The story of the Prodigal son is one of the best known of all the stories in the Gospels. It is easy to see why, since it connects immediately to each one of us in a way that is instantly self authenticating. Has any one of us not felt like the Prodigal? The common response from many of us in the Christian faith is, "that's my story." Who hasn't wanted a lot of money to spend on their own gratification? Who hasn't, in some way, wasted something precious that was an undeserved gift? The story catches us because it feels true to life. If you have ever done anything stupid, this is a story for you.
The Prodigal, to use the elegant phrase from an early translation of the Scriptures, "devoured his living with harlots". One person, when asked about this said, "whether it was a sin or not is beside the point, it was stupid." Sin is stupid. But the painful part is living with the consequences of sin and stupidity. In the case of the Prodigal it was having to live with hogs while being very hungry.
The Older Son in the story grabs us in another way. He had been obedient, even virtuous and hard working. And when he heard about the party for the Prodigal celebrating his safe return, he was angry. He felt the Father was unfair. What parent hasn't heard, "Its not fair." The Older Son didn't understand that the quality of virtue in living is its own reward. He did not see that his own joy existed when he saw joy in others. He did not know the joy of creating joy.
But, this is really a story about the Father. This story could be called the story of the Parent who loved and gave without condition.
The Parent in the story loved and gave without condition in three very powerful ways.
First, the gift of his love was given freely. The Parent never controlled the gift. The Prodigal experienced this in two different ways. He was given his portion or inheritance, when he asked for it, with no strings attached. The Parent did not attempt to control what he did with it.
When the Prodigal chose to waste it, he was free to do so. This free giving of love was seen again when the Prodigal returned home. The Parent did not say, "when you have been good, and repaid, then I will restore you to the family." No, he "saw him a far way off, and ran to him." He reclothed, redecorated and gave a party to celebrate the return. There were no conditions.
The second way that the Parent loved was in creating an environment of love and acceptance in the home. When the Prodigal "came to himself" he knew that he could go home. There is no sign of any questioning in the story. He knew that he could go home. When the Older Brother was angry about what he perceived to be unfair treatment he knew he could speak with the Parent and not hold back how he felt. These are signs of a remarkable environment of love.
The third way that the Parent loved was by giving. He gave the Prodigal a robe, a ring, an embrace, and a celebration. He gave the Older Brother, "all that I have...." It is impossible to love without giving. This lavish giving of love is primary evidence of God's presence.
This is really a story about God. God is present in places and relationships where love is freely given. God is present in environments where love is so abundant that no one hesitates for fear of love's absence. God is present where love is lavish.
The image of God in the story is of God as loving Parent. This is a good image for those who have experienced unconditional, freely given lavish love from a father or mother. But for some who have not experienced this kind of love from a parent, the image is obscured. It is very hard to imagine something that has not been seen.
Some have experienced unconditional, freely given, lavish love from friends or from a spouse. This is God's next attempt to be present in lives. God will go to amazing amounts of effort to embrace us. The loving Parent ran to the Prodigal when he saw him far away.
This is a story about God's love. It is also a story about us. All of us are either the Prodigal or the Older Brother. Some of us are a mix of both. The issue for us is, do we know about God's freely given, environment of lavish, unconditional love? Can we see it?
The Prodigal "came to himself." We are called to "come to ourselves." This means repentance. Repentance is an experience of relief, release and remorse. Relief because we realize peace and joy rather than conflict and apathy. Release because we realize freedom rather than captivity. Remorse because we accept and realize our personal responsibility for what has been sinful and stupid in our lives. Remorse is primary evidence of sanity when we are stupid and sinful.
So, if you are a Prodigal, go home! If you are an Older Brother, open your eyes! If you are a mix of the two, go home with your eyes open!