It’s such a common experience. I suspect that ours was not much different from most parents. Yet something changed in me that New Year’s Day when our daughter was born. I became a father, yes, but I didn’t really know what that entailed. I didn’t know the joy that our children would bring us; I also didn’t know the worry and heartache that would come. I didn’t know the fears for them that would overtake me; I also didn’t know the depth of love that would overwhelm me, a love that exceeds anything I had ever experienced.
One of the consequences of being a parent is that I now read Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son much differently (see Luke 15:11-32). Previously, I saw the story as focused on the younger son who lost his way and then came home. Now I read the parable with a focus on the father. I can imagine the fears and sadness that must have overwhelmed him when his younger son asked for his portion of the family inheritance. The father in Jesus’ story agreed to the younger son’s request and gave him his inheritance. We don’t know how old the son was, but surely the father must have thought that he was too young, too inexperienced, too impulsive to manage such a sum. At least, that’s what I would have thought.
When the younger son left home, his father’s worst fears came true. First, there was the deep sense of separation, the feeling that he had lost his son. The father probably experienced nostalgia for earlier and simpler days, wondering where the relationship had gone off the rails, thinking, What have I done wrong? What could I have done differently?
Second, the younger son squandered his money in riotous, impulsive, self-indulgent living. Today, the son could well be one of the victims of an overdose. But in Jesus’ parable, when all of his wealth had evaporated, the son fell upon hard times. He was homeless and hungry, lost in a strange land, far away from his father’s love.
For his part, the father knew nothing of this situation. The silence from his son must have been crushing. It would be better to lose his own life than to lose a child to thunderous silence.
As Jesus tells the story, when the son finally came to his senses and decided to return home—not as a son, but rather as a servant—his father saw him from far away. He had probably been looking toward that horizon every day for hours on end, desperately longing to see his child in the distance. I can feel just a fraction of the ache in the father’s heart. I can hear the father’s silent questions: When will my son come home? Will he ever come home?
This is how I picture the scene. When the father first catches sight of someone on the horizon, he experiences the first hints of hope that it might be his son returning home. There had been false alarms before, when a figure in the distance turned out to be someone else. But this time, it is his form, his gait.
The father rushes forward, abandoning his reserve. He runs faster than he has ever run in his life. He can’t wait to hear his son’s voice, to have him close, to shower him with love. He brushes aside his son’s words of apology, his acknowledgment of guilt. This is his son! He has come home! Nothing else matters. He calls out, “Bring a special cloak, a ring, kill the fatted calf. We must celebrate—extravagantly!” The father’s joy overwhelms him. His son has come home!
The thing is, when I read Jesus’ parable now, the father is not some fictional character in an entertaining and instructive story. I can imagine myself as that father. I become the one who has been waiting for my son to appear on the distant horizon. I feel the deep ache of having a son lost far away. I understand the overwhelming love of the father for his son. I can identify with it; I can feel it as though I am the father in the story.
But Jesus’ parable does not leave me there. It pushes me to recognize that the father in the story is, in fact, our Father. The love that I feel for my children is just a shadow—a faint echo—of God’s extravagant love for those of us who don’t deserve even to be his slaves, but who are nevertheless God’s children.
I now see God’s grace through a new lens; one which draws upon my experience as a father who would withhold no good thing from my children. I have come to know the heartache that our drifting away from God to live in a faraway country causes our heavenly Father; I can begin to appreciate the deepest longing of God’s heart as he waits—patiently, longingly and hopefully—for us to come to our senses; and I can begin to experience the joy of God when one of his lost children comes home.
There is a wideness in God’s grace far beyond any respectable or even responsible measure. Beyond what is deserved, expected or reasonable. Perhaps even beyond what we can fathom. Our Father waits for us to come home. I think I understand that a little better every day I am a parent.
Dr. Donald E. Burke is a professor of biblical studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.
This is the second in a series of three articles on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Read the first article: Lost and Found. Read the third article: The Calculus of Grace.