The Prodigal Son – The Prodigal Father
June 18th, 2017
The Parable of the Prodigal Father by Trevor Burke
What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey
Today is Father’s Day, a day where we reflect on the men in our lives that have made an impact on who we are today. As I was writing this message, I kept thinking about my own dad that I lost 12 years ago and snippets of his life kept popping up. His love of sports, how he built an ice rink in our back yard every year, how he could eat 20 ears of corn in one setting, how good he was at playing the card game Rook, how much he loved my mom and me and my brothers. I am sure that each of you today can recall some great memories of special moments with important men in your life. I am thankful for the presence of not only my dad, but my late husband Jerry, my brothers and other men that have been and are important to me.
We often associate certain characteristics and attributes to fathers – strength, protection, provision, justice, fairness, loving and we often use this language and these characteristics of Father to describe God. God as Father is probably the most common image we have of God and we regularly refer to God in a masculine pronoun. Of course, God is neither male nor female, God transcends a role such as Father and is far beyond the characteristics we use to describe God. And yet, our limited human minds must try to bring God into a place where we can grasp some reflection of God’s essence within our known relationships and the idea of Father is one place for this.
Pope Francis recently said to a large crowd at the Vatican that calling God "Father" rather than simply "God" can deepen our spirituality and nourish our Christian hope.
"The entire mystery of Christian prayer is summed up here, in this word: to have the courage to call God by the name of Father," the pontiff said.
"Calling God by the name 'Father' is not something that can be taken for granted," "We are tempted to use the highest titles, which are respectful of his transcendence. But calling him 'Father' puts us in his confidence, like a child talking to his dad, knowing that he is loved and cared for by him" the pope said.
Of course, it can also be dangerous to focus on God as Father because some human fatherly relationships are destructive, are not intimate and not loving. Having talked with several folks over the years that have deeply struggled with the idea of God as Father, I have become much more sensitive to avoid using masculine pronouns in how I speak about God.
But I still believe there is much for us to gain in our understanding of God to think about the best and most loving examples of this role of Father. And this role of Father in the story that Dan read for us today is an insight into God’s essence that is really astounding. This parable of Jesus is probably the best-known parable within Christian and secular circles. It is a story that is rich and complex and helps us grasp some idea of the magnitude of God. And it defies the traditional roles of Father that were customary of the first century.
I have heard many messages on this parable before and usually they focus on one of the sons. The prodigal son asks for and takes his portion of his inheritance and wants to get away from his family and live the life he wants to live. Of course, things don’t turn out so well for him and when he returns, the elder son shows no mercy, no forgiveness and becomes angry with his father. While this story is usually called the parable of the Prodigal Son, I believe the heart of this story is about a Prodigal Father. I looked up the word prodigal and I found words like reckless, extravagant, lavish and wasteful. And certainly, the young son’s decisions do seem to fit these adjectives. And yet, the Father’s love and grace in this story seem to be extravagant, reckless, lavish and wasteful. The generosity of the father does not seem wise, just or fair. Who gives half of their child’s inheritance just because they asked for it? Didn’t the father in his heart know that his son would likely waste all this money? And the father had to face the fact that this son didn’t want to be with him and chose to move far away. What heartbreak the father experienced to have his son reject their life together. In the ancient world, the father-son (even adult son’s) relationship was a hierarchical one so it is even more shocking that the son would demand his inheritance by challenging his father’s authority and the father would give him his share of the property without saying one word or requiring certain things in exchange for his share. How many times have I given something but expect certain activities, behaviors or outcomes in return? Shouldn’t the father have disciplined his son instead of giving into his demands? Whether we think this wise or not, the generosity of the father to the son is quite breathtaking and seems almost reckless.
When the son returns home penniless, hungry and broken, the father not only welcomes him back to the home, the scripture says that he saw him a long way off and ran to his son and threw his arms around him and kissed him. In the ancient world at the time, grown men did not run as it seemed undignified and a sign of a man out of control. It would also mean having to bring public humiliation on himself by raising his cloak and exposing his legs to run and embrace the son. Another example of reckless emotion and a break from the social norms. When they embrace, the son can’t even get the words out that he planned to say asking his father to become a hired servant. The father immediately calls his servants to bring the best robe, put a ring on his finger and offer a lavish dinner to celebrate the return of this son.
The father’s extravagant grace continues toward the older son. When the older son sees the return of his brother and this joyous celebration he becomes full of anger and refuses to go into the house which was a sign of great disrespect to his father. He berates his father in a public way for his reaction to the younger son’s return. The older son is full of bitterness and resentment and again the custom of the time would be for the father to discipline this son. But the father’s reaction is one of grace as he says to the eldest son what joy to have been together for these years and certainly you know that all that is mine is yours. He was hoping the older son could rejoice with him in the return of a lost brother. The story ends there and we don’t know what the ultimate response was from his brother.
I think Jesus is giving us a window into the depth and breadth of God’s love and grace to us in the actions of the father in this story. It is the father who takes the initiative to restore the relationship. The son can only come within reach while the father is the one to offer complete acceptance back into the home. The father is extravagant in his generosity to both sons. He places no conditions in the restoration of their relationship.
Most of Jesus parables give us a glimpse into the transcendence and uncontrollable nature of God. A nature that changes everything and turns our normal view upside down. These parables seem to want to correct our notions about who God is and who God loves. No one gets what they deserve for God’s mercy is not contingent upon the actions of others. God’s love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity. A prodigal love for a prodigal people. God is always waiting for us to return.
I have been reading Phillip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing about Grace this week. He shares a story about a British conference a number of years ago on comparative religions where experts from around the world were debating about what belief is unique to Christianity. They began eliminating possibilities – the Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods showing up in human form. Resurrection? Other religions had accounts of return from death. C.S. Lewis came into the room and when he heard what scholars were discussing, he said that it is easy to identify the unique contribution of Christianity to other religions. It’s grace. The idea that God’s love comes to us with no strings attached seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant and the Muslim code of law all offer ways to earn God’s approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.
Doesn’t the world condition us to find a catch in every promise – we must read the fine print to know the conditions of our contract. Yet here is Jesus describing an unconditional love that disqualifies no one.
Sometimes our vision of a father is one that demands our love through fear. But the God that is the prodigal father demands nothing and is unbelievable in the generosity of grace and love.
Henri Nouwen says “God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.”
Phillip Yancey describes the gospel as nothing that we humans would come up with on our own. Isn’t it just and fair to give more to the good people and give less to the bad people? Shouldn’t there be some merit to our salvation? Grace does not depend on what we have done for God but what God has done for us.
The great theologian Karl Barth arrives at one definition of God after thousands of pages of writing – the One Who Loves.
As we enter our time of unprogrammed worship may we reflect on this concept of a prodigal father that offers grace that is lavish, extravagant. How do we understand this grace in our lives? And how do we show this grace to others? I pray that your heart is open to the Sprit this morning. If the Spirit is speaking just to you today, hold this in your heart and listen to the Spirit. If the Spirit is calling you to share a message with all of us please be obedient to the Spirit.