This is one of those times when the emotion behind a parable really hits home. Last July, we had to let our oldest foster daughter go. It was the most heart wrenching and painful experiences of my life. During my deepest time of grief, I felt the Spirit clearly reminding me of this parable over and over again. I struggled so much to fight back the tears as God reminded me almost continually of it. There is so often a focus placed on the son who leaves the father but very little is said of what this might have meant to the father. In fact I believe the story is more about the father than it is about the son.
Having experienced such a deep sense of loss, I believe the point of the father is one as a gracious and loving from beginning to end. The Son demands his inheritance which is more or less saying to his father, “Drop dead!” Yet what does the Father do? He gives him his inheritance and lets his son go. This is an incredibly gracious and loving act. Nevertheless, this would not have been without a great deal of pain. With pain often comes irrational outburst much of which we do not really mean but some things we deeply regret. As a parent, we have high hopes for our children and make plans for every stage of their lives. We watch and listen and facilitate whatever it is they pursue. We want every step of their lives to be filled with as much happiness and as little pain as possible. As much as we hope this for them, we know in ourselves that the hallmark of what it is to be human is suffering and pain in life is very difficult to avoid. We suffer with our children.
However, when we see our children take a path that will expose them to more pain and there is nothing we can do to stop them, we have no choice but to make the great sacrifice and let them go. It makes us angry when it happens but in the end it is the most loving thing we can do. We know in our hearts that this is not the best thing for them. We love them as we let them go, often with tears in our eyes. Loving parents will worry deeply about the child they lose and hope and pray that God will keep them safe and happy. The more we love the more we think about this every single day from the time we wake to the time we fall asleep. Sometimes we just have to let ourselves cry. Sometimes we just can’t sleep because we worry so much. I can imagine that if we take this parable very seriously for the point it is trying to prove, then such deep loss for the father must be taken into consideration. With such deep loss we also see such deep love.
From the very same horizon we watch the child disappear we look to that same horizon in the hope that our child will return. A loving father does this and it would only be natural that in such a parable we can safely assume this father would do the same. We might have fifty children but if one turns your back on you then we can be deeply affected by this loss. The story describes the son as behaving in such a way that would have brought the whole family into disrepute.
Yet the story ends with such a wonderful act of mercy and loving kindness on the part of the father. Without going into too much detail, we know the son has a plan to redeem himself and try and make himself worthy of being but a mere servant. However, we do not find the son grovelling to the father for very long. Instead we find the father running to his son giving him such a loving embrace and reinstating him as a son rather than a servant. This takes the audience listening to the parable very much by surprise. After losing my foster daughter and I expect many of those who have lost their children would not be so surprised at such an outcome. Once we begin to love our children, we cannot flick a switch and ‘unlove’ them. This is not always easy to explain to a troubled child where insight for them may take many years.
I have found that often when parables are preached, the emotional element is often neglected. People who know our circumstances may find it hard to believe that after everything our foster daughter put us through, I would dearly welcome her back into our life as a dearly beloved member of our family. Some have looked at me in dismay and bewilderment just like the older brother did in this story. Yet maybe they do not truly understand the point of this parable. It is only with such a painful loss that I now understand human nature considerably more than I ever use to. I understand the pain of this child and have walked a mile in her shoes. I understand her and why she did what she did and in doing so the limits of my compassion and mercy have been destroyed. Wherever she is and whatever she is doing she is well within my field of loving-kindness, compassion and mercy.
The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is far more compassionate and gracious then we can every possibly conceive. What this story teaches us is we are now partakers in His divine nature without our own doing. In Jesus Christ God came running to us with nothing but the awesome reality of who He is in loving kindness and truth. The harder we tried to push Him away the more tightly He held onto us refusing to ever let us go. Not even in death. So how gracious should we be? Bloody gracious if you ask me and nothing less. We must exercise this in the best way possible as much as possible. In this way we truly become imitators of Jesus Christ