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Watching and Waiting

By Stephen Fox

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of my favorite Bible stories. That may be because it is one of the few Bible stories I know front to back, or at least I thought I did before I began to prepare this meditation. 

A parable is a short story or narrative used to teach a moral lesson or a universal truth.  The parable is a great teaching tool because it uses symbolic imagery and metaphors that the intended audience can easily understand.  Thus, complicated moral truths that may not be readily apparent can be conveyed in a relatable way and easily be applied to one’s everyday life.  The Gospels record Jesus using this literary device when teaching his disciples and others more than thirty times.

The parable of the Prodigal son is the last of three parables that Jesus uses to teach about loss and redemption. It follows the parables of The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin.  Chapter 15 of Luke begins with these two verses:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus is dealing with a not altogether friendly crowd, and he uses the parables to convey the message of God’s boundless mercy and his refusal to limit the measure of his grace.

Traditionally, the firstborn son received two-thirds of his father’s estate. The younger son received only one-third. The father could bestow his wealth to his sons but retain control over the resources until the time of his death. In Jesus’ tale, the father hands over the younger son’s share and relinquishes ownership. He willingly gives his son what he wanted.

The passage does not tell us why but the son is, in essence, saying to his father, “I wish you were dead so I can have my inheritance.” Perhaps he and the father disagreed over a critical family matter. Maybe he was angry with his older brother. Perhaps he was enticed by worldly temptations. We don’t know.  Either way, his pride and the temptations of the world will lead him down the road of destruction. The younger son quickly turns the assets into cash and hits the road.

The younger son wastes all of his inheritance living high on the hog and on worldly pleasures. His eagerness to experience a moment of pleasure leads him down a long road of pain and suffering.

He squanders all of his inheritance on lustful desires, forfeiting a loving relationship with his Father. He wastes time and energy, and in the end, he is left penniless.

Why would someone waste their valuable assets? Why would anyone make such choices?   I think we have all made choices like the younger son at one point or another in our lives. Maybe many times.  I know I have.  We are so easily alienated from God by our worldly desires. Then selfishness and anger lead us further astray.  A downward spiral begins which leaves us wanting more and finally destitute at the bottom of the barrel.

Jesus continues his story as things get even worse. A famine strikes the country and the son is both broke and hungry.  He finds a job feeding pig, and wishes he were as well-fed as those pigs.

A Jew working for Gentile feeding pigs; this is as far as a Jewish boy from the country could fall. The young man is at the bottom of the pit and at the end of the road. Again, a position with which it is easy for us to identify.  What can we do when we reach this point?

Our temptations and desires alienate us from God, which brings us to a broken place where we must choose between death or life. Which way do we turn? The youngest son saw his plight, came to his senses, chose life saying:

“How many of my Father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!”

Have you ever felt like that? Realizing that what you turned away from is really what you need? When we turn away from God and go our own way, we become a slave to the world and find ourselves like the young son, lacking hope, and hungry for restoration.

And so he gathers himself and turns himself toward home, and as he goes he constructs an apology for his father.

He says, I will set out and go back to my Father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” 

He starts his journey home.

This is repentance, which is commonly translated as “turn” or “return.” To repent means to turn away from sin and return to God. It is a realization that we have become alienated from God.  (Story here?)

Some might say that the young man went back home with his tail between his legs, with feelings of shame and guilt.  But repentance does not come from guilt. This is an important distinction to make. It has extreme consequences for our spiritual lives, for the way we relate to God and the way we believe he relates to us.  It is an especially important distinction to make during the penitential season of Lent.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul coins the term “Godly grief,” and he contrasts it with what we would call good old-fashioned guilt.  There are several things to know about Godly grief.  First, it produces a change of mind and heart, a conversion or turning; second, this repentance, or change of heart, leads to salvation.  Why?  Because when we recognize and turn away from sin, we turn back to God; and finally in the words of Paul, it “brings no regret” When we return to God with open hearts, the slate is wiped clean.   

“Worldly grief” or guilt, is less complicated.  It just produces death.  Guilt is the kind of sorrow and fretting that focuses on ourselves – what I did wrong, how bad I am, why I can’t stop.  The reason this kind of grief gets us nowhere is because it has no point of reference beyond ourselves.  It turns inward and stagnates.

One of my failings is keeping in contact, especially with those in need of love and support.  Recently I attended a memorial service for two of my cousins, both of whom were brothers.  One cousin was two years younger than me and died about a year ago.  The other cousin was two months older than me and died less than a month ago.  Both of these men struggled with severe mental illness throughout their entire adult lives.  I had not seen either one of them in decades, causing me guilt and embarrassment. The wife of my younger cousin, who I had never met, was at the service, and we had an opportunity to talk at some length.  She was gracious and open-hearted, and I shared with her how badly I felt that I had not kept in contact with him or his brother. This seemed to help her talk about her relationship with her husband; the struggles that the two of them faced and the deep joy that he brought to her life.  My confession and her sharing were healing for me and for her as well.  What started out for me to be a difficult conversation because I needed to confess, turned into a celebration.

The next part of the parable is the most poignant. The Father, probably an older man, spots his son on the horizon. Has he been watching for his lost son? Did he know that someday his son would return? When he sees his son, the Father runs to meet him on the road.

This part of the story has been considered a picture of how God runs to the lost. The scene shows us God’s compassion for the lost and those who go astray. When we return to God, God will meet us where we are and throw His arms around us and rejoice.

“The son said to his father that he has sinned and is no longer worthy to be called his son.

The first step to repentance is admitting our wrong. The young son realizes that he has sinned against his earthly Father and more so against God. Sometimes admitting we have messed up is difficult, especially when we fear the punishment.

But the Father says to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they begin to celebrate.”

When we turn away from sin, admit our wrong, we are restored to a relationship with God, and our transgressions are forgiven. The boy’s Father never let him finish his prepared speech. Instead, they celebrate.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the older brother is working hard, trying to get ahead, doing what he believes is right. He was not happy to learn about his brother’s return and the celebration. By now, word had filtered back home of his younger brother’s exploits, and the older one is not a happy camper. He is no doubt angry and resentful, and he refuses to join the festivities.  The father goes to the older brother and pleads with him to come to the party, but the father is rebuffed.

Again, we see human behavior that is not attractive, but oh so familiar. The resentment toward his brother’s restoration mirrors the attitude of the Pharisees expressed in the second verse of this chapter when they criticize  Jesus for dining with sinners.    How can the prodigal son be celebrated, he wants to know? The older son thinks in terms of “law, merit, and reward,” rather than “love and graciousness.”   His misunderstanding lies in this faith in his own work and that his work will be his salvation.

Jesus says nothing about how the younger son conducts himself after his return.  Does he lead the exemplary life? Does he relapse and run off again?  We don’t know, and it is not important that we do.  It doesn’t matter what the young man does, the message Jesus really wants us to hear is that it is the repentance, the returning that matters.

If we depend on our works, on our behavior to save us, we will always be truly lost. The father’s joy described in the parable reflects divine love: the “boundless mercy of God,” and “God’s refusal to limit the measure of his grace.”

We are flawed persons; we will continue to stray from God, to hurt ourselves and others, whether intentionally or not.  The lesson Jesus gives us is the gift of returning to God.  God has an open door, indeed an open arms policy toward us all, regardless of who we are or what we do.

The parable ends with the father saying to the older son,

 “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Lost but now is found. Isn’t that true for all of us? We all wander and stray, enticed by the world and our desires. We are all prodigal sons and daughters. But Our God is waiting and watching; waiting for us to come home.