This week we are focusing on Luke 15. There are three parables in this chapter that teach about God’s relentless pursuit of his people. The last story in Luke 15 is that of the prodigal son. It’s a popular story and often times a parent, whose child has strayed from the family’s wisdom to follow the path of fools only to be broken down by a harsh world, uses the parable to explain their own experience. And this is a fine way to relate to the story. But I think we can dig a little deeper into this text when we remember this not as just leaving a physical home and earthly father but a leaving of our heavenly Father’s spiritual home. We can think of this story as any person walking away from the loving care and protective refuge of a good Father, and we will soon see that there are more ways to wander from the Father then just physically.
A couple of years ago, I started thinking about the text more reflectively and I became aware that I didn’t truly know the story. I did not grasp the parable in a way in which the text illuminated things in my own heart while bringing me deeper into God’s heart. There is a quote that says “We don’t read the Bible, the Bible reads us.” We see evidence to support that statement in Hebrews 4:12-13. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” The reason this story has grabbed my attention over the past couple of years is because it has had a powerful way of discerning and reading my own heart that is so prone to wander.
The story of the prodigal son is really a story about the two kinds of people that surrounded Jesus during his ministry. The outcast/sinner and the pharisee. One person stays and one leaves but both hearts wandered. A person’s physical staying or leaving “home” does not indicate whether or not they are living a free life with the Father. The younger brother is the outward sinner. He is a spendthrift squanderer of his Father’s generous inheritance, a son who spent it all, lived a life of sin out in the open for the world to see. We see the elder son (or the Pharisee) as the one who played the part but harbored sin in his heart. When we encounter the elder son at the end of the story, it is clear that he is discontent and that his heart had strayed from his Father’s perfect love. It seems that there was a propensity in his heart to distrust that the Father was for him. There was a disbelief in the expanse of the Father’s love and a belief in his own perfection. In this wandering state, the son could not understand the Father’s radical forgiveness.
When we strip away the surrounding circumstances of both brothers, we see something to which we all can relate. What we have in common with these two sons is the subtle temptation towards the original lie which slithered it’s repulsive body along the dirt, coiled itself around our flesh and eventually penetrated our hearts. The lie is that we can become our own God if only we will bite the forbidden. Sometimes we bite into clear cut outward rebellion like the younger son. This son searched for wealth, power, attention, purpose and acceptance through reckless living and there came a point when he discovered that “there is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.” (Proverbs 14:12) He saw death approaching because of the choices he made and as he struggled through the suffering of being apart from his Father, God’s grace awakened him and strengthened him to stop destructive, prideful behaviors and turned his heart back to the wonder of his Father’s home. He saw the depth of his sin, repented and in humility began a journey back to peace with his Father. He is empty and humiliated but he still starts the journey back.
Sometimes we will relate more to the elder son. The bite we take will not always be evident because we are willing to go to great lengths to keep our sin hidden from the view of others. We would rather live in the miserable bondage of the perfect masks we so intricately weave then face the truth about the sin in our own hearts. We may bite the rotten fruit of pride, anger, jealously, self righteousness or lust. We harbor that toxic sin in our hearts and it begins to grow and impact everything we touch. Hidden sin impacts our health, relationships, finances and most importantly our faith. The elder brother harbored a bitter resentment towards his younger wayward brother and his father. While he may have kept it hidden for a time, his sin was eventually found out. The light finally shone on the dark corners of his heart as he angrily rebelled against his Father’s bid to come in and celebrate what was most dear to his Father’s heart. When presented with the opportunity to follow in his Father’s loving footsteps, the older son failed. The truth of the state of his heart was exposed. There he stood, outside the house, refusing to come in, all while accusing his father of not giving him enough.
The beauty of the story is that the father saw the truth of both son’s hearts but still loved them and invited them into His house. His grace is available to those outside as well as those inside. But receiving God’s love and grace is not the end of the story. In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen, shares a conversation he had with a friend. In their conversation, his friends says to him “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.” I find this statement powerful and thought provoking. Fathers long to leave a legacy to their children. The legacy this Father wanted to leave his sons, was a way of life that was honest, generous, loving and forgiving. He approached people with a shepherd’s heart and I have a feeling that he desired to pass that along to his children. Our heavenly Father does not want us to stay as the younger son or the older son, he wants us to grow more into His image.
Over time we are all being transformed into the image of God (1 Cor 3:18) and as that sanctification process is happening there should be growing in our hearts a desire to love more fully and live more freely. I pray that we would all realize that no matter how “good” we’ve been, we have never really been perfect and we are all in need of God’s recklessly extravagant grace. Jesus said, ” A thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) I see that lived out in this story. The thief came to destroy and steal life from the two sons but the Father was there waiting and willing to offer life and offer it abundantly. Be on guard friends. There is an enemy prowling about seeking to destroy us and lead us astray. You can choose to wander along your own way or you can find your home safely in the Father. I choose the refuge of the Father.