There are many things that could be said and HAVE been said about this story. Out of all the parables that Jesus told, this one has the most “legs” and the most impact. The story itself has spawned countless sermons, bible studies, pieces of art, meditations and devotionals. The fact is that the story strikes home in our hearts in so many manners…it is piercingly true and spiritually incisive. When the Bible talks about the power of God’s Word in the book of Hebrews…that it is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” well, if that definition was in a dictionary with a specific external reference…the prodigal son (aka the “waiting, loving Father” story) story would be in the limelight.
A few things to remember about the story – it comes from the heart of God. It is more about God than us…though its personal impact is immeasurably profound. Jesus was a metaphorical teacher rather than conceptual. He created meaning like an artist and a poet rather than a philosopher or academic. So Jesus’ goal in this story, to encourage those who sense no grace and to challenge those whose pride leads them to believe that they always have to be at the “front of the line,” is masterfully communicated through metaphor and characters to which everyone can relate. One of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr, once said that “metaphor is the Only Possible language available to Religion.” He is SO right! Metaphor is “honest” in its approach to mystery, especially spiritual mysteries. Metaphor carries, invariably, MORE meaning, not less. For how else could we explain the essence of the nature of our God except through means that come alive in our imaginations and hearts. Metaphors allow us to reframe, reorganize, and reset the core meanings of our lives again and again. Jesus used parables (which already had a rich history in Judaism) not as a delivery system for an idea but rather as a means to invite readers/hearers to take up residence” in the story.
The Parable of the Lost Son/Parable of the Waiting Father/Parable of the Stubborn Son (Luke 15 is the specific reference) is embedded in Luke’s gospel within a contextual conversation with religious leaders. There were few things that got Jesus’ goad – pride, hypocrisy, spiritual stubbornness and arrogance always touched off in and through Jesus a pointed response and challenge. In Luke 15, Luke tells us as a response to a conversation with those religious leaders, Jesus “machine guns” (rapid-fire, so to speak) three stories…each tells something about who God is and how God acts.
Even though the parable begins simply (verse 11-12, “dad had two sons”), it soon unfolds to the reader that this isn’t some ordinary story. For example, if any middle eastern son in Jesus’ context requested his inheritance from a healthy father, it would have been understood that he was essentially saying, “dad, why don’t you drop dead.” The fact that the father, who had every right to get angry, slap boy in the face and/or drive him out of the house, DIDN’T respond as such would have been shocking to Jesus’ crowd.
Throughout the story, the action of the Dad is breathtaking. The father’s actions are unique and marvelous. It was Jesus’ way to highlight the fact that God’s actions HAVE NOT been performed by any earthy father in the past. It would have been at this point, where there would have been a critical interaction between the storyteller and audience…for the audience is drawn in now. They are no longer objective observers because every one of these people listening to Jesus had very specific ideas of what was right and wrong. For Jesus’ first-century audience, these moves by the son were powerful and repulsive. But I want you to understand…the reason they are repulsive isn’t because the son breaks the law (Torah) but rather because he broke relationship (with the father). You see, “sin” is not necessarily something that perpetrated against a hard, cold law. Sin is something that damages relationship (with God and others – greatest commandment NOT to keep commandments but to LOVE God and others). There is no doubt that the son is a lawbreaker, but what was really offensive and unthinkable was what the son had done to his family and community. That’s why the acceptance of the father of his wayward son is so poignant and transformative. The son’s actions went right to the core of his most basic relationships…he betrayed trust; he turned his back on love and acceptance; the prodigal is a prodigal because a relationship is broken and, until the dramatic action of the father, bound to lead to personal shame and destruction.
Then starting in verse 20, the dad, who is the real focal point of the story, begins to act and his actions change not only one boy’s young life but the rest of human history. The dad sees his broken son at a great distance. He’s been out there, on street looking…why? Because he knows once his son sets foot in town, he WILL BE badly treated (and rightly so) by the village. Yet, dad has a plan…to reach the kid before he sets foot in village and protect him from harm and shame. Jesus’ point is remarkably clear – the person from which you would expect judgment demonstrates just the opposite – compassion. “Compassion” in Greek and Hebrew is a “GUT WORD”…it arises deep from within the character and nature of an individual…in this case, our God! The intimacy of an embrace, the initiating of loving acceptance…all this played out IN PUBLIC, has HUGE implications for how we understand God. Friends, God’s love is public. It is not just a private, “me and Jesus” thing. The cross and empty tomb are public truths. It is all the story of God’s public mission to unveil the mysteries of His will and love to us through Jesus (see Ephesians 1 for more). Jesus is saying, “this is what God does”…the father in the story moves from his house onto the street (image of incarnation); he seeks the lost and hurt one (image of humiliation and identification with brokenness (see c.f. Philippians 2 – “emptied himself…”) and restores those lost and damage to full inheritance as sons and daughters. The parable is a metaphor is about God – HIS nature – HIS action toward you and me. It is about His love, a COSTLY love…a love is that is poured all over the son even before the son makes a confession. You see, the love of the father was there before the son departed, while the son was gone and especially during the son’s restoration. Paul once wrote in Ephesians 2 – “you were once far off, NOW you have been brought near by Jesus.” Friends, God’s love is VISIBLE…it is tangible. It is not just a feeling but something that is palatable and meant for you today! Not just so that you’ll know of love but that your identity will be restored as a beloved child of the King. This is a story of HUGE love – not love pressed and contained in time..but timeless and eternal and personal love for you and me. Will you let that love restore you where you are in these very moments? Yes, it is easy to question the core of who you are…we all mess up and we easily fall into the trash bin of our own self-condemnation. We question our identity as children of the Heavenly King…we question His care…we doubt His love. But the love of OUR Lord looks down the dust-filled streets of our wayward choices and actions…Jesus keeps seeking after you when the best you can muster is a desire to trade in your inheritance as a beloved child for the pittance of the pigpens of life. You don’t have to look for God’s love out in the distance…for Jesus comes to you with costly love. His embrace is one that can transform even the hardest of hearts and the most stubborn of wills. His love melts the resistant soul and breaks the bonds of the presumption of our own goodness. It is the love of Jesus that is reaching out to you today, ready to put a ring on your finger, cover you with a robe of righteousness that you can’t achieve on your own and throw for you the biggest feast in the history of the cosmos. Remember? God so loved…that “so loved” is meant for you! Open your hands and heart and receive it again this very moment!