There’s some people who will do anything to avoid accepting a compliment. Perhaps you know one of them, or maybe you are one of them. Perhaps you, or someone you know will say in response to a nice thing, “oh, it was nothing”, or “oh, that’s not me, this person or that person actually did most of the work”, or “oh, really? Actually, it’s not as great as you think it is”.
Now, I’m not going to ask you to identify yourself if you’re one of these people, but I think this is a great example of the way that we as humans sometimes have a really hard time accepting something good that seems objectively true to the people around them. And if you find yourself with difficulty accepting good things, perhaps this is the parable for you.
Today we read the parable of the prodigal son. Of all Jesus’ parables, this might be one of the most well-known. We hear it all the time—from the common usage of “prodigal son” in the English language, to music like Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now I’m found”.
This parable is, in fact, so common that I often find myself immediately identifying with either the prodigal son or the elder son—it does seem to invite you to figure out where you fit in, sort of like a personality test on the internet, where you’re categorized as a 3 or 6 or 9, or an ISTP or an ENFJ, or your least favorite character in a popular novel. (Thanks, Buzzfeed.)
But this immediate urge to place ourselves in the narrative, to figure out where we fit, ignores the whole purpose of the story in the first place. Jesus tells us this parable, not for us to figure out who we are, but to tell us about the extravagant generosity of God, portrayed as the Father. The Father in this parable is so permissive that he seems almost foolish. Doesn’t he know that the youngest son will take the inheritance and go off on his own to spend it? Doesn’t he realize what will happen? Theologian Hans Von Balthasar writes that “the impressiveness of the story begins already with the fact that the father grants the son’s request” (Light of the World, 281). It does seem impressive—how many people do you know who would distribute inheritances to their children before death? This action of the Father’s contradicts the very notion of inheritance.
We see again the extravagant generosity of the Father in this parable by what happens when the prodigal son returns. The father sees him when he is still “a long way off, and the father comes running to meet him. The son has prepared a speech, a whole litany about what he’s done what he’s done wrong how he squandered money, and is just prepared to ask to be a servant in his father’s house. But the prodigal son never gets a chance to even say these things. He starts, “father I’ve sinned for her for heaven and before you I’m not worthy to be called your son”, and he never gets a chance to finish. His father responds by throwing an extravagant party, and celebrating. This extravagance seems foolish. Or at least it seems foolish to the elder son, who comes along and expresses his disbelief. How could the father do something like this? The person who should know the character of the father the best, seems to know it the least, to be alienated from the loving parent who he has lived with.
But ultimately in Jesus’ parable, the prodigal son and the elder son are just examples of two different responses, two different relationships to the father. The main character of this story is in fact the father: who seems kind of foolish, certainly unwise by any accountant’s standards or therapist’s standards or what have you. But perhaps because this behavior seems so strange to us means that it’s worth paying even more attention to. Because, the picture that we get in our gospel today is a picture of a God who loves us extravagantly and foolishly. This is a God who sees the worst mistakes we make: the ones we’re afraid to name aloud, the ones we don’t really like to think about or are haunted by… this is the God who sees all of that AND sees us a long way off and runs towards us with open arms.
This is the truth, the great grace of the gospel–God’s expression of perfect love towards us, which we see in the work in person of Jesus. It may look foolish, or maybe it just seems impossible. But as the poet Malcolm Guite points out about this parable, the father is love doesn’t change or waiver “throughout the son’s alienation and exile. The son’s welcome home does not depend on the special speeches and penitent status he had imagined for himself. Instead he is restored absolutely by his father’s loving choice” (What Do Christians Believe?).
As Christians we read this parable as a parable of God’s love towards us, a love that seeks to reconcile us to bring us home. A love in which we experience the freedom of choice—the ability to go squander our fortunes, the gifts God has given us. But in this love there is always the option of going home, not as a servant, or like a teenager slinking back after curfew, or like a working adult trying to tiptoe in and not wake the rest of the house after another late night. There’s no backdoor entrances or shameful return—not when God is watching, anxiously scanning the horizon until God sees us a long way off and comes running to meet us, and throws us a party like no other.
This reconciling and welcoming love is the cornerstone in this new creation that Paul talks about in the epistle. Because of God’s extravagant generosity and love everything has become new—including us!… because there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God. There is nothing that we can do that will make God stop watching for us, stop waiting for our return, even when we’ve been away for a while. This is the reconciliation that changes everything, that changes us. And it will change the whole world when we live like it is possible for us to be loved with such extravagance.
So, I invite you to close your eyes, and hear these words that God speaks over you.
And the Father said, “Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on them; put a ring on their finger and sandals on their feet. And lay out a feast, and let us eat and celebrate; for this child of mine was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found!
Welcome home. May you receive the love that God has been so desperately waiting to pour upon you today.