Then Jesus* said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with* the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him… (I encourage you to read the rest of this parable to verse 32, particularly in considering the reaction of the faithful son)
What has always overwhelmed me emotionally about this parable is the father’s initial response to having seen his wayward son who “was still far off”. The father has no idea what his son’s intentions are, whether to ask for mercy and restoration or to ask for more money! Will his son approach the father in humility and with a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17) or with renewed demands for what is rightfully his, namely a further share of the property, an advance on his inheritance? We don’t know for sure but more importantly the father doesn’t know. Yet upon seeing the son, far off in the distance, walking in the direction of home, walking back to the father, his immediate and uncontrollable response is all out compassion!
Jesus’ parables most often utilize metaphor to reveal something of the scope and power of the primary subject of Jesus’ teaching – the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God like? How do we get a sense of what the phrase entails? What is the God revealed in Jesus like? He or She (gender is unimportant) is like the parent (in this case the father) who on some rather ordinary Judean day, perhaps sweltering under an unrelenting sun, gets a glimpse of the son he has desperately missed for so long, walking back along the road, walking back home; the parent who is overjoyed by just that distant glimpse of the child returning. To carry the metaphor forward to its intended implications, the son in this tale, soon to be embraced and celebrated by this generously compassionate father, is us!
Can you relate to this parable? Does it overwhelm your spirit as it does mine? Perhaps, but perhaps not, for perhaps unlike me you don’t know that sense of being separated from God, at times, due to thoughtless choices, regrettable words, unfortunate decisions, that feeling of having taken the gift of God’s grace into one’s heart and squandered it, wasted it, betrayed it.
You already know, I’m sure, the story of John Newton, slave-trader turned pastor, slave ship owner turned selfless Christian, author of arguably the most popular Christian hymn of the past 200 years “Amazing Grace”. The song is his personal confession of faith, his own account of experiencing the virtually indescribable – “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;…”
Newton expressed the promise of Jesus’ parables and teachings with these honest, transformational words: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” What came first for Newton, knowing he was lost or knowing he was found? As he told it, knowing he was found, loved, valued, graced, even as we was – a slave trader, was what cut him to the heart and inspired his turnaround. Grace that literally saved his life. Or, as the apostle Paul put it: “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Lent is a time of self-evaluation. Over the years I’ve heard some say they don’t need forgiveness or mercy from above, don’t need grace, don’t connect with the parable of the Prodigal Son because they do pretty well with life as it is, on their own. Well friends, I don’t want to lay a guilt trip on you, but really? I mean, you may not be involved in a slave-trade but are you enslaved to something, some addiction, some attitude, some tendency, something that in the depths of your soul you know leads you away from God? If so, consider the hymn, consider the parable, consider how God views you, right now, as you are.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the communion of the Spirit, be with you, this day and always. Amen.