“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.”― Henri J.M. Nouwen,
The prodigal son is my favorite parable. There’s so much to learn from the viewpoint of the younger son, older son, and the father. Jesus presented a story which challenged the religious society’s belief system. His words continue to speak directly to our hearts today.
The entire crux of the story is the father’s heart. The angry younger son showed his resentment and bitterness by demanding his inheritance. An action which stated their relationship was dead. Such a request was a slap in his father’s face. What a gut-wrenching, painful event. A father’s heart torn to shreds and a family shamed by this dearly beloved child.
How did the father respond? By giving his immature, reckless son what he’d asked for and allowing him to leave home. There’s no indication the father begged his son to change his mind and stay. No stern lecture about disrespect and disobedience. Just a sorrowful acceptance of his son’s choices.
Later when he was out of resources, this son meditated on his father’s merciful, compassionate, loving sacrifice. Was he wrong about his father’s heart? The guilt and shame over his actions must have been tremendously heavy. Yet remembering how his father responded gave him hope for redemption and he headed for home. At best, the prodigal son hoped to become a servant. He prepared a speech, intending to beg for just a small measure of forgiveness.
The father was watching, hopeful for his son’s return. Unconcerned with convention, unfettered by bitterness, the father ran joyously to embrace his son. Immediately a celebratory party was ordered. When the prodigal son tried to speak, his father cut him off, declaring to all that his lost son had returned. No sermons. No hesitation. Only relationship.
But I think there were actually two prodigal sons in this story. I love Henri Nowen’s quote because it speaks to the hard heart of many Christians. Thankfully, many folks bypass the rebelliousness of the younger son. They follow the rules, attend church, tithe, work hard in ministry, etc. But what is the motivation of their heart? It’s revealed when God shows mercy to a sinful, disobedient child.
When the older brother heard his father was throwing a party for the brother who shamed the family, he was filled with anger.
Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! Luke 15:28-30
The older son did not understand the father’s heart any more than his brother. All he needed to do was ask for what he needed and it would have been given. “‘My son, the father said’, ‘you are always with me and everything I have is yours.’” (Luke 15:31) Rather than rest in a loving relationship, the older son based acceptance on good works. He believed obedience would bring him special status, feeling betrayed when the father showed mercy.
No matter which son you resemble, the key is to move toward the father’s heart. Do you look for unconditional love in all the wrong places? Do you run towards trouble or stand in defensiveness? The younger son eventually came to his senses (Luke 15:17) and turned around. We don’t know what choice the older son made. Did he, too, see the error of his ways and embrace his father? What about you? The father is always watching and waiting for your return.