Tuesday, September 13, 2016

“This is How a Human Being Can Change”
Part 2:  Parable of the Prodigal Father

In my previous post I shared about the overwhelming experience the prodigal son had when his father welcomed him home with a lavish celebration. Instead of condemnation and judgment, the wayward child received love, affirmation, and forgiveness. The father basically ignores his son’s flimsy plan to be considered a servant instead of a son, and orders the servants to prepare a feast, which is the father’s way of saying, ‘We are witnesses to resurrection! I thought he was dead, but he is, in fact, alive!’

I want to delve deeper into the actions of the father. How would you describe them? If you were in his shoes (sandals really) how would you have reacted?

The problem with this question is that those who are really familiar with this story are typically church-goers who have been taught what to say in response to a particular interpretation of the story:  we human beings are the prodigal son who have been forgiven by our Heavenly Father and welcomed home with forgiveness. We tend to downplay just how radical and scandalous the actions of the father really are.

Maybe we’re too familiar with it. Maybe we really don’t see ourselves as being as bad as the prodigal so we can’t really identify with him. (But what about the older brother?!?!) Maybe we have missed the point of the parable, which is to usher us in to its story and have us experience first hand what is going on within its world. Maybe we don’t want to do that, and are content to sit and watch what is happening without really being involved in any real, challenging or life-altering way.

How we interact with these characters, how we have experienced their experience is critical to how we understand it. Personally I have been the prodigal far too often, probably more than I realize! When I consider how my foolish, reckless, shallow, and self-centered actions have so often landed me in the pig sty and left me starving for any kind of emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual nourishment, I am continually astounded at the mercy and grace of the Father, who is more eager to forgive than I am to seek his forgiveness, and who – more often than not – comes to me in the form of real human beings who love and support and encourage and walk with me through those times to welcome me to the other side where there is healing.

On the other hand, if we see the father’s actions from the point of view of the older brother, then the father was indeed foolish. Words like impetuous, unwise, foolhardy, and irresponsible come to my mind. The son has obviously sinned and needs punished for it. How else will he learn from it and correct his behavior? If there is no punishment, then does that mean we can do whatever we want? This sort of retributive justice is exactly the way the older brother was thinking:  both the father and his brother’s actions are offensive to his sense of justice, hard work, and fairness.

However we may choose to see the father, Jesus makes one thing is clear:  This is who God is. Jesus tells this story (and two other parables at the beginning of Luke 15) in order to demonstrate to the religious authorities of his day exactly the kind of Messiah he was. They had expected a great warrior with political skills and a charismatic charm to woo the masses. Instead, they got a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief,” whose political ambition was summed up in the phrase “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near!” And whose fighting skills included turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, letting Caesar have his money that-he-so-obviously-loves-because-he-put-his-picture-on-it, and praying for those who persecute you.

Not exactly the prize fighter they were hoping for.

He tells this story to say:  this is who God is, this is who I am, and this is who you are. So if the prodigal’s father is God, then the kind of love the father has is the kind of love that forms the very heart of God’s identity and being. If you want to know how God loves, see the reckless and extravagant behavior of the prodigal’s father. See how he doesn’t care what others may think of how he loves us. See how the judgment and condemnation of others, the older brother, simply do not matter. See how the Father doesn't condemn or shame his older son because he is only interested in being in a relationship of love with all of his children. For those who have experienced this, Paul’s words are true:  “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, NIV)

No condemnation.

I don’t think we emphasize this enough. God doesn’t condemn Us. He is not angry with us. He is not nursing wounds or pointing fingers to blame or to shame. God is a lover, who restores us to our proper relationship with him:  daughters and sons who have come to our senses and returned home.

When I read this parable (or have it read to me in church) it is so tempting to always identify with the prodigal, the child “who has thrown away your money on whores” (Luke 15:30, The Message). It is tempting to mentally and spiritually remain in the role of the prodigal, the selfish, demanding, petulant juvenile who has the audacity to ask for more.

And certainly that has been me. I won’t go into all the gory details (You’re welcome!) but needless to say I’ve done my share of wasteful living in childish behavior and interests. I can be as selfish as anyone else. I can be demanding, care-free, and wasteful without bounds or borders. I can prodigal right along with the best (or worst?) of them!

The point is, I have found myself there many times. The good news is that I’ve always found myself eventually wandering back home, poor and tired, defeated and empty, hopeless and depressed, only to find myself embraced by my Father, who just wants to celebrate my return. He doesn’t go into a litany of what I’ve done wrong, to remind me of it, to shame me for it, to watch me wallow in guilt and self-loathing. I know it all too well and have done enough of that to myself. So none of that. He only wants to celebrate my return. He only wants to love me back into his family and treat me like his beloved child. I can imagine that he has cried tears of joy at times. All because I came home. Me? Really? Yes! What an image!

As powerful as the experience of being welcomed home is, it’s not the only experience this parable encourages. There’s the older brother, of course, and there is much I could continue to say about my judgmental attitude and the limits I place on God’s grace and forgiveness toward myself and others, but I’ll save that for perhaps another time.

The father has more recently become the most intriguing character in this little story. I’ve come to the conclusion that the parable could also be rightly referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.” The son essentially said, ‘Since you’re not dead yet, go ahead and give me my share of the inheritance.’

And what does the father do?

He gives it to him.

The gall! The impudence! The irresponsibility! The audacity! We want to describe only the son this way, but I challenge you to see how that’s also a pretty accurate description of the father. We aren’t used to this sort of behavior from a parent, much less God. God isn’t supposed to let himself be taken advantage of like this! God isn’t supposed to let his children walk all over him and let them get away with this sort of reckless and disrespectful behavior!

By definition prodigal means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. Having or giving something on a lavish scale.”

The father allows the son to have the money to waste. Does he know what his son will do with it? Of course he does! He’s the child’s father after all! Not only does he give him money to waste, he spends even more money when he welcomes the sinful child home – not with a stern lecture about responsibility and understanding the value and function of money, but with a lavish and joyful (wasteful!) party in which all work on the farm ceases and they kill the “fattened calf” to celebrate his return.

Again, the older brother rises up within me. It offends my moral sensibilities to have the father act this way toward someone I know to be in the wrong. It is obvious to everyone that what the child has done is wrong. His behavior is shameful! He is not appreciative of what he already has! His uncaring demand for more is morally repugnant. That boy doesn’t care one bit about me or our father! He’s only looking out for himself, to do what makes him happy. And that is very, very wrong.

Yes. The older brother is technically correct. His younger brother has sinned greatly and has brought shame and disgrace upon the family.

But it seems to me their father brings even more shame and disgrace upon the family by NOT disciplining his son. By not rejecting him, by not having him thrown out for being the wasteful mooch he is, by not behaving according to the standards of the morality police, the father is behaving in a prodigal way as well.

It seems the father  is more interested in being in a relationship of love and mercy and forgiveness. The father chooses relationship over rejection. He chooses love over punishment. He demonstrates mercy rather than condemnation.

There’s no doubt about it:  if the father is reckless, lavish, and prodigal with his love, then God is reckless, lavish, and prodigal with his love. In the face of such brazen, impudent and obvious sin, God loves. That’s really all he does. He loves. He forgives. He welcomes.

And in doing so, he sets an example for how I am to be.

And that’s the real challenge of this familiar story:  to become like the Father.

The late Henri Nouwen captured this so well in his challenging little book The Return of the Prodigal Son. He wrote

What of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels somehow good to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood.

But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?

God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.

I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.”[i]

Am I interested in becoming like the Father?

I first read this book many years ago but only recently it has come back to me. Funny how God will show you something only to have you put it on the shelf for a while, until a more appropriate time, until you’re ready for it. I suppose I’m ready now. It’s a bit frightening, honestly. “Become the Father.” Wow. Wasn’t that Adam and Eve’s desire? To be like God? Yes, but they were doing it in a manipulative and demanding way, fueled by the adversary's doubts about God’s good intentions toward them. They were trying to be like God on their own terms. That never really works out well.

God invites me to become like him. He wants me to grow up and be the one who forgives, who welcomes, who lavishly loves and celebrates others as they are amazed by his abounding love and generosity.

Besides, how can others know the Father’s infinite grace and love if I do not show them? However inadequate I feel most of the time, I am the hands and feet of Christ. What if others will only know they are loved by God if I love them? What if others will only see their value and worth as a human created in God’s image if I see their value and worth?  What if others will only know mercy and grace and forgiveness if I show them mercy and grace and forgiveness?

In the Father’s world great sin requires greater grace to forgive. Reckless rebellion requires a bold and heroic love to overcome. The impudence and arrogance of evil calls for an explosion of lavish forgiveness and mercy that stops our shallow excuse-making in its tracks and overwhelms us with what we think we don’t deserve.

And I am called to do just that. To love, to forgive, to welcome and embrace, to heal and show mercy, to speak kindly and have compassion, to advocate for the needy and the poor and the disenfranchised, to view those who are not like me as worthy and deserving of God’s love, even though they may believe they are not. Even though they may reject me. Even though they may ridicule me or mock me for what they perceive to be weakness. Even though they take advantage of my kindness. Even though they continue to sin against me.

Am I interested in becoming like the Father? You betcha. I’m sick and tired of being the sick rebel and the tired judge.

Become the father.

It’s time to ascend.

[i] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 122-123

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