I have been contemplating the parable of The Prodigal Son a great deal lately. Some personal circumstances have given me cause to dig deeply into the issue of unconditional love, and how the father in that parable demonstrated it, for both of his sons.
At times, I can be identify with the older brother. I have always been a good girl. I’ve always done the right thing. I used to think that Romans 8:28 meant God would fix up my mix-ups and life would feel good. After all, I’m a missionary, right? I’ve done all the things God said I should do. I’ve stayed away from the things He said to stay away from. That should protect me from pain and suffering, right?
Not so much…and learning that lesson as my life collided with my beliefs was…difficult…painful…terrifying…life changing…
Even though I’ve always been a “good girl”, I’m not perfect. Far from it. And at times, I play the part of the prodigal, running from what God is calling me to do, squandering the figurative wealth He has provided; listening to bad advisers, turning to foolish counselors; choosing “friends” who are happy to take advantage of me in some way; so easily drawn astray by lure of sin’s pleasure that lasts for a season. Yes…I can be like the prodigal.
The one I really struggle to relate to is the father. We can probably agree that the father is a picture of God the Father. And I, for one, am incredibly thankful that He is willing to come running when I decide to come home.
If we’re completely honest with ourselves, though, it isn’t always so easy to do…to enthusiastically embrace one who has been a cause of grief and pain. But that’s what prodigals are. And while we’re being honest, can you agree with me that all of us are or have been prodigals in one way or another?
Try, if you can, to strip away the familiarity of a lifetime of sermons on this passage. Forget that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees who are represented by the older brother. Instead, put yourself in the shoes of the father. But not the gracious, God-figure we usually imagine in this role. Let’s picture the father as a human being, a person, just like me or you. A person with emotions and opinions, with insecurities and fears and hurts and disappointments, living in a culture which defines him by his actions or the actions of his children.
Keeping those factors in mind, do you think he was hurt by his son’s behavior? Do you? Do you think he felt frustration at his son’s request? Do you think he was ashamed when word of his son’s behavior reached him? Do you think his heart ached for his son as he heard what those “friends” had done? Do you think he shook his head, or put his head in his hands and though “If only…”? Because I do. I think the father’s heart broke just like ours do, and like God’s does.
This begs the question; what does love…true biblical, God-honoring agape love look like? How do we balance very real pain and the natural desire to protect against that pain with God’s definition as laid out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13? How do we have “good boundaries” and not keep record of wrongs suffered? How do we “endure all things” while guarding our hearts against further assaults? How do we have hope when ties are cut and walls are built and any potential for reconciliation appears to be destroyed? How do we not give up hope? How do we keep waiting for that prodigal (however your define one) to come home? The father in this parable, he had answers to those questions. And his answers gave him the strength to keep waiting for his son to come home. His answers gave him the grace to run when he saw his son a long way off. His answers gave him the freedom to celebrate his son’s return.
The timing of when this daddy ran has my attention; he ran when he saw his son coming home. Yes, he was watching, and yes, he had obviously never given up hope. But, he was home…he didn’t go chasing away the bad friends his son chose to associate with. He didn’t follow his son from place to place begging him to come home. This father waited…at home…and he ran when his son decided to come home…this daddy, he knew when to run.
God knows when to run, and He runs to us as soon as we turn our hearts back towards His. The key to running, I believe, lays in the timing…God runs to us when we turn our hearts towards His. He knows exactly when to run. Not too soon, because that will drive us away. And not too late, because our shame would overwhelm us and we’d give up. But in His infinite wisdom, He knows when is just right.
This is intriguing to me, because I don’t know when to run. I haven’t answered all those questions yet. Sometimes, the pain I have experienced overwhelms the grace I’ve received, and I can be like an unforgiving servant from a different parable. The freedom to celebrate is choked out by the bondage of unresolved conflict, and I. can’t. run. Or worse, I don’t want to…
In the end, the real question isn’t what we do with the pain, or how we hold on to hope, or where the strength to wait will come from, the real question is, what are we going to focus on? Are we going to look at our circumstances (kind of like Peter, so he started to sink) or are we going to focus our eyes on Jesus? Because when we focus on our circumstances, we will fall, every time. And when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we will know when, and how, and why, to run.