When it comes to the story of the Prodigal Son, it’s hard to come up with a new angle. It’s been done. The story has been dissected over and over again. Is there anything new that we can learn from it?
The popular picture of Jesus’ parable is about the wayward son who sins like a Catholic at Mardi Gras and then gets forgiven by the father. That’s a great story, but it’s not really the point of the tale. If you go a little deeper, you see that just as much time is spent on the oldest son. He is a stand-in, of course, for the judgmental Pharisees, just like the younger son is a stand-in for all the wayward Gentiles. The Protestant preacher Tim Keller points out that both of the sons hate the father in their own way. But he also makes an interesting point: the parable isn’t about the sons, it’s about the Father who runs to them.
To me, this is the unbelievable part of the story. A father who would love his younger son, who wished him dead, so much that he would hike up his robe, expose his loins to the world and run like a madman to welcome him home. Or who would address his other son–who openly insulted him by questioning his fatherly care–with gentleness.Why do I have a hard time believing in that kind of love? Why is it so difficult to believe the Father loves me that way too, no matter if I’m a judgmental pharisee or a crazed hedonist? It’s because it’s so easy to believe in a judgmental God who wants to bring the fire and brimstone every time you do something naughty. It’s easy because that’s what I feel I deserve. All the time.
But see, that’s the problem. I want to deserve something. Work for it. It’s an almost masochistic tendency. God can’t love me. He needs to beat me, not run to me. This passage makes me realize how difficult it has been in my life to receive love. And, before you sic Freud on me, my dad loves me. He didn’t abuse me. There’s just something stuck in me that won’t allow me to believe God loves me; that he will gird his loins for me; that he will run to me; that he will die on a cross for me.
I wish I could end with a sappy, “awww, come here, God, I know you love me.” But, that would be dishonest. I’m still stuck on the porch with the Eldest Son or drawing back with the Youngest Son, covered in the gross mess of pigs. I earned all of that, you see. It’s mine. It’s gross and awful, but it belongs to me.
Maybe one day, I’ll be given the Grace to give them up. Because I sure want to. Or do I?