struggled. The discussion has been polite; there have not been the uniformed rants so common to internet forums, yet the issue is obviously deeply felt. We have been struggling with a tension which goes to the heart of the gospel, and to be faithful to Jesus at this point is a real challenge: What is the relationship between God’s love and our repentance?
Consider John 3:16-18
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
There is a great truth and Good News here- God does not wish to condemn us. But belief in the full sense of living out our faith, and of repenting our old way of life, and turning again to follow God’s way, is integral to our Faith and being Christian. How can we be Christian in any meaningful sense and not do this? There must be a repentance.
This seems inhereent even in the carefully considered theology of John. One of my valued friends said to me about the sentence on repentance, "Must there be? Or is that just what we are taught?" We are certainly taught this; it is deeply imprinted in us. I think it is implicit in many parts of the New Testament. The question is whether that imprinting is the 'best teaching,' or 'final implication' of the words and actions of Jesus.
I certainly come to the story of the parable with the requirement for repentance deeply imprinted into me.
There was a man who committed a heinous crime during my childhood. His parents owned a shop in our local town. If he had come home, I’m not sure we would ever have accepted it. But if the parents had celebrated his return, and thrown a party, the whole town would have been in uproar. I cannot imagine what might have been done.
This is the situation of the parable. The son has committed a heinous social crime; effectively wishing his father dead by demanding the inheritance, then wasting the inheritance, and then having the gall to return.
Yet many read the parable for this week, and see no real repentance on the part of the younger son. They see him as pragmatic, or even calculating; one colleague said his prepared litany for his father struck him as a “cock and bull” story to get out of a mess.
These people do not see a returning prodigal so much as a profligate father, who ignores good sense and propriety in his love and haste to receive his son.
They understand that the neighbours at the next farm down the road will likely be scornful of the father. “The old fool!” They understand the older son is well within his rights to complain, and will garner much local sympathy.
In the culture where the story is set, the Father would have been way above the call of duty even to have accepted the wayward son as a hired man. But to kill the fatted calf, and pull out the best robe!!!
The father is prodigal. In truth, part of us disapproves of his actions. The son should at least have repented before he did this. And even then....
The parable highlights the unconditional love of a prodigal father, not the repentance of the son.
So, I ask myself
How could a loving god, who was God over Everything destroy someone? If God’s love is so great, surely that love would overcome our sins and shortcomings. Surely it would be able to attract us and heal us.
My heart says Origen is correct. God can love even the devil back into heaven. But where in that, will the devil repent? And what if the devil, or I, refuse to repent, or do not repent 'in time?' What is the relationship between the love of God and our repentance.
For me, this has been a painful discussion. My life scripting has many lines of code about duty, and honour, and responsibility. Actions have consequences. Repentance is imperative. Reparation is only right. Despite this scripting, I have aspired to a compassion that transcends the narrow, local love and mercy we expressed in my home town. (I am loathe to criticise; these were good people.)
Therefore I have been stung as I have sought to preach my rather ‘severe mercy’ in draft sermons. Stung because some colleagues even tell me they have felt "condemnation" in these drafts, or at best, only conditional compassion from the God I preach, whilst I thought I was opening new vistas of the love and mercy of God.
Others have seen me vacillating around in the issues I have described, unable to come to a decision. They're right! It has been a challenge!
In the retreat of my easy chair, where the hum of the server drowns out the jackhammers down the street, I did that minister thing where you sit and let all the emotions and images of the text, commentaries and discussions float around and gel together. A recurring memory re-surfaced.
I have a long time friend I greatly admire. Their service to the Faith leaves me feeling inadequate. They had one child who went ‘off the ropes.'
In the yearly letter, a couple of restrained lines about the child’s actions betrayed mum and dad’s great agony. There was a declaration of love, along with a prayerful hope for repentance and salvation. Sadly, most of the ‘off the ropes’ seemed to be to be about them not subscribing to mum and dad’s declaration of faith.
I was appalled by the letter. How could you say something like this about your kid, in a general letter to your friends, especially while praising up the other siblings? (Here’s me saying this; the man whose colleagues find condemnation in his sermons. Feel the irony!)
This letter came years ago, yet we still remember it. Our now adult children remember it. And I’ve remembered it today. And, finally, I know why.
As I sit watching my feelings float past, I understand that poor child will always be the bad one, according to the spirit of the letter. They’ll always be the one who caused the grief and shame. For all their love- and be in no doubt, they love their child- that will be the child who has grieved them, shamed them, torn their spirits in halves, taking even more than half of everything they ‘owned.’ In fact, people are still asking about the ‘other’ child.
And I see. I don’t want that sort of love. I would rather be in the working men’s quarters with only a bed and a blanket. If my forgiveness is so costly and painful that my sin must be broadcast about, my repentance can never be enough to cover what I have done. I will always be the black sheep. It will always be remembered. If the shame cannot be removed, then let us not pretend! I will only ever blossom and be free of my sin, if I can live in the love and approval of my father unconditionally.
So this is truly the parable of the prodigal father. He loves the son without reservation- longing for him even before he comes to his senses. He welcomes him home inappropriately, brushing aside all the excuses and apologies, and ignoring the disapproval and scorn of the town. This is the only way the son can come home, and be a son. And then the father goes out and starts over again, with the older brother.
Some of the list contributors pointed out the connections between Isaac and Jacob and Esau, a dysfunctional father and sons. They are a contrast to this family, where all the limitations of our human condition are confronted and healed by the prodigal, profligate love of the father.
And so, I consider the script I live by. All those lines of family coded commands which God calls me to let be transformed and remodelled to a better program for living. It’s so hard. There is really only one way I can do it. It’s when my Father comes to me! When I know the love, I can begin to live the repentance. Despite all my reasoning and planning and determining, it is only when I meet the love of God that I can change.
When I am down, and crushed by my inadequacy and my absolute nastiness, I am only able to begin again because God loves me.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.