The Prodigal Father

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

Luke 15:11-32

11Then 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.” ’

Happy Father’s Day! It should be a happy day, but we know that it isn’t always; like mothers, fathers are human beings prone to weaknesses, temptations, shortcomings and failures. Furthermore, parenting is an art or a science that is not precise, and we often disagree on what is good and what is bad parenting. But the Parable of the Prodigal Son gives us a wonderful example of good parenting that also reflects the nature of God.

The word ‘prodigal’ means ‘lavish.’ To act lavishly is to act generously or extravagantly, and yes, we Methodists tend to look down upon lavish behavior generally. But Jesus teaches us again and again to love lavishly – love our enemies, love the sinner, love the stranger – and by loving lavishly people will know that we are Christ’s disciples. This parable highlights not only the extravagant spending by the youngest son but also the extravagant love and grace expressed by the father.

You are probably quite familiar with this parable; a man has two sons, and the youngest requests his inheritance a bit early.

Perhaps the son feels a need to sow his wild oats. I can’t help but think that he’s a teenager who feels repressed from living at home. He has passions and longings that he wants to fulfill, and he wants the money that he thinks he needs to fulfill them. Having spent some time in the military I have seen many  an excited sailor on shore leave, many a hungry soldier on R&R, ready to spend their paycheck on “dissolute living” be it for a day or a week. It’s not good for them. Some of them end up in serious trouble, but there’s not much one can say or do to prevent them from heading “downrange” (that’s what we called it in the army).

But if you are a loving parent, don’t you talk to your son and try to dissuade him? We don’t know if the father in this parable had any of those “man to man” talks with his son; we only know that the father let his son have what he asked for, go where he wanted to go…out of love.

We tend to think that love is all about protection, trying to prevent your children from harm or disaster. But love is also about freedom, and about giving your children the freedom to learn on their own. If you’re like me, you’ve learned most of life’s lessons the hard way. It doesn’t matter how many times I’m warned about the consequences of my actions; I will do what I want to do and only after disaster strikes will I say, “Gee, I should have listened to my dad.”

I can hear what the father tells this son: “Son. You’re too young to handle so much money and so much freedom. You’re not going to make wise decisions You’re going to waste the money you receive, and before you know it, you’ll be flat broke and feeding pigs for a living.”

“Naw, Dad. Not me! I’ll be fine. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Every father and mother know that at some point a son or daughter will say to their parents, “I’m leaving,” and we know that they mean it, whether we think they are ready or not.

And we have a choice; we can either trust that what we have taught them over the years will lead them to make good choices and wish them well, or we can stand in their way.

Don’t we act the same way toward God? I have spent years of my life away from God, hardly ever conscious of God’s presence, and living my life as I want to live it, making a lot of bad decisions and at times reduced to abject spiritual poverty before waking up and saying, “I would be much better off back home, with my heavenly parent who loves me dearly and wishes no harm to come upon me. He has let me go where I wanted to go, even if the places I went were dark and dismal.

But he has always been watching, looking for me on the edge of the horizon, waiting for that day when he sees me returning so that he can run to me and wrap me in his arms and give me a new life.

And some would say that he’s being too gracious, that he should remain in his domain and wait for me to come groveling to him, begging for forgiveness. You notice in this parable that the father doesn’t even acknowledge the son’s plea for forgiveness; it’s as though there is nothing to forgive. He’s just ecstatic about having his son back with him. That is the nature of God’s love; it’s so completely focused on us ,that it expects no apologies or retribution. And isn’t that what a parent’s love should be like?

And what of the jealous brother, the one who believes that the father is being too gracious? How does the father approach him?

To be honest, if it were me, I might leave my older son outside the party sulking like a child; he’s only hurting himself. But here again, God’s compassion is not just for the younger, wayward son; it’s for the older, obedient son as well.

The obedient son has followed all the rules and done everything he’s been instructed to do. But his attitude has been wrong. He understands himself to be a slave (he tells his dad, “I’ve been working like a slave”). His relationship with his father is a transactional relationship; I’ll do what you tell me to do, and you will reward me with an inheritance. There is no love there.

And this is the attitude that Jesus confronted throughout his ministry; people who think that their relationship with God as being strictly transactional.

We obey God’s law, and God takes care of us.

We fail to obey God’s law, and God punishes us.

I dare say there are plenty of Christians and people of other religions who understand their relationship with God not the loving parent; but more the Supervisor, the one making sure that we do our jobs and follow all the rules.

But the God we love and serve is the God who cares more about our souls than he does about some of the rules we break. The God we love and serve is the one who tries to teach us to be as loving and forgiving as God is.

And some folks have a hard time with the notion of serving God, but when we invite our friends into our home don’t we serve them? Our service does not denigrate us unless we are conscious of some status, but the God that we encounter in this parable, this Prodigal Father, doesn’t seem to be at all conscious of his “status” as a father.

My friends, whether you be a father or a mother or a friend or a sibling, do not keep score. You don’t need to prove your worth to God or anyone else. You simply need to receive the love that God lavishes upon you and learn to lavish that love upon others as well.

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