When I was a child, I heard the story of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) as a cautionary tale of self-destruction and self-delusion. A story about a person who had wandered away from the presence of God simply by allowing all of the impermanent things of this life to displace God. Like Esau trading away his birthright to his brother for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29-34). It was a life of reckless dissipation, burning hot and fast like a grease fire – until it burned itself out . . . and thankfully, the father was there, willing enough to pick up the pieces at the end.
As a younger man, having acquired a nuanced appreciation for theological detail, I discovered the cautionary tale of the older brother embedded within the telling of The Prodigal Son. I observed that it was possible to wander away from the presence of God without actually leaving home — to do all that the father required without ever giving the father another thought. That you could simply follow the arch of your own ambition, seeking the same impermanent rewards your prodigal brother had been chasing after . . . just in a more socially acceptable way. But even then, the father would be patiently waiting for your return.
Now that I’m much older, I tend to grow impatient when I hear a preacher teaching on The Prodigal Son – I just want them to hurry up and get to the part where the father can see his son from afar off and goes running out to throw his arms around him, welcoming him home . . . because this is the whole point of the story. No matter the sin, of which each brother represents, the father’s love is always at the ready, patient and eager. It is a shamelessly pursuant love, finding its beloved wherever they are lost.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. This is the Father’s love – self-emptying and sacrificially redemptive. This is why Jesus tells this parable – to remind us that the Father’s love is relentless . . . and will pay whatever cost.
All this scandalous love, poured out so unconstrained, knowing no shame, openly declaring itself for all the world to hear. Jesus enters the world as the ultimate expression of love — God with us, joining us in our struggle, saving us from the ravages of death. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ are events that can, no doubt, be appreciated as profoundly theological, in the same way that I ruminated over the role of each brother in the parable. But the real crescendo here is best experienced in realizing that this is the Father gathering you into his arms — so that you would know that you are loved . . . regardless of what the rest of your story might be.
. . . and with a love like that, all that’s left to do is get onboard.