Holy Spirit says that when we allow Him to love us, it’s like coming Home—coming back home to the loving God we left—either for a short while . . . or a long time. Jesus uses this same idea too, of coming home, when he tells The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” captured by Luke the Evangelist in chapter 15 of the Book of Luke.
In that story, a man has two sons. The younger of them insults his father by demanding to be paid his inheritance early. Once the money is secured, the son leaves home, goes to a far country, and proceeds to squander the money with reckless living—to the point of destitution. Desperate and starving and in bad shape, the son decides to return home. He makes plans to beg his father for restoration—but not to his original position as a son. (He figures his father wouldn’t take him back as a son.) So, his plan is to ask for a position as one of the father’s hired servants.
The father sees his son coming home—and he sees him while he’s still far off, so the father had clearly been watching for him even since he left. And what’s the father’s response? He is relieved, and he is ecstatic that his precious boy has come back. He runs to him, robes flying, arms open. And the son doesn’t even have a chance to get his speech out—the one he’d rehearsed about maybe being accepted back as a lowly servant. The father interrupts him and immediately accepts him back as his son. In fact, the father treats his son like royalty.
He puts his robe on his shoulders—signifying that the son is indeed a member of the man’s family. He puts a ring on his finger—signifying that the son has the full authority that a member of that family would have. He puts sandals on his feet—signifying that the son is indeed a son, and is not a servant. And then the father arranges a feast—a big party—to celebrate his son’s return.
The son had returned, not to rejection, not to punishment, not even to justice or fairness, but to unconditional love and acceptance. He is welcomed and embraced and celebrated. And then the son does something radical—though he’s no doubt humbled, he receives his father’s love. Though it doesn’t make sense, he accepts it. He goes into the party. He enters into his father’s love.
Now, the older brother. The older brother doesn’t like how things just went down. He questions the whole thing. He doesn’t think his younger brother deserves all of this. He compares his own actions to those of his younger, much more irresponsible brother. He didn’t insult his father. He never demanded his inheritance. He didn’t waste his inheritance. He never left. He did everything right. And now, he wants justice. And he chooses not to go into the party.
The father, missing his older son, comes out of the party and asks him to join the celebration. But the older son refuses. He’s bitter. The father tells him, there is no need for bitterness. The older son hasn’t missed out on a thing. All his father has is his. But as the parable ends, the older son is still refusing to go into the party. Because of his comparison and bitterness, he refuses to surrender into the fullness of his father’s love.
Do you connect more with the younger son or the older son? Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, challenges us to consider that question—because Jesus’ parables are meant to bring truth and clarity and redemption to things that are universal, things that human beings have been struggling with for millennia.
Do you connect with the younger son, running away from God’s love? Out on your own journey, searching? Nouwen wrote, “I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” “Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere?” he asks. “Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father?”
Or do you connect more with the older son, often feeling superior and judgmental? Nouwen confesses that whenever he’s harboring a spoken and unspoken complaint toward God, he recognizes himself as the older son. He wrote, “It is the complaint that cries out: ‘I have tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, and still I have not received what others gets so easily. Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually?’”
Listen to Reciprocating God’s All-Consuming Love.