Sigmund Freud argued that we all project the image of our fathers onto God- good or bad. Those with stern fathers see God as scary, angry and judgemental. Sometimes there is an element of truth in this, but sometimes we have to consider the possibility that Freud’s conclusions are a result his significant cocaine usage. But, biblically we are told that we bear God’s image, and that we are to mimic God’s character. So for father’s day I feel it is appropriate to understand something of how God’s fatherhood is to impact our behaviour, and so we turn to a parable in which God is allegorized as a human father.
The Context of the Story:
The Prodigal Son parable belongs to a set of three parables with the same theme. The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin both depict people searching out what is lost and rejoicing when what is lost has been found. All three parables are told in response to the Pharisees’ muttering (15.2). They are displeased with the type of people Jesus has befriended. The parables are all meant to convey the message that God takes great joy in reconciling sinners to himself, an he is the one seeking out the lost (15.9-10). When his creations which are lost are found, God rejoices and invites those around him to join the celebration.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son also addresses, or rather criticizes those who show bitterness and hostility to the repentant sinner- a blatant attack on the Pharisees. Darrell Bock suggests that the fact we know as the parable of the prodigal son misdirects our attention, and that perhaps we should look at this passage as the parable of the forgiving father and the begrudging brother (Luke NIVAC. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996). We need to understand Jesus’ intent as setting up a juxtaposition between the father who rejoices, and the older son who is hard-hearted and angry. The story is about God. But we’ll get to that in turn.
The story begins with the younger son, who is the catalyst for the story, requesting his share of the inheritance. We must note how an ancient audience would respond to this type of request. In short, the young son’s request would be reprehensible. He is essentially saying his father more useful to him dead. He is declaring he no longer wants to be part of the father’s household, and wants to be freed from any obligation to his family. As Henri Nouwen says, “The implication of ‘Father, I cannot wait for you to die’ underlies” the request (The Return of the Prodigal Son, New York: Image Book, 1992). Fathers would likely never agree to such a request. Sirach states:
To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself as long as you live, and do not give your property to another in case you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are alive and have breath in you, do not let any one take your place. For it is better that your children should ask from you than that you should look to the hand of your children… At the time when you end the days of your life, in the honour of your death, distribute your inheritance. (33:20-22, 24).
In an ancient context when pensions and social safety nets do not exist, to give away one’s estate prematurely would mean being dependent on your family, which is considered a great shame.
Yet, this father agrees to the request. He allows his son to take the money and leave, likely knowing the son has no intention of being responsible with it.The son is seeking freedom from his father, who has to this point cared for him, and loved him. The son’s request is a slap in the face to the father, and the community in which he lives; the rejection of traditions, and the fracturing of relationships for the impulse to seek out “something else”, or “greener pastures”.
In this allegorical scene, the father is symbolic of God, who loves his people so much that he honours them with free will. Although everything we have is from God, he allows us to use, or misuse it with complete freedom; BUT, we are not free from the consequences of our choices. We are given the option of discarding our relationships to be fickle and flippantly go wherever our imaginations can take us. But we have no one to blame but ourselves when things go wrong.
This son takes off for a “distant country” a “foreign land” For a Jewish audience, the movement away from home often symbolizes a betrayal of homeland and people, and the god of one’s ancestors- it is akin to familial and spiritual adultery. For example, Ezekiel uses a parable of two sisters who seek out lovers in foreign countries to commit various adulterous acts (23:1-26). For Jews, that which is “foreign” is symbolic of corrupting influence to be avoided.
The son’s “wild living” (while not stated we can presume this likely includes drinking, prostitution and gambling) burns through the inheritance quickly. He is forced to take a job, feeding pigs, who are able to eat, while he starves. While feeding pigs may seem unpleasant to us, pigs in a Jewish context are of course “unclean” and forbidden. Most Jews would cringe just being around pigs. For this young man to feed pigs, while he starves is among the highest of insults. Jesus’ audience would likely find this young man to be highly offensive.
The pigs’ food, “pods” begins to look tempting to him. The Midrash states that “When the Israelites are reduced to carob pods, then they will repent” (Leviticus Rabbah 35). It is probably not a coincidence that this is when the young man in Jesus’ allegory comes to a moment of repentance. Carob pods symbolize rock bottom. This son has been crushed by the consequences of his own sin.
He admits his own sin, both against heaven, and against his father. He rehearses a speech. He does not seek to be restored, but feels that he can at least work for food, as a hired servant. But nothing the son does in the fields will heal the broken relationship, and he can’t undo what he’s done, ungamble, unspend, unwaste or unsin the money or his life. We often respond the same, wondering how we can undo our sins, or make amends to restore some form of balance, and we end up grovelling for crumbs before a God who wants to show grace.
God’s justice doesn’t work like legal justice. Justice in the biblical sense is about restoration- about healing what is broken and bringing together what was torn apart. Penalizing the offender doesn’t restore. This doesn’t mean there are no consequences to sin, but the consequences are always done to create restored community.
That’s why while the son’s on his way still, the father sees him coming. We may want to attribute the restoration of the relationship to the son’s penance, but the father is already waiting, looking, hoping, praying his son will just come home. He goes running to his son. The father is once again upending cultural norms. In the society of the New Testament era, a father would wait, and the son would come to him, grovelling, as the father has a place of higher honour. Fathers were like kings in their families. But this father charges toward his beloved son, who has disowned the family. He is eager to just hold his boy in his arms.
The Father embraces him and kisses him, before the son says a single word. Take note of that- the father hugs his son, kisses him, but the son has said nothing, he’s in rags, smelling like pig excrement.
The son tries to give his speech, but his plea is essentially ignored, and interrupted- he never gets to plea for a chance to work in the fields as he had rehearsed (18-19). The father doesn’t let the son grovel, but interjects immediately calling for a robe, and a ring and orders for a celebration to be held.
Robes and rings of course, symbolize honour and prestige. The son has been raised not only to his old post, but above his original position as second son. Second sons don’t usually get a ring. This is cause for celebration.
The Older Brother Hears the celebration, and is offended. He asks a servant what’s happening. He doesn’t go and find out himself. The sin committed by the younger son was against the father, and against heaven, yet the brother is the only one not happy to see the prodigal’s return.
The father goes out to his other son, but is met with protest. We sometimes identify with the older son, thinking others get more grace and prestige than us, and think that the older is somewhat justified in his anger. The older brother recites all his loyalty, and the reasons he is a better son. But where’s my party? I’m on the board of deacons. I teach Sunday School. I tithe. I gave a big donation to our missionaries and the building fund. I sing in the choir. Where’s my party God?
He believes he has been loved less. He uses the words “this son of yours” not “my brother”. The younger son walked away from his family, essentially disowning them. His brother has apparently returned the favour. He accuses his brother of spending the money on prostitutes (which may or may not be true) and believes that this affront against the father should disqualify him as a son. But the father brilliantly retorts using “this brother of yours”.
The sins of others and the grace given from God should never be brought to mind when we ourselves approach God; “all comparisons are odious, and there is no occasion to compare one person with another” (Don Quixote, II.XXIII)- when we act like the older brother, comparing ourselves and our relationships with the Father, we cause fractures in our relationships.
Our actions have no bearing on God’s response to others. Your faithfulness to God is not a weapon to use against a sinner seeking grace. The older son seems to feel like he has been rejected, like the father has somehow wronged him. We often wonder why the unrighteous can find blessing from God, while we struggle faithfully. Why would God love him? Or why should she be blessed?
The father tells his older son, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” and he’s right. With the younger’s waste, all that the father has left is the portion assigned to the older son. In ancient custom, the oldest son would receive two-thirds of the father’s estate, and the other third would be divided among the rest. In other words, the older son inherits twice that which his brother has already wasted, yet he is upset that the father seems to be showing more favour to the younger son, because the homecoming has been celebrated with a great feast.
But also notice that when the older son is absent from the feast- the father goes out to him. Personally. He does not send for him (as the custom would be). The host leaves his party, to find his son. The host leaves the party. He goes out to meet his beloved son, just as he had done with the other son. The grace shown is the same.
The Father insists that a celebration is not only deserved, but necessary. “we had to celebrate”.
WE, not I.
HAD TO, not should have, or want to.
This is not a case of an ingrate coming looking for a handout, but a son who was for all intents and purposes dead has been resurrected. Jesus said (Lk. 15.7): I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. That sounds odd, but just ask yourself, who are these 99? They don’t exist. We all have something to repent of.
Reconciliation is always a cause for celebration. When a sinner is restored there is no other response but joy. Nothing else matters. The old is DEAD and buried w/ Christ, God is ridding the world of brokenness and shame. “Behold I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
So what now? What does this mean for our context? How do we, the saints of God, respond to those coming from a foreign land (metaphorically or literally), in rags, smelling of pig feces, having wasted God’s gifts on “loose living”? The Father’s love for his son compelled him defy social conventions- to commit faux pas. This story is scandalous and offensive to its original hearers.
God doesn’t always act “proper”.
He is waiting for his lost children, ready to come running, and embrace his beloved, even when they smell like the pig pen. We might think of this as unjust, wrong somehow, for the offended to pour out his love and honour, and act shamefully to raise up the offender. But Paul tells us that God shows his love for is in this, that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5.8). The message of the gospel is grotesque to some, because of shame associated with the cross, and even with the incarnation itself (See 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). What kind of god does that?
But God’s love is most fully demonstrated in the fact that he will scandalize himself. The King of the Universe will stoop to serve he subjects. “The Son of of man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). God’s nature is most fully demonstrated in serving, not in being served. We are called to reflect that nature and character- to incarnate the very nature of the god who will be scandalized for the sake of his beloved.
I’m still new to this dad thing, but one thing I know is that I’d come running… Every time. God comes running to each one of us… Each and every time. We can find joy in that. And each time we see someone else embraced by the loving arms of our merciful God, we should respond with Joy.
Yet we often don’t want to see sinners find grace. Their sin is somehow worse than mine. We’re like Jonah, who ran away from Nineveh because he knew the Assyrians might repent, and God who is merciful would forgive them.
In “Home Tonight” (New York: Doubleday, 2009) Nouwen writes:
The prodigal son story is an amazing image of how God patiently waits to be in communion with us. Even if we leave home for a while, Love waits for our return. We may condemn ourselves, but we are not objectively being judged for our misguided decisions, nor is the One who loves us saying, “Away from me, I do not love you anymore. You are a bad person. You’re going to Hell.” No! That response is against the very nature of the eternal Lover that Jesus invites us to know.
Some of us might identify with the younger son, some with the older. I’ve been both. I ran away, seeking after “loose living”- cheap thrills, and even a few not so cheap thrills. But God came running to me. The verse I use in my testimony is Isaiah 65.1 which says, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’”
But things changed dramatically. In my fervour to save my “heathen” friends and family, I argued that with them, and looked down at them while they committed the same sins I was once guilty of. I resented the success of others around me. I was a friend of God, and was offended by the sin of others on his behalf. Until I realized God is a big boy- he can take care it himself. He doesn’t need my help with that. God described himself as “a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Ex. 34.6)
Yes, I left for the foreign country because I needed to get out and discover life for myself, but I ended up with the swine… And yes, I worked in my father’s vineyards with angry feelings, but that is not because God wanted it that way. The One whose love is unconditional is saying ‘I love you so much that I freely give you liberty to choose. But remember, all that is mine is yours. You’ve always been with me. My love for you is real and unchanged despite your unwise choices, so return to it and be shaped by it into my image.’”
Jesus said, “be perfect, as your father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)- but in Luke’s version (Lk. 6.36) Jesus says “you must be compassionate, as your father in heaven is compassionate”. True compassion, which Jesus demands of us, and which is exemplified by God, and the father in today’s parable, means giving up our own position for the sake of the one who needs help- to embrace the broken, the hurting, the enslaved, the leper, and to lead them out of their brokenness into the glorious, scandalous love of God. This is the image of God we are to live out- all of us.
But specifically to you dads- There is joy in this. Giving up your sleep, your money, and your dignity (afterall the male ego and minivans are incompatible) for the sake of lifting up your children who are disobedient, loud, ungrateful, messy, whiney, etc.
The love of God our Father is scandalously huge- setting aside dignity and propriety to show love.
Good dad’s do the same- they give up their dignity for their kids. Don’t believe me? Exhibit A:
God reveals himself to us with the kind of love that compels a grown man to dress up as a chicken to make sure his kids feel loved and supported. For all of us- we are to embody the father, bear the image of God, and go running to the raggedy traveller looking for somewhere or more accurately, someone to come home to.