A Father’s heart never stops searching; a Father’s heart abandons anything but hope.
When Jesus tells the story of the so-called “prodigal son,” He does so because He wants us to understand—beyond the shadow of a doubt—that this is what God the Father is like, this is what it is like to be restored to Him.
“YOU’RE DEAD TO ME”
Jesus’ parable begins familiarly enough:
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ (Luke 15:11-12a)
Make no mistake, this was unheard of. People didn’t typically take their inheritance from a living relative—they only received it once they’d passed. The son’s request came with all the subtlety of a slap in the face, as though he’d told his father: “You’re worth more to be dead than alive.”
Nonetheless, the father complied, and the son’s raucous journey began:
And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. (Luke 15:12b-13)
The point, of course, is that all of us have been there. All of us have rebelled against the authority of our God because we wanted a taste of the high life, a taste of life without constraint, or rules, or anything to hold us back from that taste of the forbidden. A Father’s love, after all, seems such a small price for such incredible freedom…
A FATHER’S HEART
Sadly, what goes up must come down, and for this wayward son, it’s not long before he realizes that to be one’s own master is to equally be one’s own slave:
14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. (Luke 15:14-20a)
The son’s journey had begun by taking his father’s money to go find himself. His journey home begins when “he came to himself.” He came to his senses, that is, and he devises a plan to return—in disgrace, but with a roof over his head.
The son imagines his father as unwilling to treat him as anything but a servant, but we’re told that the father’s heart had never stopped looking, waiting, hoping. We can imagine the father looking out the window, scanning the distance for some clue regarding his son’s return. That’s why, I think, we’re told that the son doesn’t make it all the way home before the reunion with his father:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20b-24)
The father runs to him, embraces him, restores him, honors him. Given our distance from the culture, I suspect it’s easy to overlook the shocking nature of this scene. Grown men didn’t run, you see. To do so would risk showing one’s legs, and in that culture real men don’t show their legs. To run, to embrace the wayward son, to adorn him with “the best robe,” to celebrate his return—these aren’t the acts of a “dignified” man; these are the acts of a father with trembling hands and tear-lined cheeks.
The gospel is fundamentally a family affair. Because of what Christ has done for us, we are welcomed into God’s family. Paul tells us that all of us are “adopted as sons,” and can call God not our master, but our Father:
3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:3-7)
There’s something radically, shockingly undignified about this, because it places blessing on those who deserve none, and stirs up love and forgiveness because of the Father’s goodness—and never our own.
SAVED FROM RIGHTEOUSNESS
Still, such a spectacle chafes against what we have long held as true: that good things come only to good people. In Jesus’ story, there are two brothers; that’s partly His point. And while the father is throwing a party for the returning son, the older brother is seething with resentment:
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:25-32)
The story ends abruptly here, as though Jesus is challenging us to consider who we most resemble in the story. For some of us are much like the older brother. We feel we are deserving of the Father’s love through lives of obedience. We squint our eyes at those we regard as less deserving of God’s love—the “hard cases” that we think are too far-gone for God’s mercy, the folks too “undignified” to find a place at the Father’s table.
But the most undignified thing of all is that the gospel is for the broken as well as the put together. The gospel calls us away from our self-indulgence but also our self-righteousness. The gospel promises that all are adopted into God’s family—the left-outs, the cast-aside, but also the church kids, the choir boys, and the morally “pure.”
Because it’s always, always been about the Father’s goodness—never our own. Don’t you see what electrifying good news this is? It means rather than labor in our perceived righteousness, we rest in the Father’s love. The party is about to begin; the bill has already been paid for.
Won’t you join us at the Father’s table?